Wednesday, October 20, 2010


My brother is color-blind. But smart-blind is by far the greater disability. Ever since I read this article about the Dunning-Kruger effect a few months ago I've been paying attention to this. I recently availed myself of the opportunity to do some first hand investigating into the matter. There was a guy on my favorite online dating website that answered the question, "What do you think about healing crystals?" with the answer, "I think they work." But he claimed to be an intellectual and he only wanted to meet women "if their smart." He was online, so I started a chat with him. I opened with a remark that he'd attract more smart women if he knew the difference in "their" and "they're." Yet he kept talking to me. Turns out he believes in astrology, thinks the government has a secret 20 year plan to try to take away all rural land ownership to force people to live in cities, and he thinks global warming is a hoax to increase taxes. He honestly believes he is smarter than everybody else and wants to meet a smart woman.

Dunning-Kruger effect! I never realized how that applies to people who believe mis-information. This guy is SO STUPID he thinks he's brilliant, therefore also believes that everybody else in the world is a lot smarter than they really are. The government is perpetrating a plot to take away my land? Impossible. I have met people that work for the government. Again I say, impossible. They are not competent to pull that off. I need no further argument. I stated as much to this fellow, that government employees at their most brilliant can still only do something that can be completed in a single fiscal budget cycle. A 20 year plot is untenable from a budget standpoint.

He logged off suddenly when I stated plainly that 2 years of studying oceanography with the people that actually collected the data makes me qualified to say definitively that anthropogenic global warming is real (I may have used all caps. I was trying so hard not to be a dick, too.) Anyway, the next day I got two long emails from him. All I can say is that I'm glad I was able to waste so much of his time. I didn't actually click any of his links. I knew it would just make me mad. At the end he informed me that I have a lot to unlearn.

When I was trying to find the link to the original article about anosognosics I found this one about ignorant people contradicting scientists over their methods for predicting climate change. I identify with this article a lot. I didn't struggle through three classes with Dr. Philip Froelich without a healthy appreciation for what we know, what we don't know, and what we might figure out soon. Having some smart-blind git telling me I have a lot to unlearn makes me a little bit angry. It's so hard for scientists to explain climate change to ignorant people because it's REALLY FUCKING COMPLICATED. I mean, damn, anybody remember the phase diagram for ice from high school? Try to tell Sarah Palin that water expands when it freezes AND when it gets hot and she probably won't believe you. Not even if you were Lord Fucking Kelvin.

So first the smart-blind thing made me angry, and then later it made me sad. There are SO many people in the world like him. A colleague at work showed me the dancing parrot video on YouTube because she thinks it's funnier than the ninja cat. Well the parrot has twice as many views as my rocket video, so I guess that says a lot. Ninja cat, on the other hand, has FOURTEEN TIMES as many views. As much as the Japanese like the sonic boom sky ripple, they like a stealthy cat more.

And then it made me mad again when I read this tweet from Phil Plait:
The comments on my UFO posts are always amusing, but people accusing me of not knowing Jupiter are awesome.
And sure enough there was a comment where somebody contradicts Phil Plait.
There are NO reports of balloons and Jupiter was not actually visible in the NYC night sky according to the National Weather Service. ALSO, the daylight sightings would not be Jupiter either? I suggest some calming tea and maybe read Richard Dolan’s UFO & the National Security State 1973-1992. ‘We have never been alone.’ -Major Robert Dean
Oh shut up.

There's another one that was suspicious because he questioned if you could see Jupiter from New York, but that guy was just being innocent, not ignorant. Somebody gave him a nice response.

@20 NAW: “But can you really zoom a news camera in to get that nice of an image of Jupiter in the middle of New York city?”
Yes, a TV camera can show Jupiter very well, since it has a nice zoom and keeps steady. The city lights don’t bother the planets nearly as much as other nighttime objects. You only need 8x zoom or so to see the moons. Most binoculars will do, if you can hold the darn things steady.
I remember watching an outdoor sporting event on TV (I think it was the Winter Olympics), and coming out of commercial, there was this beautiful shot of Saturn. You could clearly see its rings and color bands. Then, the camera zoomed out to show just the dot and then the bright landscape that’s normally shown. That was wonderful.
And then the original commenter replied
@24. AliCali: thanks, never really being to a large city and/or working with a camera like that, I didn’t know.
See? Isn't that civil? Everybody is learning? Accepting each other's expertise?

You need to go watch the video. It made me go "Nuh UH! That reporter can't be that STUPID! And the cameraman TOO?!" I looked at Jupiter with binoculars the other night. I could only make out three moons, but that's exactly what it looks like, what they show in the video. I think the part that struck me as smart-blind was not that the reporter didn't know it was a planet and moons, but that she didn't know anybody to ask! And she didn't CARE! She just went on and on about it without feeling self-concious that she couldn't find out what she was talking about. There is almost no strange phenomenon I encounter where I don't know an expert I can ask about it. Be it biology, electromagnetism, geology, astronomy, computers, psychology, construction, weather, sewage, skydiving, cars, food....

