Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ignorance => Meta-Ignorance

In the last article here, I speculated about "unknown knowns," those bits of institutional knowledge that may be locked away by silos and rigid processes. I suggested that it might be in the institution's best interests to shake those out. It's a natural effect of a new administration taking over, or probably should be. Someone passed along the following advice about new administrations: keep the best one third of the current leadership, bring in one third new from the outside, and promote one third from within. It seems to me that this combinatorical shuffle would have the effect of breaking up old processes and modes of thought and allowing a temporary meritocracy of ideas to prevail. If only we could do that with the tax code!

It all surely comes down to the continued development of professional expertise of everyone on the job, I think. Encouraging subordinates to challenge our ideas may slow things down a bit occasionally, but in my experience is a good way to improve decisions. Isn't that what academia is all about anyway? You can't create new knowledge without challenging an existing mode of thought or 'best practice.' (The label 'best practice' makes me grit my teeth--surely any practice can be improved, no? It sounds like an admission of failure. 'Accepted practice' is more honest.)

Ignorance is meta is the conclusion of an article in the New York Times' science section from January 18, 2000 called "Among the Inept, Researchers Discover, Ignorance Is Bliss." The article suggests that there is a double-whammy to being uninformed. The ignorant don't know, and they don't know they don't know. That is, they are confident in their knowledge, even when they have little. Author Erica Goode explains:
One reason that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured, the researchers believe, is that the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence.
Cornell Psychology professors Dunning and Kruger, who researched this idea, make some interesting points, as quoted in the article:
  • Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.
  • This deficiency in "self-monitoring skills," the researchers said, helps explain the tendency of the humor-impaired to persist in telling jokes that are not funny.
  • Some college students, Dr. Dunning said, evince a similar blindness: after doing badly on a test, they spend hours in his office, explaining why the answers he suggests for the test questions are wrong.
If you have followed this blog on the topic of noncognitive assessment, you may recall that realistic self-appraisal is one of the predictors of success. On the other hand, the most able subjects in the study conducted by the researchers were the most likely to underestimate their own abilities.
The researchers attributed this to the fact that, in the absence of information about how others were doing, highly competent subjects assumed that others were performing as well as they were -- a phenomenon psychologists term the "false consensus effect."
There is some hope: Kruger and Dunning were able to 'train in' more realistic self-appraisal skills for those lacking them. The problem, they suggest, is lack of feedback. If you're doing a lousy job and no one tells you, how will you learn otherwise? A certain amount of humility is a good thing.

Of course, there has to be a balance. Paralysis through analysis is no good either. Being too timid to act on a new idea because there is no way to find out if it's good or bad prevents real leadership. After all, if all decisions are obvious, why are they paying you that fat administrative salary? Unfortunately, the Total Quality Management model that accreditors are fond of these days assumes that with enough information, good decisions can be made. That isn't always the case--just look at the stock market. A lot of very smart people with a lot of very good information get it wrong about half the time.

Therein lies the key to good leadership: entertaining new ideas on the one hand, but in spite of little information to go on, intuiting which of them are disastrous. I think this is a very rare trait. As Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince:
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
Readers of this column will not be too surprised that I have an anecdote to supply on this general topic. It was first published in a small college literary magazine, probably a decade ago. I will not insult your intelligence by highlighting my own examples of meta-ignorance in the story. You'll find them easily enough.


I’m a genius. Well, perhaps I should modify that statement just a tad. I was a genius. In fact, on two separate occasions during my life, I have had pure Eureka! moments that lifted me from the mundane to the ethereal. The descent was just as sudden, but at least I got a glimpse of what it must be like to be a real genius—you know, the kind that wakes up and goes to bed still in the bug-eyed goddamn I’m smart state. I suppose some people must find it addictive, having instant blinding flashes of that leave them gasping. I wouldn’t want it to happen all the time, though, or I might drive into a tree just as I’d solved the global deforestation problem, for example. All in all, I found it to be quite pleasant, although I noticed right away about how other people aren’t very interested in moments of clarity, unless it’s their own, in which case it’s hard to get them to shut up afterwards. So I got a bumper sticker that reads My dog had its day that I put right beside the Towers will be violatedand Don’t void where prohibited stickers. It’s a little obscure, but I figure that’s okay because obscurity is hard to tell from profundity sometimes.

