Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Glenn Beck fans and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Glenn Beck fans have been brought up in a couple of places in Outer Blogness today, and that got me thinking.

Beck's big shtick is the mongering of conspiracies. Basically what he does is say something like, "Some aspect of Idea A vaguely resembles some aspect of Idea B, which vaguely resembles some aspect of Idea C. Therefore, A, B, and C are all the same thing! Danger, America, danger!" Then he adds, "Person or Group D is vaguely acquainted in some way with Person or Group E, who/which is vaguely acquainted in some way with Person or Group F. Therefore D, E, and F are conspiring together! Danger, America, danger!" Then he links them all together: "Some member of Group or Person D, E, or F once said something that vaguely resembles some aspect of A, B, or C. Therefore D, E, and F are all adherents of A, B, and C! (Which are all the same thing!) And they are conspiring together! Superduper danger, America, superduper danger!"

Of course, normal people find Beck's conspiracy mongering ridiculous. Obviously, a series of vague similarities over time does not equal an ongoing chain of conspiracy. Rudimentary critical thinking, a basic grasp of relatively simple concepts like logic, context, correlation versus causation, and so on, are sufficient to prevent anyone who possesses them from swallowing Beck's nonsense. The normal mind boggles at the idea that people can take any of it seriously.

Yet some do take it seriously, of course. In fact, a favorable opinion of Glenn Beck is probably the biggest difference between the Tea Partiers and everyone else. Fifty-nine percent of Americans with a favorable opinion of Beck identify themselves with the Tea Party movement.

And his fans actually say things like this:
He brings out facts... And he actually shows the people saying the things. It's not like just sound bites. It’s not chopped and really edited.
And this:
He really does his research and he really lays it out to you well; a good professor.
And I've personally seen commenters on different blogs talk about Beck's "research" and the way he "documents" things.

Of course, it's tempting to simply dismiss Tea Partiers and Beck fans as stupid, but they aren't all "morans." In fact, the same survey that found that Tea Partiers admire Glenn Beck found that they are more educated and wealthier than the average American.

So if it's not sheer stupidity, what is behind Glenn Beck fans? I think that something subtler is at work here, namely, the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The "Dunning-Kruger Effect" was first elucidated in a paper by David Dunning and Justin Kruger. In their paper, Dunning and Kruger argued that:

"When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like [case study subject] Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine."

I think this explains Glenn Beck's fans quite well. They aren't necessarily stupid in the sense that they're stupid at everything. Instead, they're stupid at some very specific things. They don't know how to think critically. They don't understand what research and documentation really are and how to discern good research from bad. They don't understand how to put words or ideas in context. They don't know how to figure out where ideas come from or how they're related to each other (or not). And so on.

But they have no idea that they're bad at these things. In fact, they think that Beck's conspiracies, and their belief in them, are proof that they're actually good at all of them. So they go right on swallowing the nonsense, because it is their very incompetence at critical thinking and evaluation of evidence that blinds them to the fact that they are incompetent at it.

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  1. Talk about the inability to realize a bad argument or relationship. Your analysis is completely lacking. Not one example of a "Beck" situation that relates to your point. Pack it up you are not good at this.

  2. Ooh, my first Beck fan. Who better to hear from regarding whether an analysis is good?

  3. "Pack it up."

    Wow, they're friendly, too.

  4. From his "critique" and where he posted from, it's probably a college kid trying to channel what his English Comp 120 professor taught him: "You must provide three examples for your thesis statement." lol

  5. Kuri, I think you're onto something here. Thank you for your insight in working the Dunning-Kruger Effect into an explanation of how someone who is not an across the board moron could possibly believe Beck's nonsense. That issue has puzzled me for quite sometime. Yours is the best answer I've yet to see.

  6. Thanks Paul. It was a "Eureka!" moment for me too when I first connected his fans with Dunning-Kruger.

  7. Just so you know, Kuri, I've taken the liberty of recommending your post to the readers of my blog.


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