But other people just don't care that they don't know, like the Fox News person, or they think they are so smart they contradict and criticize people that are probably smarter than them. Like this other comment on Phil's blog.
....your post in no way proves that the observed phenomena was a combination of balloons and Jupiter. Therefore I respectfully respond with some reasonable steps someone could take to actually prove the point that you falsely claim to have demonstrated. You know, the sort of things a science journalist should be expected to do.
First, you need to compare the location of Jupiter that night to the time and location of the video. Shouldn’t be too hard.
Second, you need to establish that the Fox News video camera has a powerful enough zoom to see the moons of Jupiter in Chelsea. I am actually a bit skeptical of this because of light pollution, but I have no real idea how powerful their zoom is.
Finally, any account has to also deal with the other objects that we seen after dark (ie, the earth cam footage) and the photos that have found their way to flickr. There is also the footage of the pyramid shaped object from the 13th, but that footage looks a bit hokey to me. Still, a thorough scientific analysis would not simply ignore it.
I am not claiming that there isn’t a conventional explanation for this event. Rather I hope that I have shown that you have not proved your assertions. 
OK, that guy is just a dick. Sounds kind of like the same sort of jackass that graded my GREs and gave me a 30th percentile on the written section. Phil Plait says it's Jupiter, it's Jupiter. He's not on the stand in a capital murder case, he's just refuting an patently idiotic Fox News bit. Now shut the fuck up.

As for the pyramid shaped object, you must have missed this Tree Lobsters post.

See, now I'm angry again. Smart-blind blow-hards need to be dealt with. I don't have any idea how to do this. The best I can figure is that children should be exposed to smart people, namely scientists, as role models from an early age. Give Phil Plait a TV show, good idea. Neil DeGrasse Tyson on a sit-com, excellent. (Twitter says Bill Prady asked him to be on Big Bang Theory) Hopefully these smart people will have an influence on people who don't have any cultural exposure to brilliance.

I have developed a new litmus test for guys on the online dating site. I ask them, "Who is the smartest person you know?" If they can't think of anybody, that's bad. If they say, "Hmm, I'd have to say I am the smartest person I know." Epic fail. If you don't know somebody smarter than yourself, and you have a masters degree, then you either went to the worst college in the country or you are just smart-blind. Why would you take instruction from somebody you didn't think was smarter than you?! I mean, outside of high school where you don't have any choice. I did have one or two high school teachers that I thought were smart. But before college I pretty much relied on my family for smarter-than-me role models. I'm trying to think of a smart TV character from my formative years.... There was that nice white-haired guy on Wild Kingdom. He knew a lot about animals. I thought he was cool. And Dr. Who. Oh, and Dr. Mr. Spock! Fascinating.

From the Autumnal Equinox. Jupiter is the speck. I don't have a TV camera.

Update Feb 4, 2015
Jack Klaff, @jackshebang on twitter, posted this John Cleese video about this topic on January 28th. John Cleese is friends with David Dunning!


  1. Great post! These are the kind of stories, though, that put me in a despair for the future of our civilization. I can only hope it's a small scale problem, though, and that enough smart people will be able to keep pushing us forward.

    I'll close with a Bill Hicks line...

    "A dimwitted waffle house waitress came up to my table, saw me reading a book, and asked,
    "What are you reading for?" Not "what are you reading?", but "what are you reading for?"

    "Well, I read for a lot of reasons, but one of them is so I don't end up a fucking waffle waitress."

    Bill Hicks

  2. "Smart-Blind" is not a new phenomena, but rather one in which we are bombarded with now. We can give thanks to our "Social Media", which is obviously saturated with the "S-B". Before the infrastructure was laid out for the "S-B" to choke out with their brain farts, these people were primarily considered "crazies" on the transit bus of our lives. Always talking nonsense out loud to themselves until someone accidentally tried to answer a question. Or they were that neighbor who you always seemed to surprise you by not running themselves over with their lawnmower. Anyway, if they were reading a book or paying attention in class, they would not have time to blather nonsense. Nonsense that makes "US" angry. They would realize that they are just angry because they themselves do not know or understand something. The phrase "Well, this/that is news to me." is no longer a statement paired with epiphany, but rather synonymous with stupidity. ie: Fox is news to me.

    Phew, I guess I am a little angry too. But is it because i am smart enough to be frustrated with the "Smart-Blind Blow-Hards" or to dumb to understand.

