John Cleese on How “Stupid People Have No Idea How Stupid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dunning-Kruger Effect)

I often say that, if you want to vastly overestimate your own capabilities, you need only do one of two things: (a) get coked out of your mind, or (b) get behind the wheel of a car. But what if the problem runs deeper in humanity than that? Indeed, what if our inability to perceive our own incompetence exactly matches the degree of the incompetence itself? Now, none of us can do everything well, but we’ve all met people who, even well outside of the contexts of drugs or driving, simply cannot grasp the full extent of how much they can’t do well. “The problem with people like this is that they are so stupid,” explains Monty Python’s John Cleese in the clip above, “they have no idea how stupid they are.”

“In order to know how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place,” Cleese elaborates, “which means — and this is terribly funny — that if you are absolutely no good at something at all, then you lack exactly the skills you need to know that you are absolutely no good at it.” With that, he gives us an extremely brief introduction to the Dunning–Kruger effect, “a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate” owing to “a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude” (and, by the same token, of “highly skilled individuals to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others”).

The effect takes its name from Cornell University researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning, the latter of whom Cleese, who has spent time at Cornell as a long-term visiting professor (where he has, among other projects, taken part in a talk about creativity, group dynamics and celebrity), counts as a friend. He originally invoked Dunning and Kruger’s “wonderful bit of research” in the video “John Cleese Considers Your Futile Comments,” where he talks back to YouTube commenters on Monty Python videos — in this case, those who mentioned the names of certain political commentators beneath the 1970 sketch “Upperclass Twit of the Year.” “This explains not just Hollywood,” Cleese concludes, “but almost the entirety of Fox News.”

Those of you interested in both cognitive phenomena and conservative American political figures will surely have seen Gates of Heaven and A Brief History of Time documentarian Errol Morris’ most recent film The Unknown Known, a long-form conversation with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In the years before its release, Morris wrote a five-part series for the New York Times called “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma,” fueled not just by his fascination with Rumsfeld but with his near-obsession over the Dunning-Kruger effect. In it, he actually interviews Dunning himself, who summarizes the issue thus: “We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.”

Dunning even brings up the subject of Rumsfeld first, specifically about his speech on “unknown unknowns” that gave Morris’ movie its title. It goes something like this: ‘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.’ He got a lot of grief for that. And I thought, ‘That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.'” When Morris followed up, Dunning added that “the notion of unknown unknowns really does resonate with me, and perhaps the idea would resonate with other people if they knew that it originally came from the world of design and engineering rather than Rumsfeld.” Or maybe they could associate it with the Ministry of Silly Walks instead.

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via Laughing Squid

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Download 140 Free Philosophy Courses: Develop Critical Thinking Skills & Live the Examined Life


What is “Philosophy”? Yes, we know, the word comes from the Greek philosophia, which means “the love of wisdom.” This rote etymological definition does little, I think, to enhance our understanding of the subject, though it may describe the motivation of many a student. Like certain diseases, maybe philosophy is a spectrum, a collection of loosely related behaviors. Maybe a better question would be, “what are all the symptoms of this thing we call philosophy?” The medical metaphor is timely. We live in an age when the discipline of philosophy, like many of the humanities, gets treated like a pathology, in universities and in the wider culture. See, for example, popular articles on whether science has rendered philosophy (and religion) obsolete. There seems to be an underlying assumption in our society that philosophy is something to be eradicated, like smallpox.

Perhaps this sort of thing is just an empty provocation; after all, many logical positivists of the early 20th century also claimed to have invalidated large areas of philosophical inquiry by banishing every unclear concept to the dustbin. And yet, philosophy persists, infecting us with its relentless drive to define, inquire, critique, systematize, problematize, and deconstruct.

And of course, in a less technical sense, philosophy infects us with the drive to wonder. Without its tools, I maintain, we would not only lack the basis for understanding the world we live in, but we would also lack important means of imagining, and creating, a better one. If this sounds grandiose, wait till you encounter the thought of Plato, Spinoza, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and jazz-futurist Sun Ra—all unaccustomed to thinking small and staying in their lane.

Some philosophers are more circumspect, some more precise, some more literary and imaginative, some more practical and technologically inclined. Like I said, many symptoms, one disease.

We at Open Culture have compiled a list of 140 free philosophy courses from as much of the wide spectrum as we could, spanning such diverse ways of thinking as University of Chicago’s Leo Strauss on Aristotle’s Ethics (Free Online Audio) and Plato’s Laws (Free Online Audio), to Columbia University Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman (Uma’s dad) on “The Central Philosophy of Tibet” (Free Online Audio). We have specific courses on Medical Ethics, taught by Notre Dame’s David Solomon (Free Online Audio) and the University of New Orlean’s Frank Schalow (Free iTunes Audio). We have hugely general courses like “The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps,” from King’s College’s Peter Adamson (Free Course in Multiple Formats). We have philosophy courses on death, love, religion, film, law, the self, the ancients and the moderns…. See what I mean about the spectrum?

