Apr 30, 2020

You're Also Ignorant When You’re Not the Expert

“One specific lesson I try to drive home as often as possible, both in the context of medical education and in general, is this: Think about some area in which you have a great deal of knowledge, at the expert to mastery level (or maybe a special interest in which your knowledge is above average).

“Now, think about how much the average person knows about your area of specialty. Not only do they know comparatively little, they likely have no idea how little they know and how much specialized knowledge even exists. Furthermore, most of what they think they know is likely wrong or misleading.

“Here comes the critical part: Now realize that you are as ignorant as the average person is in every other area of knowledge in which you are not expert.“

- Dr. Steven Novella, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

Related: Dunning-Kruger Effect
Related: Gell-Mann Amnesia

Shakespeare Tells More Than Surveys

"If you want your profession to recognized as a science you can't very well admit that some of Shakespeare's tragedies tell more about politics than a barge-load of surveys."

- Professor John Frary

Apr 26, 2020

The Evidence for God

As a Christian ministry co-leader who maintains our social media accounts, I encounter a lot of atheist trolls. Even though I don't target non-believers — our ministry is not evangelical — they find us anyway. In a sense, they are more "evangelical" than we are, actively seeking to convert people of faith to their faithless cause.

Although many of my exchanges with atheists amount to little more than exchanging insults (erudite insults, but insults nonetheless), these experiences have proved valuable. I've learned a lot about what motivates atheists (spoiler alert: it's emotions) and how they think. Surprisingly, they are much less rational and scientific in their thinking than one might expect.

A case in point: Atheists' No. 1 argument is some form of "prove it." Prove God exists.

Fair enough. I usually start by explaining that if God were provable in the empirical sense, we would speak of our religion as our "science" and not our "faith." The fact we cannot prove the existence of God (not yet) is implicit in the words we use. It may make an atheist feel superior to point out that I can't use the scientific method on my beliefs about God, but that's a rather pedestrian point. As those old Geico commercials put it: "Everybody knows that."

Still, even though it's a straw-man argument, score one for the atheists, I suppose.

But then the atheists get too cocky. They say things like: "There is no evidence for God." Whoa. Hold on now.

There are many types of evidence. The empirical kind is just one. Greg Koukl uses the analogy of a court of law. An attorney may use empirical evidence to make a case, but he or she will also use circumstantial evidence, testimony and so on. The word "evidence" just means facts and other information you use to arrive at the truth, and in that sense there is plenty of evidence for God.

From the largest thing to the smallest things, from the universe to the DNA in our cells, the evidence for God is everywhere.


The scientific consensus is that the universe had a beginning. It began to exist at some point in the past. Whatever begins to exist must have a cause of its beginning. Therefore, the universe must have a cause of its beginning.

This is the "Kalam Cosmological Argument," and its logic is hard to resist. I’ll let the creator of the argument, William Lane Craig, take it from here:
What properties must this cause of the universe possess? This cause must be itself uncaused because...an infinite series of causes is impossible. It is therefore the Uncaused First Cause. It must transcend space and time, since it created space and time. Therefore, it must be immaterial and non-physical. It must be unimaginably powerful, since it created all matter and energy.

Finally...this Uncaused First Cause must also be a personal being...endowed with freedom of the will. His creating the universe is a free act which is independent of any prior determining conditions. So his act of creating can be something spontaneous and new. Freedom of the will enables one to get an effect with a beginning from a permanent, timeless cause. Thus, we are brought not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe but to its Personal Creator.

Life on earth is further evidence for the existence of God. Scientists speak of the "Goldilocks Zone," the area around a star where the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold (like Goldilocks' preferred porridge) for liquid water to exist. Earth is within that rare zone. It is "just right" in this way — and many others. As Larry Ballard wrote in a letter to his granddaughter, our planet has:
…just the right size; just the right seasons dictated by just the right tilt of Earth’s axis; just the right magnetic field with just the right intensity; just the right-sized moon creating just the right tides and just the right continental drift; just the right ratio of oxygen to nitrogen; just the right ratios of carbon dioxide to water vapor—and on and on and on.
This concept applies to the universe as well. Ballard continues:
[Then] there’s the incredibly fine-tuned constants of physics that dictate the precise constitution of our physical universe—the force of gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces, the initial entropy of the universe, the cosmological constant, the proton-neutron mass difference, the expansion rate of the universe, and on and on—with a miniscule change in of any one of them resulting in a universe completely unfit for life anywhere.
This is another scientific concept known as the "Rare Earth hypothesis." According to Wikipedia:
In planetary astronomy and astrobiology, the Rare Earth hypothesis argues that the origin of life and the evolution of biological complexity such as sexually reproducing, multicellular organisms on Earth (and, subsequently, human intelligence) required an improbable combination of astrophysical and geological events and circumstances.

