As part of a series on anosognosia (which was also one of the themes of Mike Rowe’s TED Talk), the NYTimes’ Opinionator has a new post on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, briefly stated as:

Dunning wondered whether it was possible to measure one’s self-assessed level of competence against something a little more objective — say, actual competence.  Within weeks, he and his graduate student, Justin Kruger, had organized a program of research.  Their paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” was published in 1999.

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.

Ignorance is sometimes a known unknown; we know that we don’t know something. Incompetence, however, can mask our ignorance, making it an unknown unknown. As Morris writes,

Unknown unknown solutions haunt the mediocre without their knowledge. The average detective does not realize the clues he or she neglects.  The mediocre doctor is not aware of the diagnostic possibilities or treatments never considered.  The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is out there.  People fail to reach their potential as professionals, lovers, parents and people simply because they are not aware of the possible.  This is one of the reasons I often urge my student advisees to find out who the smart professors are, and to get themselves in front of those professors so they can see what smart looks like.

Indeed, as shown by a psychology paper published last month, lawyers are so incompetent they not only miss winning legal arguments, they can’t reliably predict how their cases will end:

[L]awyers aren’t so good at evaluating those odds, according to a new paper published in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. That’s because they’re biased in favor of their own chances; they think they’re going to win, and often they’re wrong. The study surveyed nearly 500 lawyers and had them predict the outcome of an active case and then compared those predictions with what actually happened. From the paper:

Lawyers frequently made substantial judgmental errors, showing a proclivity to overoptimism. The most biased estimates were expressed with very high initial confidence: In these instances, lawyers were extremely overconfident.

But, surely, more experienced lawyers have a better sense of who’s going to win, right? Nope. In fact, "the data provided no support for the hypothesis that lawyers with more practical experience are better calibrated than lawyers with less experience." So much for the Matlock Effect.

I like Morris’ explanation of the phenomenon:

I found myself still puzzled by the unknown unknowns.  Finally, I came up with an explanation.  Using the expressions “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” is just a fancy — even pretentious — way of talking about questions and answers.  A “known unknown” is a known question with an unknown answer.  I can ask the question: what is the melting point of beryllium?  I may not know the answer, but I can look it up.  I can do some research.  It may even be a question which no one knows the answer to.  With an “unknown unknown,” I don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer those questions.

But there is the deeper question.  And I believe that Dunning and Kruger’s work speaks to this.  Is an “unknown unknown” beyond anything I can imagine?  Or am I confusing the “unknown unknowns” with the “unknowable unknowns?”  Are we constituted in such a way that there are things we cannot know?  Perhaps because we cannot even frame the questions we need to ask?

But he can’t claim credit for the concept; framing questions the right way was what made Newton and Einstein great

It’s enough to make you wonder why we hire lawyers at all if everyone, lawyers included, is so incompetent they don’t even know it.

Truth is, trial lawyers’ inability to predict the outcome of their cases is a known unknown. While it’s quaint to see their failures as prognosticators spelled out with empirical data, lawyers know it’s foolish to confidently predict the outcome of a case. (That doesn’t stop some of them from doing it, and thereafter watching their clients cases go down in flames.) That’s why clients have to wrestle predications out of them, and even then only get them with dozens of caveats.

There are just too many unknown unknowns in litigation and trial, which is, ironically, why you hire lawyers and in the first place: to grapple with the unknown. Most litigation is done blind: even with liberal discovery rules permitting lengthy depositions and extensive forensic investigation of documents and electronically-stored information, lawyers still can’t be sure how a claim or defense will be proven until they actually see it. They can’t even be sure they investigated the right witnesses, asked the right questions, and requested the right documents. The main point of hiring them is to have them reduce as many "known unknowns" to "knowns" as possible, and to be prepared for the "unknown unknowns."

How do they do that? As Socrates wrote (and as Morris quoted), that “the only true wisdom is to know that you know nothing.”