Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. - Laurence J. Peter

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

If you were a better-than-average driver, how would you know?

Are you good at maths? Are you good at drawing?

Your answer to these questions is probably reasonably accurate. Unless you're a mathematician or an artist, you probably don't have much pride or identity tied up in your skill in these things, so that won't cloud your judgment. (And if you are a mathematician or artist, then - relative to average people - you're almost certainly good at maths or drawing.)

Are you good at driving? Are you a good judge of character? Are you (or would you be) a good parent? Are you a good voter?

Everyone thinks they are a better than average driver. The appropriate conclusion to draw from that is that, if you need to know whether you're a good driver, the way to discover this information is not to simply introspect on the question for a few seconds. I suspect the same holds for whether you're a good parent, voter, or judge of character.

That's a serious problem! It probably doesn't matter whether you're a good driver. Even if you're worse than average, you're probably not so bad that you shouldn't be driving at all. But bad parents and aggregated bad voters do a lot of harm. If you're likely to be a bad parent, then that is actionable information: don't have children! If you're likely to be a bad voter, don't vote! If you're a poor judge of character, get a prenuptial agreement.

If you really wanted to know whether you're a good driver, you could probably find some reasonable metric and compare yourself to the average. But there are no controlled experiments in parenting or politics, which makes it very difficult to be sure you have reliable knowledge on these questions.


Blogger Xianhang Zhang said...

Michael, this effect does apply to maths (or at least, logical reasoning):

The question you are asking is something I call the ego dilemma. How do we know that if we are right if our ego says that we are but any rational outside observer says that we're probably not?

The dilemma is that any arguments we use to justify our ego are precisely the same ones used by others who we've judged to be wrong.

10:17 AM

Blogger Michael said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I chose maths and drawing as examples because, in my experience, people freely and cheerfully admit when they are bad at those things.

Logical reasoning might be different. I frequently encounter people who know they're bad at maths, but don't think that this prevents them gaining an accurate understanding of the world. For example, they don't think they are bad voters, because of their poor grasp of maths.

I predict/retrodict that the traits that people usually overestimate have two qualities: they are hard to measure, and they are important to self-esteem/social status. We're all aware of measurements of our mathematical skills from our time at school; logical reasoning is not so distinctly measured, at least not with that label.

Personally, I think innumeracy is a bigger problem than people believe. I recall two quotes from Robert Heinlein and John McCarthy that indicate they agree:

Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe and not make messes in the house.
--Lazarus Long, "Time Enough for Love", Robert A. Heinlein

He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense. - John McCarthy

They're harsh, but I see their point.

12:25 AM


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