In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote:
If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.
Thanks to advances in science since Darwin's time, we now know that every living cell is "full of microscopic nanomachines made of molecules that are irreducibly complex," as Ballard put it. Alter or remove one part and the entire machine breaks down. This means cells could not have formed by the step-by-step evolutionary process Darwin imagined.


DNA is a detailed blueprint for building the amazingly complex biological machines around us, including the staggeringly sophisticated human body. Another way to think of DNA is as software code. But while computer code is ultimately two numbers (ones and zeros), DNA consists of four "letters" (the nucleotides A,C,G,T) that make it significantly more complex. As biologist Michael Denton explains:
The capacity of DNA to store information vastly exceeds that of any other known system; it is so efficient that all the information needed to specify an organism as complex as man weighs less than a few thousand millionths of a gram. The information necessary to specify the design of all the species of organisms which have ever existed on the planet…could be held in a teaspoon and there would still be room left for all the information in every book ever written.

As usual, the Apostle Paul put it best: "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made." (Romans 1:20)

As the above has shown, there is plenty of scientific evidence to support his claim. The existence of God is not just a matter of faith. After all, which requires more faith: Accepting evidence of design as evidence for a Designer? Or believing that all of the above is just coincidence and chance?

Apr 21, 2020

Exploit Explained: Dunning-Kruger Effect

{This post is part of the Archive of Human Exploits}

I first learned of this bias from Y Combinator's Paul Graham, likely from his essay, "How to Get Startup Ideas," in which he writes:
When searching for ideas, look in areas where you have some expertise. If you're a database expert, don't build a chat app for teenagers (unless you're also a teenager). Maybe it's a good idea, but you can't trust your judgment about that, so ignore it. There have to be other ideas that involve databases, and whose quality you can judge. Do you find it hard to come up with good ideas involving databases? That's because your expertise raises your standards. Your ideas about chat apps are just as bad, but you're giving yourself a Dunning-Kruger pass in that domain.
Once I knew what it meant, that phrase "Dunning-Kruger pass" stuck with me — although I tended to misremember it as Dunning-Kruger bridge. (More on this in a minute.)

Graham also mentions the bias in "How to Convince Investors":
To evaluate whether your startup is worth investing in, you have to be a domain expert. If you're not a domain expert, you can be as convinced as you like about your idea, and it will seem to investors no more than an instance of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Which in fact it will usually be. And investors can tell fairly quickly whether you're a domain expert by how well you answer their questions. Know everything about your market.
Here's a succinct explanation of the effect from The Decision Lab:
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which individuals are prone to assess their cognitive ability as greater than it truly is. Most simply, individuals who are the least competent at a task often incorrectly rate themselves as high-performing even when they lack particular knowledge or expertise.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of knowledge or ability. In turn, these individuals will lack the ability to recognize their own mistakes and errors, making them exceptionally confident and biased self-evaluators. They are also unable to fairly judge other people’s performance.

This bias was first described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999. Dunning and Kruger found the bias by testing students in the areas of humor, grammar, and logic. They compared each individual student’s test results with the same student’s estimate of how well they scored. The results were that those who scored the lowest vastly overestimated their scores, while those who did best slightly underestimated their performance. It is illustrated in the graph below which shows those who have almost zero knowledge on a topic display low confidence, but those with a minimum level of competence vastly overestimate their abilities. As the level of knowledge increases, those who are more competent are more aware of the gaps in their knowledge and display lower confidence. On the far end of the spectrum are experts in a particular field who display a high degree of confidence.
(Warning: The science part of the above finding is shaky. "Dunning-Kruger effects reported in the literature are mostly the result of statistical artefacts," argues social psychologist Lee Jussim.)

