Social scientists alert: Gather that data!

It’s shameful when valuable data goes unused, especially when that data was produced at great public expense.

UnskilledUnaware.gifIn October of the year 2000, we presented an Ig Nobel Prize to the authors of a study called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments“. Almost exactly a month later, in November 2000, the United States began an experiment ? a very expensive experiment ? that has been running now for seven years.

I’ll tell you briefly about the study, and then I’ll tell you about the ongoing experiment.

The study was done by two psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, at Cornell University [Kruger has since moved to New York University]. They begin their report by telling this story:

In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o’clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. “But I wore the juice,” he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras.

Dunning and Kruger then recount how they tested people on various skills ? mostly logic and grammar. They discovered that people who are incompetent simply don’t recognize that they are incompetent.

Dunning and Kruger did their experiment on college students.

The seven-year experiment I mentioned is on a whole different level.
It’s producing data about high-level government officials.

Throughout the upper strata of the U.S. government, thousands of competent executives and managers have been systematically replaced with incompetent people ? people who have little or no experience, skill or ability at their jobs. (It has been documented in numerous places. If you’re curious, one good place to look is the web site

These managers and executives are hard at work, every day, diligently applying their incompetence. It would be a scientific privilege to interview them ? to observe them closely under what’s known as “naturalistic conditions”. Direct observation is more accurate than second hand accounts.

Psychologists and anthropologists have only a few months left to gather this mother lode of data. Come January 2009, many of these appointees will exit left, pursued metaphorically by bears.

If these observations go unmade, future social scientists will curse their 2008 predecessors for laying abed while so much incompetence was lying in the fields, waiting for harvest.

The data is there, right now, ripening and rotting. Let’s collect it, and study it, and see what we can learn from it. And let’s put it on display. Otherwise, our descendants will dismiss it as just myth and legend.

[NOTE: This first appeared as part of the Nature podcast on March 20, 2008.]