  3. Heh. Nice post. Thanks for the kudos, but y'know, I *could* be wrong when I say something is Jupiter.

    I wasn't in this case, and I know Jupiter when I see it, and it matches the software I used to map the moons, and I know cameras can zoom in on Jupiter well enough to see the moons, and I know Jupiter was visible and up in NYC when the video was shot, and I've observed Jupiter probably upwards of a thousand times using binoculars and telescopes ranging from a department store piece of junk up to one-meter class professional observatories and written tens of thousands of words about it.

    But it's *possible* some random UFO believer on the internet knows more about it than I do.

  4. See, that's why smart-blind people believe the lies they hear on TV but don't believe us scientists! We know that there are things we don't know and we hedge. The more a reporter tries to pin down a scientist in a press conference the more he qualifies his statements. That NEVER happens with somebody who actually doesn't know what he doesn't know.

    Maybe it would be easier to train scientists to lie about what they don't know and apologize when their secretly predicted worst-case scenario happens after all than to train smart-blind people to accept, "Yes. Well, maybe. It's highly probable, but if this happens there is a chance it won't," as an answer to a Yes/No question.

    I think you did the right thing to call it Jupiter with no hesitation though, Phil. It's not like the Norwegian spiral light thing that took some research.

    To me the story wasn't really what the thing was, but just the way the woman ACTED about it. I'm considering changing my hair color.

  5. Did Dr. Spock (the baby doc) have a TV show, or are you thinking of Mr. Spock from Star Trek? Mr. Spock is the one who usually used the "Fascinating" line.

  6. I was thinking of the Star Trek one. It did sound baby doc-ish when I re-read it. I should have looked it up! It was Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy! Derr. He wasn't even Dr. Spock in 2009, he was Ambassador Spock and Spock Prime. Kinda like that one. I'm gonna start calling my mama Barbara Prime.

  7. For the record, a dancing parrot video lead to research showing the parrot has a sense of rhythm (unlike cats and dogs). This relates to research on the vocal and communication abilities of parrots, why they evolved and what it can tell us about humans and language.

    (Yes, I'm a fan of Dr. Pepperberg and the late Alex, and I've got two companion African grey parrots. I'll cop to some bias, but it's a scientifically-based bias.)

    So don't complain about the dancing parrot video. It's science-worthy, just like the rocket video.

    PS: Can you post a link to the rocket video?

  8. @Brian

    Bill Hicks was a funny guy sometimes, but he was also an ignorant asshole sometimes. Low-wage service jobs are not some kind of deserved punishment for the stupid and lazy. (This is particularly true for women, and even moreso for American women, for reasons that ought to be obvious.)

    Also, the OP addressed people who were literate and, after a fashion, well-read. The disengaged and apathetic are not found among the ranks of conspiracy nuts.

  9. Come to think of it, why are you favourably quoting Bill Hicks in this context? He was (although, again, a truly gifted comedian,) a conspiracy enthusiast who arrogantly clung to personal incredulity in the face of expert consensus. "Back and to the left...?" Honestly.

  10. @Rob Carr The YouTube link is in the text now. I put that video on Vimeo too, where I put a lot more of my stuff. It has about 60,000 views. So I'm over 2 million all together. My math is off for the parrot video comparison as I was thinking 1 million views compared to 14 million.

    The original post about the sonic boom/sky ripple/refraction phenomenon is this one back in February. That's how I got to be friends with Phil Plait -- trying to figure out what the hell that was. Neither one of us was up to it, by the way. I collected opinions from 3 PhDs I know, but it was a weather expert commenting on a link to my video on a weather website that clued me in that the difference in index of refraction of two air masses at a cirrus cloud interface is large enough to create that effect.

  11. I found my way here via a tweet from Phil Plait, and am so glad I did. Brilliant post, Barbara! I want to hug it. :-)

    Glenn M.
    Lititz, PA

    Twitter: @GlennMcQ

  12. Wow, that smiley face attempt just sucked! :-)

  13. Never underestimate the stupidity of people! One of my many life mottos.

  14. "Why would you take instruction from somebody you didn’t think was smarter than you?!"

    Good point, but they need not be smart to give us instructions. Even a fool can teach us something about life... Like how not to be one.

    Exposing children to scientists, like you say, may be a be the best way to get around this problem. A life without aspirations or good role models (even if it's just from TV) is fairly meaningless IMO. And I think we're starting to confuse "intelligence" with "wisdom". While we can be smart, that doesn't necessarily mean we'll be wise enough to know we still don't know jack... despite the degree. A smart role model early on can do just that and help us earn a sense of humility that keeps open to new knowledge.

    Of course that means the current masses would still be the equivalent of a cluster of degree-holding jellyfish. Aimlessly floating, consuming and deficating with the currents of pop culture.