My sense of this bias is as follows. Have you ever been offended when someone argues with you about your area of expertise even though they really don't know the first thing about it? You want to scream at them: "You couldn't [do even a simple version of this thing] if your life depended on it!" And yet they have the confidence to tell you what you should be doing, as if it's easy. They might even have the temerity to argue with you about it! How?! Well, that's Dunning-Kruger effect in action.

The interesting thing about it is the conditions necessary. In my experience, the effect is most common in people who have an unquestionable area of expertise themselves. It's just not your area, and it may not even be close. I've debated advertising techniques with a top-tier personal trainer, and what it takes to write well with several first-rate entrepreneur bosses. The trainer didn't know the first thing about advertising, and I've never had a boss who knew how to write well. So how do they get from warranted confidence to unwarranted confidence? From acceptable superiority to illusory superiority?

This may be where the idea of a Dunning-Kruger "bridge" stuck in my mind because I visualize it as building a bridge between concepts (or "domains," as Graham put it). We mistakenly assume that because the bridge starts with one end on solid ground, it ends with the other end on solid ground.

It doesn't, which is why it crumbles.

Related: An Ignorant Mind is Filled with Clutter

Mr. Market

"Imagine that in some private business you own a small share that cost you $1,000. One of your partners, named Mr. Market, is very obliging indeed. Every day he tells you what he thinks your interest is worth and furthermore offers either to buy you out or to sell you an additional interest on that basis.

"Sometimes his idea of value appears plausible and justified by business developments and prospects as you know them. Often, on the other hand, Mr. Market lets his enthusiasm or his fears run away with him, and the value he proposes seems to you a little short of silly.

"If you are a prudent investor or a sensible businessman, will you let Mr. Market’s daily communication determine your view of the value of a $1,000 interest in the enterprise? Only in case you agree with him, or in case you want to trade with him. You may be happy to sell out to him when he quotes you a ridiculously high price, and equally happy to buy from him when his price is low. But the rest of the time you will be wiser to form your own ideas of the value of your holdings, based on full reports from the company about its operations and financial position."

- Ben Graham, The Intelligent Investor, 1971

The Buffet version:

"Ben Graham, my friend and teacher, long ago described the mental attitude toward market fluctuations that I believe to be most conducive to investment success. He said that you should imagine market quotations as coming from a remarkably accommodating fellow named Mr. Market who is your partner in a private business. Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell you his.

"Even though the business that the two of you own may have economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market’s quotations will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in that mood, he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains. At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions, he will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will unload your interest on him.

"Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: He doesn’t mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today, he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you.

"But, like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you fall under his influence. Indeed, if you aren’t certain that you understand and can value your business far better than Mr. Market, you don’t belong in the game. As they say in poker, 'If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.'

"Ben’s Mr. Market allegory may seem out-of-date in today’s investment world, in which most professionals and academicians talk of efficient markets, dynamic hedging and betas. Their interest in such matters is understandable, since techniques shrouded in mystery clearly have value to the purveyor of investment advice. After all, what witch doctor has ever achieved fame and fortune by simply advising 'Take two aspirins'?

"The value of market esoterica to the consumer of investment advice is a different story. In my opinion, investment success will not be produced by arcane formulae, computer programs or signals flashed by the price behavior of stocks and markets. Rather an investor will succeed by coupling good business judgment with an ability to insulate his thoughts and behavior from the super-contagious emotions that swirl about the marketplace. In my own efforts to stay insulated, I have found it highly useful to keep Ben’s Mr. Market concept firmly in mind.

"Following Ben’s teachings, Charlie [Munger] and I let our marketable equities tell us by their operating results – not by their daily, or even yearly, price quotations – whether our investments are successful. The market may ignore business success for a while, but eventually will confirm it. As Ben said: 'In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run it is a weighing machine.' The speed at which a business’s success is recognized, furthermore, is not that important as long as the company’s intrinsic value is increasing at a satisfactory rate. In fact, delayed recognition can be an advantage: It may give us the chance to buy more of a good thing at a bargain price."

- Warren Buffet, letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, 1987