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Dunning-Kruger Effect & Democracy

The Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) is a 1999 psychological theory that sheds light on the relationship between competence and confidence. The graph below gives this relationship, which can be applied to many different societal topics, such as health care, climate change, and economics. Many workplaces and family relationships have their own DKE issues.


The right of this graph represents the high confidence of experts in a particular field working in their field. While they are not always right in their predictions, the experts make these predictions with great confidence.

In the middle are the people who know something about a particular topic. They may develop an opinion or perspective on that topic, but they realize that they don’t know everything. Hence, they tend to be less confident with their assertions. As they gain more knowledge, they are often open to changing their positions.

The left of the DKE graph is where humanity has a big problem. People who know very little about a topic confidently believe that they are just as smart as the experts. But they are wrong far more often than these experts. That little peak on the left is often referred to as “Mount Stupid” in some DKE papers.

Unfortunately, voters in the Mount Stupid region tend to vote for politicians who are kind of like them. Then the axiom “Any idiot can be in government” becomes self-perpetuating.

Keeping Mount Stupid out of Governance

This might sound elitist.

But we have so many other occupations that require a minimal knowledge in a particular field before one can take responsibility in that field. For example, we would not allow a truck driver to do heart surgery. Nor would we allow a cardiologist to get behind the wheel of a big truck until he/she gets the same training and certification as a truck driver. A medical degree means nothing in this transportation occupation. 

The main requirement in today’s politics seems to be an ability to work one’s way up the internal ladder of political parties. When that is accomplished, the result of the general election is often known in advance, so the internal climb is more important than the election itself. But what do these climbing skills have to do with understanding the various social issues that face us? And finding and implementing reasonable solutions?

Have you ever noticed that so few people educated in political science actually go on to become elected politicians? If you think about it, what could be better training for being a politician? Yet most politicians are not political scientists. It seems there is no such license for public office—formal or informal.

In my opinion, we shouldn’t be attracting experts into politics. For starters, while they might be an expert in their particular field, politics requires politicians to become acquainted with many other fields. Yes, we can elect that highly-rated cardiologist as our representative. But his insights of heart surgery won’t be that useful in other fields like hydrology, addiction counseling, or the trucking industry. 

And the cardiologist just might be so great in this field that he might even start believing he has expertise in everything else. This move him/her to the left side of the DKE graph as a politician. Second, maybe we should keep that cardiologist working in the hospital saving lives. Leave the experts where they are the most useful. But part of their job should include occasionally advising politicians, bringing that expertise in the public decision-making process.

So, in my opinion (again), we should be looking for people in the middle of the DKE graph. There we find a certain humbleness and humility—and willingness to learn new things. With an open mind, they will gain better understanding of an issue that requires policy development. Yes, they should listen to the aspirations who live in the left side of the DKE graph and those in the middle. Yes, they should consult the experts with the realization that the experts are sometimes wrong. But in between the left and right of the DKE graph, there is a humbleness that should be quite helpful in making societal decisions. Minds in that part of DKE should not be so rigid.

But in western democracy, humbleness and humility are not traits that lead to being elected. So, we need to look at alternative democracies to select those traits.

Alternative Democracies

In his book “Why Democracy Failed,” political writer Allen Milne Lees makes a great case for the failure of the political party. This book should be read just for that insight alone.

But he also makes another interesting claim. He says that 86% of the population does not understand the issues well enough to cast a wise vote. So, the political parties cater to that 86% rather than the more rational 14%. And eventually we, the people—or should I say “86% of the people”, get the kind of politicians the 86% have voted for! Mr. Lees claims this is why representative democracy has failed.

I’m not sure where Mr. Lees got his 86% vs. 14% figures from. But I would agree that those citizens who reside on or near Mount Stupid are a significant number of voters. They do influence the character of political parties.

Mr. Lees’ solution is two-fold. First only the 14% are allowed to vote. Second, the issues will be decided by direct democracy rather than representative democracy. 

I’m not in agreement with Mr. Lees’ solution. But I am biased. I have invented another kind of representative democracy.

Tiered Democratic Governance

I spent six years in a Canadian political party, circa 1990. I saw a lot of dysfunctional behavior in that time. I left politics after realizing that I could not change things. But somehow, I invented another system of democratic governance. That system addressed all the dysfunction I saw. In 1997, I started putting pen to paper. Twenty-four years ago!

