For nerds (or listeners of Reply All), both of these concepts are possibly old news, but as I think about the persistent problems that enable really big problems, I keep finding myself thinking about two concepts: the Dunning-Kruger Effect and a mathematical equation by David Robert Grimes that illustrates how many people would have to keep a secret for large-scale conspiracies to be true.
First, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Have you ever been in a meeting or a class and some bonehead keeps spouting off or trying to take the lead, clearly believing that his ideas are the best even though he is underperforming everyone else? If yes, then you have witnessed the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is based on an experiment published in a 1999 paper by Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. They tested participants in their study on logic, grammar, and sense of humor and found that those who tested in the lowest quartile rated themselves as far above-average. They explained: “Those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it” (Psychology Today).
One of the problems of our current political climate that really grinds my gears is the devaluing of expertise. In the name of getting rid of elitism, there has been a rise of anti-intellectualism that I find stunning. Instead of trusting people who have devoted their careers, or sometimes their whole lives, to a certain area of study or work, that expertise has been subjected to conspiracy theories, slander, or plain refusal to listen. For example, politicians are often subjected to the question “Do you believe in Climate Change” as though the scientific community is not in near-unanimous agreement about the issue. For example, Dr. Anthony Faucci, a leading expert on viral disease, is treated like a shill. I think that there are a couple of issues at play in this dynamic, but the easiest one to spot is this insistence that we are all entitled to our opinions. Sure, you can think whatever you want, but not all opinions are created equal. Just because someone thinks something and expresses it with conviction does not make that thought reasonable or, more importantly—true. Arguments require evidence and logic not just likes and retweets.
Played out on a large scale, the Dunning-Kruger Effect has given us a government full of celebrities and rich people’s buddies who lack expertise, experience, mastery of the English language, and so on, because their belief in their abilities far exceeds those abilities. Call me old-fashioned, but I want the people in positions of power or influence to actually know what they’re doing. Bring back the nerds! (And altruism, please!)
Now, about those conspiracy theories. Working in a library, I was at first really surprised by how popular books on conspiracy theories were. But then, over the last few years, conspiracy theories like Q Anon and P l a n d e m i c (spelling them so as not to be picked up in search engines) have gone viral. It is easy to deride conspiracy theories and the people who believe in them. And I believe that they should be resoundingly debunked as the nonsense that they are, especially when they are as dangerous as these two theories are. BUT, I think it helps to understand that conspiracy theories tend to become popular when the world feels out of control. The conspiracy theory offers an explanation and usually villains behind why things are so out of sorts. For some, it is easier to believe the conspiracy than it is to believe that things have just gone terribly wrong.
To my eye, however, the most obvious problem with these large scale conspiracy theories is just how many people would have to keep the secret for the theory to even be plausible. I think of CJ Cregg on The West Wing and how sure she is that there aren’t aliens because there’s no way the federal government could keep that secret for this long.
So, you can imagine my delight when I heard that a mathematician at Oxford University had come up with an equation to calculate how many people would have to keep a secret for a conspiracy theory to be true.
“Dr Grimes then looked at four alleged plots, estimating the maximum number of people required to be in on the conspiracy, in order to see how viable these conspiracies could be. These include: the theory that the US moon landings were a hoax (411,000 people); that Climate Change is a fraud (405,000 people); that unsafe vaccinations are being covered up (22,000 people assuming that only the World Health Organisation and the US Centers for Disease Control are conspirators and that others involved in advocating, producing, distributing and using vaccines are dupes. 736,000 people if, as would be more likely, pharmaceutical companies were included); that the cure for Cancer is being suppressed by the world’s leading pharmaceutical firms (714,000 people).”
He also took the math a step further and also calculated how long it would take for certain conspiracy theories to be uncovered by either a whistleblower or an accidental leak.
If we apply this reasoning to, for example, COVID, if the pandemic was a hoax all of these people would have to keep the secret: the WHO, the CDC (everyone at these organizations, from secretaries up), world governments, doctors, nurses, nursing home staff, the other employees at hospitals and nursing homes, families of people who have gotten sick, funeral home workers, public health workers, reporters, fact-checkers, and so on. It’s a lot of people across the globe.
As I’ve watched the news over the last year, these two concepts have popped into my head over and over. Life feels really complicated right now and I think that makes a lot of us vulnerable to charlatans and boneheads, but thinking through things calmly almost always helps.