It happened while I was doing dishes. The sink in my kitchen is divided into two stainless steel basins, with a faucet arm that can be swiveled to either side. Both sides drain down the same pipe. The problem is that every time you turn on the garbage disposer, which is attached to the right side, it backwashes filthy water up into the left basin. Since that’s usually where I place the dishes to dry, it’s a less than perfect situation. Before my instant of genius, I resorted to turning on the disposer in short bursts so as not to give it time to spew much water back up the other side. I had done this for years. But last week, I had finished stacking the last plate into the rack in the left basin, and was contemplating the pool of foaming dirty water in the right basin waiting to be drained when I had my geniosity (one of the perks of geniushood, even if only a part-timer, is the permission to create new words). I realized that if I ran some clean water into the left basin before turning on the garbage disposer, at the very worst only clean water would come back up! It worked beautifully, and I have switched entirely to my new method of draining the sink.

I was beginning to wonder if I’d lost the touch, because my only previous geniosity had occurred when I was in kindergarten, some thirty years before. There was the possibility that that earlier one had been a fluke, but now I’m convinced that if I wait another thirty years something equally profound will occur to me. I’m thinking of starting a newsletter. Anyway, back to kindergarten: it was one of those special days when something extraordinary happens. In this case, we had a magician coming to perform for us in the auditorium. I was hoping it would be the good kind—magicians that do magic tricks, instead of the bad kind—magicians that just play music. It was some time before I realized that musician is a whole different word. We were led into the auditorium in single file, and row-by-row filled up the folding chairs set up on the floor. They started with the back row, and I ended up in the second row, a prime spot for watching the tricks, if they were to materialize. As I planted myself into the child-sized folding chair, I noticed the kids who were being led into the row in front of me. The child about to sit directly before me was Bobbie. This was before last names were invented. Bobbie was a troubled child. He had announced one day on the playground that his real name was Robert, for which the rest of us laughed him to scorn. Really! We might have only been five, but we weren’t stupid enough to believe that you’d call a thing something other than what it was. A Bobbie was a Bobbie, and a Robert was something quite different.

As Bobbie prepared to sit, I had my geniosity. If I were to pull his chair back, I thought, he would miss it and end up on the ground! No sooner had inspiration struck than did I put it into action, and to my amazement it worked! Bobbie plopped right on to the floor, and then looked around with the most bewildered expression, which could be interpreted as how did I miss a twelve-inch wide chair with a six-inch wide butt? His universe had changed forever, as had mine. He had discovered The Unexplained, and myself a profound moral question:

Are some geniosities best left unimplemented?

Sadly, this question hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, despite my well-received article (cf. “Gravitational effects of translation while sitting,” Kids Today 1969, v102, pp 87-89) which raised the issue. It is even more important today that it was then. Do you think those guys at Los Alamos, mucking around in the desert, really thought they could build an atomic bomb? Ironically, the typical defense used when a geniosity is misapplied is the stupidity claim. I’m ashamed to say that’s exactly what I used to explain Bobbie’s unexpected contact with the floor. The resulting Q&A with my teacher Miss Birdbalm is instructive. My comments are in brackets.

Q: Did you pull Robert’s chair out from under him? [Direct question, a tough nut.]

A: That’s not Robert it’s Bobbie! [First attempt—misdirection, obfuscation]

Q: Did you? [Miss Birdbalm was not easily distracted.]

A: Yes, but I didn’t know that Bobbie would sit on the ground. [The stupidity defense.]

Q: Why did you pull the chair back? [Her first mistake, questioning my intentions.]

A: I thought it would help. [Who can argue with good intentions?]

Q: How would pulling Bobbie’s chair back help him? [She’s a gonner now.]

A: I noticed that he walks with a limp, so I calculated the moment of inertia about his ankles and concluded that his head would be whiplashed against the back of the chair upon sitdown. Unfortunately I overcompensated and pulled the chair out too far. Believe me, it would have been worse if I’d done nothing at all. I’ve got all the bugs worked out now... [You get the idea.]

The problem with geniosities is that they are too precious not to be implemented, so that Whoa, I could do THIS!, is inevitably followed in short order by Whoa, I did THAT! Maybe this is the march of progress, but I’d like to propose a moratorium on geniosities until we get this sorted out. Except for mine, of course. I only have helpful ideas now.

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