Here is a quick summary of Tiered Democratic Governance (TDG). It has no political parties. Voters cast their vote based on good character and capacity for governance. Elected representatives work with the process of consultation, not partisanship, to decide things. These features make for a kinder, wiser democracy.

One of the advantages of the TDG is that all people still get to vote. They will vote for someone in their neighborhood who they believe has good character and capacity for governance. I believe even people on Mount Stupid can often cast a good vote in this way. If they elect a neighbor still on Mount. Stupid, such a person is not likely to rise much higher in the TDG. And the elections are annual. So if a neighborhood representative is not working out, the voting neighbors can change their vote next year. 

Another advantage is the tiered nature of the TDG. The representatives at the lower tiers will be mostly volunteers, spending maybe 20 hours a month on TDG affairs. This is great training for a higher placement in the TDG. When some of these citizens move up the tiers, they will be spending more time with the TDG. The highest tier should comprise a full-time occupation. Thus, the advantages of a representative democracy—where the decision makers have the resources to investigate issues fully and have access to the big picture—are all there.

The TDG will also place many competent people into governance who would not normally engage in today’s politics. There are many good people out there. But who wants to sacrifice mega time, family life, and career building to attend political meetings, fundraise for campaigns, and campaign for an occupation that is fairly risky to attain and keep, demanding, and besotted with controversy of all kinds?

Well, we do know people who put themselves through all that hassle. Maybe “overly ambitious” and “hyper-competitive” might be good adjectives. “Egotistical”? How about “psychopathic” or “sociopathic”? Hmmmm. 

The TDG will find people in the middle of the DKE graph who will serve well in governance. Their neighbors and the lower tiers will have found these humble people quite capable for public office. They will have great consultative, collaborative, and consensus-attaining skills. The degree of these skills will determine how much high they go in the TDG. Not needing to play “politics,” these representatives will put their time into “governance.” So there is better and more deliberation of the various issues that face society. 

Medium as an Education Tool

One of the benefits of being a Medium reader is being exposed to new ideas. As I was putting the finishing touches on my third TDG novel, I felt it needed another story arc to improve the overall story. But my imagination just wasn’t finding that arc. Then one Medium article on Eastern philosophy gave me the inspiration the book needed. Then the new arc almost wrote itself. The overall story is better. If I had read 100 articles just to find that one really useful article, the effort was worth it.

In a like manner, I learned about the Dunning-Kruger Effect with a Medium article about a year ago. As I was going through this article, I was fascinated. There have been people in my life who resided around Mount Stupid. There are still people in my life in that place as well. There really is not much sense having a sensible discussion on certain topics—maybe most topics. Their minds are made up and cannot be changed. They don’t want to hear what other people think. They really can’t “smarten up” because they have been socially programmed never to give in.

But to verify my new find, I went to a few internet places with a search of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This trait seems to be well acknowledged. And then a few more DKE articles showed up on my Medium feed. It was an interesting week to learn about this psychology of humanity.

I have to admit that I too was probably closer to Mount Stupid in my younger days. I was a bit of a know-it-all, and extremely confident that I did know it all. As time and life experiences have passed, I’m pretty sure I have drifted toward the middle of the DKE graph. I’m not an expert on anything these days.

But we all should be cautious. Because people on Mount Stupid would insist that they don’t belong there either, we should be wondering about ourselves. We really have to analyze ourselves—whether we are holding too much unearned arrogance. How did we really get our opinions and perspectives?

The next question I have is: “Is the Dunning-Kruger Effect a product of nature or of nurture?” The answer is probably both. Some genetic types might be more prone to falling into Mount Stupid. But since I moved away from Mount Stupid myself, we should say that progress is possible. The more people who do move away from Mount Stupid, the better are society will be.

In my mind, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is showing us the kind of people we should be bringing into politics. I believe that our elected leaders shape our individual value systems to some degree. If we can find political leaders who convey both humbleness and wisdom, this will have a dramatic impact on moving other citizens away from Mount Stupid.

But western democracy can’t create that kind of shift. It is time for a new way.

Published on Medium 2021

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