You don’t know what you don’t know

In Gavin Myers, August 2022, Magazine Editorial5 MinutesBy Gavin MyersAugust 8, 2022

How many of us think we’d be pretty good at something because we’d seen someone else do it, watched a few videos or TV shows, or had some or other exposure to the task?

“I reckon I could do that. How hard can it be?” Despite having no – or minimal – formal training or experience, we’ve all had that thought at some point.

It’s called the Dunning- Kruger effect. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept (without going too indepth), it’s “a cognitive bias whereby people with low ability, expertise, or experience regarding a certain type of task or area of knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge”.

It can be further explained by the idea that those with low levels of ability, expertise, experience or skill are usually ignorant of that fact. As a result, they often have more overconfidence than those with no experience. This lack of knowledge means they don’t know when they’re not doing something right. “Bodging it”, I guess you could say.

I won’t continue and prove the theory by banging on too much about it. But the other day, I watched a fascinating episode on the subject on PBS’s Be Smart YouTube channel, wherein the host set out to demonstrate how big the gap can be between what we think we know and what we do know. He was interested in playing flight simulator videogames and watching cockpit recordings online, so he jumped into a Boeing 737 simulator cockpit to see if he could successfully land the commercial jetliner with guidance from an experienced pilot ‘on the ground’, should its pilot become incapacitated.

He was confident, thought that he had the knowledge and felt he was managing the job, but still crash-landed two out of his three attempts. The other, he was instructed how to put the plane on autopilot for it to land itself – so there you go.

It got me thinking about how nobody is immune to this. The teenager who grabs the keys, sneaks out for a joyride and crashes. The DIY- er who reckons he can do it himself but costs himself twice as much when he has to call in the pros. Dunning- Kruger in action.

And then I read the story that Auckland Council just successfully trashed its own climate plans in court, published on The Spinoff on 14 July. The writer, Hayden Donnell, tells the story of how a group of climate activists has sued Auckland Transport (AT) and Auckland Council for failing to meet their climate obligations and being in breach of government directives calling for reductions in vehicle travel and emissions. The problem is AT’s Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP), which will allegedly either raise carbon emissions or reduce them by just 1% with government climate interventions.

AT won by arguing, among other points, that the RLTP is no obligation to meet any emissions targets and that a government policy statement mandating a transition to a low-carbon transport system was “minimally directive and its climate change targets had to be balanced against other priorities, including improving freight corridors”. (Interesting one that, considering the prevailing ‘get freight off the roads’ ideology.)

Donnell does an outstanding job of unpacking it all, and I strongly recommend reading the full article.

But just considering the basic facts of the case, I’m left wondering, how much of the climate thing is just a bodge? Is it a case of Dunning-Kruger – where those pulling the strings to reduce emissions think they know what they’re doing, but not really – or is there perhaps more piss- taking going on behind the scenes than we realise?

Now, that’s a concept with which we’re all familiar.