Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Question Man Questions Our Intellegence

            Errol Morris is one of those guys that has an interest in the most unique of subjects. Take a look at any of his documentaries—Gates of Heaven follows the strange owners of a pet cemetery, The Thin Blue Line is an entire documentary made to prove a random convicted man innocent, and The Fog of War put one of the most controversial figures of US history front and center. Even his documentary on the Abu Grahib scandal was not about the atrocities, but the nature of photography and how they distort reality. Morris asks questions, and a lot of them, because he’s interested in things that most people have no idea about.

            Which brings us to Morris’s latest work: a five part essay in the New York Times on our ability to not know things, or the scary thing that he describes as the “unknown unknowns” (a phrase taken from Donald Rumsfeld, but with admiration instead of the condemnation the press gave him). Morris began by researching Dunning-Kruger Effect, an idea that is so obvious that…well…its stupid. The basic premise is this: the awareness of your intelligence correlates to your actual intelligence, meaning if you are smart, you are aware of what you don’t know (Socrates says in Plato's Apology that true wisdom is admitting one knows nothing. When you are stupid, you are completely unaware that you are actually making unintelligent decisions. As Cornell Professor Dave Dunning puts it in an interview with Morris, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.”

            In the essays—now three parts in (which you can read here, here, and here)—Morris explores different types of anosognosia—a disability in which we are unable to become aware of a specific disability we have—and while it may not be a film, the findings are often funny, strange, and always insightful. 

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