Monthly Archives: June 2010

Jun 30

What I Wish David Petraeus Said

By kevin | Random Walk

Opening Statement
General David H. Petraeus
Confirmation Hearing: Commander, ISAF/US Forces–Afghanistan
29 June 2010

Mr. Chairman, Senator McCain, Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. And thank you for the rapid scheduling of this hearing.

I am, needless to say, humbled and honored to have been nominated by the President to command the International Security Assistance Force and US Forces in Afghanistan, and to have the opportunity, if confirmed, to continue to serve our nation, the NATO Alliance, our non-NATO Coalition partners, and Afghanistan in these new capacities.

[Yesterday I had a completely different job and I’m still stunned that we’re even having this conversation, but that’s the way these things go.]

At the outset, I want to echo your salute to the extraordinary service of Senator Robert Byrd. With his death, America clearly has lost a great patriot.

[I can already hear people sharpening their knives.]

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Jun 21

It’s the Unknown Unknowns that Really Get You

By kevin | Decision Making

A wonderful article/interview in the New York Times with David Dunning, one of the rock stars of decision-making . . . you get to be called that, at least by me, if you have an entire principle named after you (Dunning-Kruger Effect).  Donald Rumsfeld said it best but we were too stunned to hear him . . .

“There are things we know we know about terrorism.  There are things we know we don’t know.  And there are things that are unknown unknowns.  We don’t know that we don’t know.”

Here’s a snip from the interview.  Well worth reading the entire thing.  Apparently there are four more parts to come.

Dunning and Kruger argued in their paper, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.  Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.”

It became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect — our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.  But just how prevalent is this effect?  In search of more details, I called David Dunning at his offices at Cornell:

DAVID DUNNING: Well, my specialty is decision-making.  How well do people make the decisions they have to make in life?  And I became very interested in judgments about the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true.  And I became fascinated with that.  Not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them.  Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.

ERROL MORRIS: Why not?

DAVID DUNNING: If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute.  The decision I just made does not make much sense.  I had better go and get some independent advice.”   But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.  In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer.  And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas.  And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.

ERROL MORRIS: Many other areas?

DAVID DUNNING: If you look at our 1999 article, we measured skills where we had the right answers.  Grammar, logic.  And our test-subjects were all college students doing college student-type things.  Presumably, they also should know whether or not they’re getting the right answers.  And yet, we had these students who were doing badly in grammar, who didn’t know they were doing badly in grammar.  We believed that they should know they were doing badly, and when they didn’t, that really surprised us.

ERROL MORRIS: The students that were unaware they were doing badly — in what sense?  Were they truly oblivious? Were they self-deceived?  Were they in denial?  How would you describe it?

DAVID DUNNING: There have been many psychological studies that tell us what we see and what we hear is shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires and so forth.  We literally see the world the way we want to see it.  But the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that there is a problem beyond that.  Even if you are just the most honest, impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem — namely, when your knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don’t know it.  Left to your own devices, you just don’t know it.   We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.