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June 1st, 2017 under West Texas Talk
MacArthur Wheeler (VALERIE HOWARD illustration)

MacArthur Wheeler
(VALERIE HOWARD illustration)

“The Trump Syndrome”


Although I am a former college professor I have never been one of a didactic or even pedantic nature. Even though I have been told by more than one former girlfriend (notice the word former) that all they wanted was an answer to their question and not a full lecture, I do sometimes find it necessary to explain to my devoted readers certain conundrums.

The first major conundrum of the 21st century is, “How did so many of my West Texas Republican friends vote for Donald J. Trump for president?”  The answer lies with MacArthur Wheeler, a rather inept bank robber. Mr. Wheeler was arrested after robbing two banks with his face covered in lemon juice because he hypothesized that lemon juice was used to make invisible ink and thus his face would not appear on the bank’s security cameras. He would have dissolved into the forgotten annals of criminal history had it not been for two professors in the psychology department at Cornell University. David Dunning and Justin Kruger were so intrigued by Mr. Wheeler’s ignorance of reality that they began studies that resulted in the Dunning Kruger Effect.

Had either of these men made it to “Dancing with the Stars” or “American Idol”, their fame might have made all the difference in our 2016 election. The Dunning Kruger Effect would be a household term if only one of them (even better, both) had a quick fling with any Kardashian. They did not, so it’s up to me to explain their work.

Their series of experiments proved the following: the pattern of over-estimating competence was seen in studies of skills as diverse as reading comprehension, practicing medicine, operating a motor vehicle, and playing games such as chess or tennis. Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will: fail to recognize their own lack of skill, fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy, fail to accurately gauge skill in others and recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they are exposed to training for that skill.

Dunning and Kruger tested the hypotheses of the cognitive bias of illusory superiority on the undergraduate students of psychology, by examination of the students’ self-assessments of their intellectual skills in logical inductive and deductive reasoning, English grammar, and personal sense of humor. After learning their self-assessment scores, the students were asked to estimate their ranks in the psychology class. The group of competent students underestimated their class ranks, whilst the group of incompetent students overestimated their class ranks.

It would be more than two decades after I left teaching that the Dunning-Kruger effect would be published. If it had been published during my days as a college professor, I would’ve had each of my students prick the end of their finger and write out every word in their blood.

Long before the Dunning Kruger Effect was published Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC) said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”. Closer to our own times, British philosopher Bertram Russell (1872 – 1970) said, “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”.

A recent example of the Dunning Kruger Effect might well be Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos with her statement that the historic black colleges are “icons of the school choice movement”. A close second might be Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who referred to enslaved blacks as “immigrants”.

As my avid readers are all highly intelligent, witty, and charming the Dunning Kruger Effect does not apply, but I hope they would reflect upon the old saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous weapon.”

NOTE! The Texas Legislature has just passed a bill allowing the hunting of feral hogs from hot air balloons. Texas hunting always involves guns and booze . . . what could possibly go wrong?

• • •

George A. Covington has worked in the fields of law, education, journalism and disability rights. He considers himself retired from every one of them with the possible exception of journalism. He is a graduate of the University of Texas schools of journalism and law. He moved to West Texas – Alpine – in 1997 after a 20-year career in Washington, D.C. where he once served on the staff of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (Democrat) and shortly thereafter served as Special Assistant to the Vice President of the United States (Republican) 1989-93.

Story filed under: West Texas Talk » West Texas Talk Highlight

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