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That’s My Theory and I’m Sticking To It!

December 8, 2010

Don’t let the Dunning Kruger Effect cast its shadow over you. If want to be great at something, you have to practice, and then you have to sample the work of people who have been doing it for their whole lives. Compare and contrast and eat some humble pie.” —David McRaney

The internet and blogosphere abounds with folks who are supremely confident in their abilities to accurately assess all sorts of topics with absolutely no formal training in those topics. Ehrlinger,  Johnson,  Banner, Dunning, and Kruger (2008) note that “people hold positive beliefs about their competence to a logically impossible degree.” We all do it; some of us to a greater degree than others. 
Nowhere is this more evident than on blogs, forums, and yahoo or google groups specific to health conditions. Unfortunately, autism-related groups provides ample evidence of folks who have over-inflated their understanding of all sorts of things related to medical issues, treatments, anatomy and physiology, etc. 
One clear example, just today, is Teresa Conrick’s rehash of her theory that eye color changes are indicative of mercury toxicity. Never mind that eye color is dependent on the amount of melanin in the iris and that eyes can indeed change color over time. Never mind that the articles that Conrick refers to are talking about changes in the pigment of the lenses. This is an error that is blindingly easy to see, puns intended. Heck, even a website about chakras and third eyes gets the whole eye color thing right. Anything, absolutely anything, to hold onto a theory that’s been demonstrated repeatedly to be false. It gets tiring, and the buzzing of cognitive dissonance over there must occasionally have them all ducking for cover.
Does pointing out where they’re flat out wrong mean I’m saying I have all the answers? No. I don’t, and being willing to acknowledge there are things (oh so many things!) I don’t know is, I think, integral to keeping me aware that in the grand scheme of things, well, I know so little. While I think one can deride fools (dumbass, anyone?), I don’t think that pointing out errors necessarily has to be done arrogantly, nor that calling someone out for it necessarily rises to arrogance. It is far more arrogant to continue to insist one’s theory is right in the face of overwhelming evidence that one is wrong on basic facts. 
Parents go to sites like AoA and to groups like yahoo’s autism-mercury group, where they read parent after parent so cocksure that they have all the answers. Mothers and fathers dispense medical advice like they have a lock on it: how and when to stick chelating suppositories up their children’s bums, how to hide nicotine patches from teachers and others’ prying eyes, whether cilantro works as a chelator, what cycle to take ALA on, and on and on and on. These parents have declared themselves the experts on recovering their children. 
It’s frightening for several reasons. Yes, it is possible for a person to become well-informed on a subject area, but if that person isn’t checking with experts to make sure his understanding of the basic concepts is right, then  the foundation for all that ‘wisdom’ being dispensed is an illusion. 
There is no substitute for a sound education in the sciences. And it is glaringly obvious when that sound education is missing. Perhaps even more frightening is when that supposed education exists (science teacher over at AoA, anyone?) and yet proof is offered in post after post that the expertise is not there. Wakefield, perhaps, is well-versed as a gastroenterologist (perhaps, although questionable?) and certainly has more education than I do relating to medicine, but it did not and does not make him an authority on autism, and the fact that he built his theories on a house of cards has been clearly revealed to those not wedded in absolute bliss to the idea of him as messiah and deliverer from autism.
Knowing that we have a tendency to overestimate our competence, that we are all privy to making mistakes because of cognitive biases and fallacies, doesn’t that mean we should aspire to being reluctant to speak in absolutes, to question everything, even our own conclusions? To go back and check and then check again? And most importantly, to be open to the possibility that we could be wrong?
In too many bastions of the autism community, there is no sign of this kind of introspection. There’s no hint of humility. There’s the arrogance of ignorance, though, in plenitude. And isn’t that a shame? When we hold onto a theory so absolutely, so totally, that there is no chance of any other theory entering, we are forever locked into position, with no way left to alter course.
I’d like to think that I choose not to fortify myself so that I am locked into course, unable to consider the evidence as it occurs. However, I know that even at my most open, I still am gonna trip up because of those biases and heursitics. Confirmation biases and disconfirmation biases are gonna kick me in the ass. All I can hope is that when they do, after they have, I’ll be able to recognize it’s happened and reconsider. Indeed, David McRaney has the right of it: I must be ready to eat humble pie, no matter how bitter the taste.

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