Self Confidence and Competence

Noel Burch’s famous model of skill development has four stages.

1. Unconscious incompetence: where you don’t know what you’re doing, and you can’t place your lack of ability in context. You may think you are competent, or you may think the skill is not that hard, or you may undervalue the skill or the effort needed to acquire it.

2. Conscious incompetence: as you begin to acquire a skill, you realise how vast a world you are entering. You can see how far you have to go, and can recognize your deficiencies.

3. Conscious competence: your skill has improved to the point where you can perform well, but only with a great deal of effort and concentration. You marshal everything you’ve learned into demonstrating your skill.

4. Unconscious competence: the skill is so honed and practised, that it can be performed without single-minded effort. It can still be practised with concentration, but a high level of skill is available at a purely intuitive level.

There are various other models that reflect similar processes: the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, and the Japanese Shuhari model, for example.

A lot of the struggle I have discussing evolution with creationists is getting them to realise they are at step one. Creationist propaganda is full of subtexts that evolutionary biology is easy enough for everyone to understand, that it is obviously nonsense, that its refutations are clear and easily available, that any committed Christian should be able to give an account of its problems, and so on. In short, the subtext aims to reinforce the unconscious incompetence of its readers.

The challenge for people with some understanding, is to bring folks through to at least stage two. To understand just how complex, detailed, specific and interconnected the subject is. And help them to understand that their lack of understanding is why they are making basic mistakes. Many (the vast majority, in my experience) refuse to accept their incompetence, and such cannot move to stage 2 or beyond.

I wonder if this is reinforced by our modern western education. Which seems to reinforce self-confidence in us. It tells us we can do anything we put our mind to. Any artwork is great, and story gets praise, a modicum of effort gets a big well done (possibly because, just getting someone to do anything can sometimes be a big achievement, we don’t want to put people off by telling them what they did was at best mediocre). Failure isn’t politically correct. And apprenticeship and commitment aren’t stressed. At least, these were features of my education.

Our default assumption for any skill or area of knowledge should be 2. And our default assumption should be that it is going to take a long time to get to 3.

We pay lip-service to being in 2, but I think often we don’t believe it. We think we get to stage 3 pretty easily (a bit of Wikipedia research, and a few other websites). And that speed is a dead-certain indication we’re still in stage 1.

I wonder how to help people move from stage 1 to 2. Particularly in areas they are predisposed to be antagonistic towards. Any ideas?


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23 responses to “Self Confidence and Competence

  1. A lot of the struggle I have discussing evolution with creationists is getting them to realise they are at step one.

    Indeed. Many of them seem to be convinced that they are already at step four, while they seem to believe that the actual scientists are only at step one.

  2. If I had a choice, I’d rather be live eternity in #1 than in #2. If I had a choice. 🙂

  3. Ya know John, when people point out typos or grammar confusion on my site, I usually say thank you and correct it. Your mental space is pervasive.

  4. oooops, laugh, see, #2. That comment was meant for another site.
    How wonderfully ironic

  5. Many of my piano pupils know my maxim: practice makes mediocre.

  6. Ian

    @rob – love that. Not heard that before.

    @sabio – its a good question, would I prefer to be blissfully ignorant or painfully aware. I’ve learned that when I’m blissfully ignorant I am almost always an insufferable jerk to others, so on reflection, I think I’d rather minimise my jerk coefficient.

    @neil – thanks for the comment. I agree, I’ve had several conversations where folks have acknowledged the process, but claimed they had already gone through it, and that the so-called experts were the ones who were really deluded. It takes a special kind of arrogance to get there!

  7. pete smith

    That is most useful developmental thinking as it takes account of changing environmental conditioning. It enables science through a reasoned philosophy that takes account of situation.
    I think that you can only validate them by telling them they are right. After all fiction has equal value to fact – its just a case of appropriate use. Once they own their knowledge you can encourage them to use it. Provide conditions for them that test their knowledge. so…tell creationists that they are right and they will be able to evolve

  8. Matthew Fuller

    Hey, new guy here. Frankly, a non-christian but very interested in eschatology outside the domain of religion.

