The Internet is the Dunning-Kruger effect in perpetual motion.



"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."  --  Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

The Dunning-Kruger effect can be summed up by saying that the less knowledgeable and skilled you are at something, the more likely you think you're pretty great at it.

Don't know what you're talking about? You're pretty sure you do.

Think you have a really smart comment to add? You really don't.

This cognitive bias in which someone who is ignorant thinks they are incredibly skilled and smart shows up on social media and in blog comments sections.

Perhaps the flip side of this is impostor syndrome, which I've seen crop up in a lot of writers and actual skilled people. In this, you feel pretty sure someone is going to find out that you're not that good and see you for who you really are, an impostor. No matter what you achieve, you're always waiting for the day when someone points to you and says "you're a fraud" because you really think you are.

I wrote a blog post about impostor syndrome at a previous job. Writing the thing felt like double-edged irony. Here I was, writing about impostor syndrome to encourage other writers on how to avoid being hampered by it, all the while I felt certain any readers would know instantly that I was a fraud and had no business telling them anything on the topic. I always feel like a fake, that my writing sucks, so does my art, I have no idea what I'm doing in life, and sooner or later someone is going to be in the process of handing me a check for my work and are going to pause and say "wait a minute..."

It is bizarre to me to still read blog posts from that job and see people leaving comments as if they were fooled into thinking I actually had a clue what I was writing about. (Here's a good example.) I had word counts, quotas, and a boss hanging over my head. I didn't get the luxury of certifying I had a clue. I just had to produce.

This was only made worse, during that five year plunge in the content marketing world, because there is a kind of creed in that realm that everyone is an expert and you're just supposed to write blog posts to bring in traffic and claim the "I'm an expert" mentality in order to give you the confidence to do this. A quick internet search of some of the internet/content marketing big wigs will turn up these gross blog posts.

This spawned a number of books bemoaning what became known as the "cult of the amateur" in which know-nothings or know-littles were pushing vast amounts of content and ideas onto the culture and, frankly, ruining it. This, of course, leads to raucous discussions about how the gatekeepers have too long controlled who has a voice and isn't it glorious that in this internet age we can all have a voice and public platform, and maybe it is (I'm writing this in a blog post, after all), but also, maybe it really isn't. Sometimes a higher bar or a gate keeps the stumble-drunks out of the yard and from peeing in your flowers.

I'm not an expert. An expert is I don't know what -- 10,000 hours of practice, wasn't that the bar in a popular book a few years ago? Knowing how I am, I don't think I'll ever consider myself an expert. That's not a bad humble place to be, though you're going to have to put up with a lot of people lecturing you about speaking badly or doubting your own work and some other self-esteem pep talks which can be wearying in its own right.

So when I was reading about the Dunning-Kruger effect ("Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.") I was sort of flabbergasted. Who walks around thinking they're super competent? Who walks around thinking they know? Every time I've hit publish, I've immediately thought "I should nuke this blog now before someone gets injured." I had assumed that even all of the content marketers who were pushing the name-it-and-claim-it marketing religion of believing you're an expert didn't actually buy that.

I guess some people do.

Blogging is FREE. That means ANYONE CAN DO IT. This is like having the nutter at the corner bar sharing his conspiracy theories as fact for the world to absorb, in the same "library" (the internet) as copies of Shakespeare. Since one of the ways we determine relevancy and legitimacy is (or at least, used to be) geographical, i.e. where it is found, or what is around it or similar to it, that's a problem. Those gatekeepers sometimes were needed to keep out stupid stuff, frankly.

I've watched with great sadness the mess that is happening in regards to James MacDonald, and his church. There are people on both sides I respect. MacDonald's preaching is still one of my favorites in my podcasting app, and I still listen regularly even as I see the self-righteous joyfully lining up in the social media comments saying things like "see, I had a check in my spirit about him" or "I'll never listen to him again" or "I'm glad everyone realizes what I saw a long time ago and leaves" or "I could tell by his voice  he was too intense and I quit listening to him ages ago."

I looked at the Facebook comments on Julie Roys' post about the recent World Magazine article on James MacDonald and the Harvest Church. What strikes me are the assumptions that if you're a small church (not a mega) you will solve all of these problems. One man wisely noted that small churches can have dictatorial tendencies, too. And we've certainly had examples of abuses in small churches. The other thing that I found interesting was the number of people (mostly women) who had negative things to say about MacDonald based on the manner in which he spoke.

I'm not talking about the words he used, and whether he mocked people and such. I'm talking about the literal quality of his voice and nature of how he delivered messages.

MacDonald would be a guy who was tough to mic, I imagine. He raises and lowers his voice unlike anyone I've ever heard. My friend and I did a Bible study of his a few years ago (it was excellent, I might ad), and we kind of joked about it from the line from Austin Powers about having trouble maintaining the volume of my voice in regards to his speech style. It is very different.

So you literally have people saying they think all of the negative things about MacDonald must be true, and that they stopped listening to him, because he seemed too intense and his voice seemed angry.

What is the value of those comments?

Oddly, I recently listened to MacDonald's sermon "You Can't Just Do What You Want", and he mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect. He told of posting a photo on his Instagram account the week prior, one of him and Kanye West, whom he and some friends ran into in New York and stopped for about 20 seconds to get a photo with him. The reason he posted the photo the week prior to the sermon, a considerable time after actually taking the photo, was to gather an illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect in the comments section.

He wasn't disappointed.

Massive pile-on. Staff staying up late at night to delete vile comments. Christians freaking out and saying they'll never listen to him again how dare he pose with Kanye. Macdonald then made an interesting comment about whether we're called to be like Nathan, confronting David with his adultery, or like Jesus standing before the adulterous woman. "Sometimes," he said, "you need to drop the stone."

My takeaway is that, for the religious, the Dunning-Kruger effect takes a peculiar form of judgment (particularly towards unbelievers who, as MacDonald said, we we blame for running into walls even though we know they are blind, forgetting 1 Corinthians 2:14). We don't know all of the story but we chime in with some kind of expertise on the details.

This is why I stopped blogging for several years after more than a decade (and periodcially do so), because I knew I had to be very cautious. I am still and always reconsidering it.

The Dunning-Kruger effect, on the internet in situations where a Christian leader fails, seems to make bloggers think we know more and/or understand a situation better than we do. I've been blogging for nearly 20  years. I don't say that to make you think I'm an expert. I say that to let you get a sense of the amount of regret for what I've written, unchecked, in all that time.

The world can do what it wants with its expert/novice voice for all, but as Christians who have to answer for our words and aren't to function like the world, we need to consider the question of whether our right or ability to have a voice means that we should use the voice.

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