New Atheists and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Phillip Jensen

Are the new Atheists suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect?

In 1999 two psychologists of Cornell University (David Dunning and Justin Kruger) put forward the hypothesis that people of lower competency in an activity tend to overconfidence.   This overconfidence comes from the inability to do a particular task while at the same time recognising their level of incompetence.   On the other hand those with sufficient competence to undertake the task, tend to lack confidence because they are aware of their own deficiencies, especially in comparison with others.    

This observation has moved into popular parlance with any number of illustrations observed.    So, for example, the drunk thinks he can walk along a straight line because he is so busy thinking how to do it that he is no longer able to analyse his inability to do it.  Or again somebody using a mobile phone while driving is so concentrating on both talking on the phone and driving that they do not notice their significant drop in driving competency. 

Coming to a beginners understanding of this field of study, it occurred to me to ask the question: “Are the new Atheists suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect?”   For example, many of the reviews of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, have pointed to his incompetence in the areas in which he writes.   Some of these reviews are not written by Christians or theists defending themselves from his attacks, but by non-Christian professionals embarrassed by his misuse of their academic disciplines.  

Critics from both sides

Writing in the New York Times in 2007, the Roman Catholic journalist Prof. Peter Steinfels noted that the criticisms of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion come not just from the believers but also from atheists and unbelievers.  He pointed to the reviews of such academics as The Oxford literary critic Prof. Terry Eagleton, The Harvard literary critic James Wood, the Rochester evolutionary-biologist Prof. James H Orr and the New York philosopher Prof. Thomas Nagel.  And Steinfels could have added others like the Florida philosopher of biology Prof. Michael Ruse. The chief complaint of these critics of Richard Dawkins is his incompetence in dealing with the subject of God and theology.  

Prof. Dawkins rejoinder to complaints about his lack of serious study of theology is his rhetorical question "Do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?”    This is contrary to the famous Chinese advice on the Art of War: to know your enemies.   Unfortunately for him, those of us with some training in Christianity are left unmoved by his anti-theistic tirade.  We know enough to recognize incompetence and the need for considerably greater humility before the facts.  

Many Christians have written against The God Delusion, but being believers their viewpoint gets little airspace in public media or debate - being discounted with “of course they would disagree”.   Writers, with as much academic credibility as Prof Dawkins, such as the Oxford Professor of Mathematics John Lennox or biologist turned theologian Prof. Alistair McGrath have published helpful criticisms of the new atheism.  Prof. McGrath, who earned doctorates from Oxford University in both biology and Divinity, turned from atheism to Christianity through his ‘discovery of the philosophy of science’ and his investigation of ‘what Christianity really was’.  He has written a helpful little book called The Dawkins Delusion. (SPCK)

Weighing the merits

To discount such writings because of the authors’ bias is as irrational as to discount the atheists’ writings because of their bias.    Each must be weighed on its merits. 

To accept what they say because of their academic credentials is also irrational.   There are moments in time when the little boy in the crowd can see through the academic pretense and declare the emperor naked.  But on that occasion a quick check of the facts brought hilarity on all sides.  It is reasonable to expect that scholars with reputable academic qualifications will write in their area of expertise and be self-aware of the limitations of their knowledge. 

And that brings us back to the Dunning-Kruger effect that the less competent you are the more confident you are likely to be.   To launch out on a world-wide campaign on subjects over which you know little and have researched less – to say nothing of intentionally not studying because you do not believe – is less than acceptable as genuine public debate or academic discussion, to say nothing of failing in the art of war.  

It was Prof. Dawkin’s great hero Charles Darwin who wrote in his introduction to The Descent of Man:''Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.''