    I was reading some of your commentary on Richard Carrier and Bayes theorem. I land somewhere in the middle of that debate, basically not strongly persudaded either way.

    My question: Does Christianity or the concept of the trinity help us find out way to the bathroom? Or more generally, why is Christianity necessary to know the world? God doesn’t teach us basic info about survival, so why expect the diety will help us with epistemological issues? And yet inter-theological debates on the Christian side of the leger (a la William Lane Craig) precede as if without Jesus, we wouldn’t know our right hand from out left.

    In short, the bible writers were super wise, but they were no deity, nor is it apparent the deity communicates to us through any book that I have read.

  9. Ian

    Pete – I’ve still no idea what you are talking about. I don’t mean that nastily – I just mean I have no clue how to respond.

    Matthew – Thanks for posting, and welcome to the blog! In my opinion Christianity or any other set of religious stories, insulates itself from those questions by claiming some deeper and more profound knowledge of the world. So by claiming that deeper reality, which only knowledge of God unlocks, one can claim that a person without that knowledge is mentally deficient. There are things we simply can’t understand. And it is no wonder we don’t recognize the deity in the bible, because we are fundamentally blind. In the same way someone who was deaf could not appreciate the beauty of Beethoven’s music*. So WLC might say you can find your way to the bathroom, but without his deeper truth, why bother? Why not just crap in your pants? Or just kill yourself? Or go and become a commis chef on a cruise liner? Without the basic knowledge of real reality, the kinds of ‘knowledge’ you suggest are nothing more than dry straw in the wind: literally pointless.

    But ultimately that game is cheap to play. We can all do it. Christians are blind to the real reality, so can’t see the really really deep truth beneath the deep truth they say is beneath the normal everyday truth. And so on. It is a silly game. But on that many apologists (and many otherwise reasonable scholars, such as Jim West) play all the time.

    * intentional.

  10. I first read about this sort of thinking in “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. Wonderful stuff. I think I hover around #2 most of my life. Save for being a jerk, I think I’m up to #4 there. One day though…

    “…I think I’d rather minimise my jerk coefficient”
    -LOVE this phrase. Totally stealing this… which would be #3 right? 😉

  11. pete smith

    Hey no worries, I am a situationist. Far be it from me to argue with theocratic institution. Evolution is unarguable. You seem like a creationist in your vehemence to scientific ideology. Perhaps you get paid ? Maybe I,ll be proved wrong by an ascending scientific culture that ignores reality but is not diminished by it. I,ll keep an eye out for that along with the flying pigs.
    Draw in the strength of supremecy through your nostrils…
    I will not darken your door or trespass more nor make rhyme like a cheap dark whore

  12. Ian

    Like I said, I wasn’t trying to be unduly negative. I’ve just no idea how to find enough common ground to talk to you constructively. I’m quite happy to believe it is a lack of intelligence on my part, but I simply can’t figure out whether you’re talking total nonsense or whether you’re smarter than I’ll ever be, and not very good at explaining things to your intellectual juniors.

  13. Ian

    @Luke – that is an interested counter, isn’t it. Though I think about the really good ideas I’ve had: they have come very quickly, almost perfectly formed, but they’ve only ever come in fields I already knew a lot about. I’ve never had a blink moment of inspiration about macroeconomic theory. I’ve had all kinds of I-can-rule-the-world brainwaves about how to fix the world’s economic woes, but I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them. Which given they are abstract, is not very far.

  14. Matthew Fuller

    Ian, that is a very good reply.

    I always wondered what theology would look like if a deity offered knowledge of the natural world, like explanations of natural phenomena, as is fitting of any intelligent designer. It is so strange. Not the obscure mystery of a being of infinite (or at least unimaginable) power and wisdom, but the contrast between what society and science has achieved, and what little theology has achieved. It’s like they take great pride in doing nothing. Not that they actually do nothing. But the fact that they have not set science on a course at all and that is normal, even good…its weird. Why speak of purpose if you cannot connect it to this world, right here?

