On venturing out of your lane
If you write, or, for that matter, if you open your mouth, you will sooner or later risk running afoul of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the all too human tendency to overestimate our knowledge or ability in a given area by failing to realize that there’s way more to it than we think there is. Like the time that Senator Jim Inhofe thought that a snowball disproved global warming.
I offer two methods for protecting yourself, from yourself, Dunning-Kruger-wise:
Method 1. Don’t venture out of your areas of expertise. Even experts in one field bare their ineptitude when they dabble in another. Like nearly every time Richard Dawkins, a brilliant biologist, has commented on any social issue.
Admittedly, that’s not easy, which is why there is also:
Method 2. Increase the odds of knowing what you’re talking about by setting aside your biases as best you can; doing homework; and running your tentative observations and conclusions by people who know more about the topic than you do.
Oh, wait. That’s not easy, either.
But if you ignore those methods, you’re a bloody fool. Worse, you may cause harm.
A few years ago, fed up with the umpteenth white guy complaining that They always “play the race card” (itself a shining Dunning-Kruger manifestation, not to mention a showcase of empathy-lack), I decided to satirize the expression in my Free Inquiry column. Now, if you happen to have seen my mug on this website’s Books, Articles, and More page, you may have observed that I’m an old white guy. In other words, I was venturing out of my lane. Concerned that instead of helping I might betray myself as less woke than I fancied, I ran the piece by a number of African-American friends. The piece landed well — perhaps you can imagine my relief — but they nonetheless offered valuable tweaks. (Here’s the result, called Rules for Playing the Race Card.)
Flush with that success, I decided to write about transgenderism. I had only one trans friend at the time, so I ran a draft by her. She said she couldn’t figure out what the heck I was trying to say. It was clear that I didn’t really understand the issues after all. Hell, I didn’t even have the terminology down. I appreciated her feedback and deleted the piece. Maybe I’ll try again after I have learned more. Maybe.
Nearly every chapter took me out of my lane in my new book, Behind the Mormon Curtain: Selling Sex in America’s Holy City. I know Mormon history, practices, and beliefs well, but for everything else I interviewed people who know more than I: Salt Lake-area sex workers (female and male), massage therapists, sexual service clients, law enforcement officers, attorneys, and mental health professionals. I was particularly concerned about the chapter on Asian massage parlors — in no way did I want to contribute to anti-Asian sentiment or promote Asian stereotypes — so I ran it by female Asian friends. Again I was relieved when it landed well, but my friends nonetheless provided valuable tweaks, saving me from myself.
The best way to hide ignorance is not to hide it, but to wipe it out by seeking out and replacing it with solid information. Trouble is, it’s difficult to know when you’re un- or misinformed. Good luck to us all.
Stale coffee, anyone?
Welcome to Cunoblog
... where I share thoughts about writing. I don’t consider myself a writing authority, but that doesn’t keep me from presuming to blog like one. Oh, and I reserve the right to digress when I feel like it.