A beleaguered Michael Brown said Friday he doesn't know why he was removed from his onsite command of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, but he does know the first thing he'll do when he returns to Washington.
''I'm going to go home and walk my dog and hug my wife, and maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita and a full night's sleep,'' Brown told The Associated Press. ''And then I'm going to go right back to FEMA and continue to do all I can to help these victims.''
Heh. Improbable Research pointedly recalls the 2000 IgNobel Prize in Psychology, awarded to David Dunning and Justin Kreuger for their fascinating paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” [pdf]. Dunning and Kreuger subjected several dozen undergraduates to written tests on humor, grammar, and logic; they also asked the students to rate their own abilities relative to their peers and to predict their test scores. Not surprisingly, everybody thought that their abilities were above average. Students who preformed best slightly underestimated their ability; students who preformed worst grossly overestimated theirs.
Of course, the Lake Wobegon Effect is no surprise to anyone who has taught freshmen or non-majors, dealt with incompetent (but invariably "experienced") teachers or administrators, argued with intelligent design "experts", or read a newspaper in the last five years. The hardest thing for many people to learn, especially in a subject that they've never seriously encountered before, is that they don't know what's going on, that their opinions are not facts, that their intuition is not proof. This is especially frustrating in math and CS theory classes, where the students have the tools to check whether their answers are correct, if only they'd think to try them. It's almost impossible to actually learn anything if you don't realize that you have something to learn. The first step, as they say, is to admit that you have a problem.
That's one of the reasons for my "I don't know" policy—an answer of "I don't know" on any homework or exam question is worth 25% partial credit. A blank response doesn't count; to get the partial credit, you must explicitly acknowledge your ignorance. (The other reason, of course, is that it cuts way back on random nonsense maybe-I'll-get-pity-credit-for-stumbling-on-the-right-keywords answers, which makes grading much easier.)
Dunning and Kreuger's conclusion suggests a few possible causes for the Lake Wobegon effect. (References removed.)
One puzzling aspect of our results is how the incompetent fail, through life experience, to learn that they are unskilled. This is not a new puzzle. Sullivan, in 1953, marveled at "the failure of learning which has left their capacity for fantastic, self-centered delusions so utterly unaffected by a life-long history of educative events." With that observation in mind, it is striking that our student participants overestimated their standing on academically oriented tests as familiar to them as grammar and logical reasoning. Although our analysis suggests that incompetent individuals are unable to spot their poor performances themselves, one would have thought negative feedback would have been inevitable at some point in their academic career. So why had they not learned?
One reason is that people seldom receive negative feedback about their skills and abilities from others in everyday life. Even young children are familiar with the notion that "if you do not have something nice to say, don't say anything at all." Second, the bungled robbery attempt of McArthur Wheeler not withstanding, some tasks and settings preclude people from receiving self-correcting information that would reveal the suboptimal nature of their decisions. Third, even if people receive negative feedback, they still must come to an accurate understanding of why that failure has occurred. The problem with failure is that it is subject to more attributional ambiguity than success. For success to occur, many things must go right: The person must be skilled, apply effort, and perhaps be a bit lucky. For failure to occur, the lack of any one of these components is sufficient. Because of this, even if people receive feedback that points to a lack of skill, they may attribute it to some other factor.
Can you say social promotion? Grade inflation? Sure, I knew you could.
This is one of the reasons I find the current administration so scary. If the media is to be believed, George II surrounds himself with yes-men. He doesn't tolerate criticism in his environment, no matter how tangential. Conservative voters are drawn to his strong convictions, but those convictions never seemed to be tempered by honest criticism. He doesn't admit that he makes mistakes. He apparently doesn't believe that he might be wrong.
Is it any wonder, then, that Bush's hand-picked FEMA director did such a bad job? Given this environment in Washington, is anyone surprised that Brown doesn't know why he was removed from his post?