    Anyway, I am a recovering atheist trying to see if there is anything of value to theism — such as purpose. But I don’t see it yet.

    I want a deity that transcends nature by actually understanding it. I don’t see any god(s) like that though.

    Also, so sorry for the late reply. I think there might be something of substance to be learned here.

  15. Ian, you wrote, “I’ve learned that when I’m blissfully ignorant I am almost always an insufferable jerk to others …”
    But if you mainly surround yourself with other blissfully ignorant folks, you would not be a jerk to them and continue happy. So blissful ignorance is a great option if you can fairly effectively isolate your jerk-potential. Maybe that is why surgeons love associating with fellow surgeons — their own “jerkiness” is not as obvious to themselves — they feel normal.

  16. Ian

    Good point, thanks. The tendency to surround ourselves with an echo-chamber is definitely strong, and important to resist, I think!

  17. arcseconds

    There might be something to the praise-of-the-special-snowflake thing, which many of us outside the USA see particularly exemplified in the USA (although of course it can be seen elsewhere too).

    But it can’t be the whole story. Asian cultures tend to emphasize more or less the opposite qualities (importance of teams and communities and participation in them, deference to authority, less stress on originality, etc. ) but they’re hardly without their cults and fundamentalists and intransigent beliefs unsupportable by empirical science (and these aren’t all traditional such beliefs, either). Sometimes they’re even young earth creationists.

    (I should be a little careful here and note that to a great extent this isn’t just Asian societies. It isn’t West and East, it’s the West and everyone else. But Asian societies make for a good comparison.)

  18. arcseconds

    What I’m inclined to blame is:

    firstly, Enlightenment values. The idea that you’re supposed to use your own reason to decide matters, and not trust communities or tradition or authority.

    I think this is actually a big problem for us these days, particularly as it’s become intertwined with other things that promote individualism (including special snowflake praise, yes). It’s a big problem because in many ways of course Enlightenment values are great and have led to all manner of good things, but if you spend all your time telling people to trust in their own judgement and don’t trust authority, then you can’t really complain if they end up using their judgement to decide science is teh suck and not to be trusted.

    (on the other hand, science and technology in our society has certainly in some ways become an impositional, alienating authority, which works cybernetic robo-gripper in glove with other such authorities, so I do have some sympathy for people like Jeff’s fears and grips about it. It’s just that it’s an impositional, alienating authority which tends to get things right about the natural world.)

    So I’m not sure about the way out of this one. I think we’ve got things majorly out of balance here, and experts, especially communities of experts, and maybe communities in general need to be given greater respect. Emphasizing apprenticeship and commitment sounds like a great idea — even if this isn’t what you do, it needs to be respected in others.

    On the other hand, we probably need to work harder to include people in our structures, and try to be tolerant of diverse voices. Here I think the insistence that some atheists have that anyone who hasn’t signed up to the big atheist street-party is clearly a stupid-head is completely unhelpful, just as a trivial example of where a part of scientific culture (sorta kinda: such people are often extremely enthusiastic about science, but what they know about it sometimes leaves something to be desired) is clearly alienating and pretty dictatorial to the rest of us.

    Basically, all of society is pretty wrong, and I don’t have any particularly great ideas of how to fix it 🙂

  19. arcseconds

    Secondly, and here my ideas are a bit more structured, there’s a big problem with the way we teach science.

    The problem is that we don’t really teach science.

    That is to say, we don’t teach science enough as a discipline. We teach it as a doctrine to be believed. In particular, we don’t spend enough time teaching the philosophy and history of science, and when we do, we don’t do it at all well.

    One problem is that we have a tendency to present this material (and I’m not just thinking of school curricula here, but also of TV shows, etc.) as a story of ‘great men’ who stood up to the authorities or the received view and showed them what-for.

    Is it really surprising then that YECs think they are doing science when they stand up to the authorities and the received view and think they’re showing them what-for?

    (This of course ties in tightly with points I was making in the last two posts. )

    That’s not to say there isn’t some truth to this. I’m quite happy to accord Newton and Einstein the accolade of ‘genius’ without embarrassment. But it’s incredibly one-sided. Science is far more of a community enterprise than it is an exercise in individual virtuosity.

    The other problem is, I think, we focus far too much on critical experiments. Again, it’s not as if there haven’t been critical experiments, but they are far less important in science than they’re often portrayed as.

    Given that we tend to teach the history of science in terms of theories being overthrown by one critical experiment, again it’s not surprising that YECs think they can overthrow the standard evolutionary picture with just one anomaly.

  20. arcseconds

    Philosophy of science is difficult to do well, I feel, especially at a highschool or in popular material. And without a good grounding in actual science, it could backfire. But history of science shouldn’t be so hard. Careful explanation of what was found convincing, and why, could do a lot, I think.

    Sorry, I’ve gone on rather a bit here, and there’s really way more than two points, but hopefully y’all find some of it of interest.

  21. Ian

    I find it all interesting. Though I only mostly agree. So here’s the bits I don’t agree – take it in the context of agreeing with the rest.

    I don’t think enlightenment ‘don’t trust authority’ is to blame, because the issue seems to me to be a lack of comprehension of the size or depth or complexity of a field. At least some fields. You’d be hard-pressed to find an average joe who, after reading one book, feels confident enough to carry out brain surgery. Because we have a gestalt for how big and complex that can be and how wrong it can go. But for some reason folks with little more knowledge of biology or physics can claim they know all they need to to make correct judgements. So it isn’t so much that I think folks should fall down before the authority of experts, but I think that they should understand their ignorance.

    And science education. I think part of the problem is that science is taught with an understandable emphasis on the *results* of science. In science you find out that the valence of Carbon is 4, that PV=k, and that germ cells undergo meiosis. But these are all results. If you’re going to be a scientist you need to know both the methods and the results, because when you get as far as using the methods, you’ll need enough results to built on. But for everyone else, they’re never going to use Boyle’s Law, let alone need to remember the meiotic sequence. So what is important is empiricism, critical thinking and an understanding of how deep these fields are. As you say, this touches philosophy of science. But is somehow overlapping too. Again, I have no well developed answers.

  22. arcseconds

    Right, I thoroughly agree with your last paragraph. I think that’s one area where the direction to go is obvious — a reform of the science curriculum. It needn’t be a wholesale reform: you could just make sure that every year you have a module or two about general scientific methodology, and at some point you teach a critical thinking class.

    It’s fairly easy to see how you could get some of this happening at a tertiary level. Just have a history and philosophy of science paper a required subject for science degrees. Some places already do this, and an alma mater of mine was considering it but apparently it fell through.

    As for your reservations about my ‘don’t trust authority’ point, obviously I’m not promoting this as the sole factor.

    Your brain surgery example seems to speak just as much against your claim that it’s overconfidence as it does to my claim that it’s thinking that it’s fine to come to your own conclusions. If either of those claims is correct, it’s trumped by the evident complexity and high-stakes outcome of the task.

    Well, for those people who are impressed by the complexity of brain surgery, that is. I agree that this is most people, even those who think they know better than the scientific community in another area, but it isn’t everyone! Plenty of people think modern medicine is to a greater or lesser extent a crock of shit, and I’m pretty sure it’s possible to find people who think brain surgeons are essentially charlatans, and brain conditions (or rather, the symptoms that you and I would associate with brain conditions) are better treated by willpower, prayer, or sour-cherry extract.

    I suppose you might say diagnosing and treating the condition is not the surgery itself, but if you don’t think the skill really does anything, the fact you can’t do it won’t strike you as being an important factor. I’m sure casting a horoscope can be pretty involved and I wouldn’t have any idea how to do one if you just asked me to, but that doesn’t mean I’m filled with awe at the people who can.

    I think what the brain surgery indicates is how it is your theories can be pulled up short by encountering reality. For most people this is quite evident with brain surgery, but how the theory of evolution encounters reality is not at all evident to many.

  23. Ian

    All good points, particularly the one about brain surgery undermining my claim. Thanks.

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