Perhaps philosophy incurs resentment because it roams at large and won’t be packaged into neatly salable—or jailable—units. Perhaps its amorphous nature, its tolerance of uncertainty and doubt, makes some kinds of people uncomfortable. Or perhaps some think it’s too abstruse and difficult to make sense of, or to matter. Not so! Visit our list of 140 philosophy courses and you will surely find a point of entry somewhere. One class will lead to another, and another, and before you know it, you’ll be asking questions all the time, of everything, and thinking rigorously and critically about the answers, and… well, by then it may be too late for a cure.

Looking for a good place to start? Try Oxford’s Critical Reasoning for Beginners

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Great Minds Answer the Question “What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?” in a New Film

At the start of 2014, posed its annual question to 176 scientific minds: “What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?” The question (as we noted in January) came prefaced by this thought:

Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?

As is its custom, Edge initially gathered and published the responses (in text format) from thinkers like Steven Pinker, Kevin KellySherry TurkleRobert Sapolsky, and Daniel Dennett. Now, as the sun sets on 2014, filmmaker Jesse Dylan has created a four-minute film based on the project, featuring some of the same figures mentioned above. Watch it up top.

In a few short weeks, we’ll bring you the Edge question of 2015.

via io9

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Why You Do Your Best Thinking In The Shower: Creativity & the “Incubation Period”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

“The great Tao fades away.”

So begins one translation of the Tao Te Ching’s 18th Chapter. The sentence captures the frustration that comes with a lost epiphany. Whether it’s a profound realization when you just wake up, or moment of clarity in the shower, by the time your mind’s gears start turning and you grope for pen and paper, the enlightenment has evaporated, replaced by muddle-headed, fumbling “what was that, again?”

“Intelligence comes forth. There is great deception.”

The sudden flashes of insight we have in states of meditative distraction—showering, pulling weeds in the garden, driving home from work—often elude our conscious mind precisely because they require its disengagement. When we’re too actively engaged in conscious thought—exercising our intelligence, so to speak—our creativity and inspiration suffer. “The great Tao fades away.”

The intuitive revelations we have while showering or performing other mindless tasks are what psychologists call “incubation.” As Mental Floss describes the phenomenon: “Since these routines don’t require much thought, you flip to autopilot. This frees up your unconscious to work on something else. Your mind goes wandering, leaving your brain to quietly play a no-holds-barred game of free association.”

Are we always doomed to lose the thread when we get self-conscious about what we’re doing? Not at all. In fact, some researchers, like Allen Braun and Siyuan Liu, have observed incubation at work in very creatively engaged individuals, like freestyle rappers. Theirs is a skill that must be honed and practiced exhaustively, but one that nonetheless relies on extemporaneous inspiration.

Renowned neuroscientist Alice Flaherty theorizes that the key biological ingredient in incubation is dopamine, the neurotransmitter released when we’re relaxed and comfortable. “People vary in terms of their level of creative drive,” writes Flaherty, “according to the activity of the dopamine pathways of the limbic system.” More relaxation, more dopamine. More dopamine, more creativity.

Other researchers, like Ut Na Sio and Thomas C. Ormerod at Lancaster University, have undertaken analysis of a more qualitative kind—of “anecdotal reports of the intellectual discovery processes of individuals hailed as geniuses.” Here we might think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose poem “Kublai Khan”—“a vision in a dream”—he supposedly composed in the midst of a spontaneous revelation (or an opium haze)—before that annoying “person from Porlock” broke the spell.

Sio and Ormerod survey the literature of “incubation periods,” hoping to “allow us to make use of them effectively to promote creativity in areas such as individual problem solving, classroom learning, and work environments.” Their dense research suggests that we can exercise some degree of control over incubation, building unconscious work into our routines. But why is this necessary?

Psychologist John Kounios of Drexel University offers a straightforward explanation of the unconscious processes he refers to as “the default mode network.” Nick Stockton in Wired sums up Kounios’ theory:

Our brains typically catalog things by their context: Windows are parts of buildings, and the stars belong in the night sky. Ideas will always mingle to some degree, but when we’re focused on a specific task our thinking tends to be linear.

The task of showering—or bathing, in the case of Archimedes (above)—gives the mind a break, lets it mix things up and make the odd, random juxtapositions that are the essential basis of creativity. I’m tempted to think Wallace Stevens spent a good deal of time in the shower. Or maybe, like Stockton, he kept a “Poop Journal” (exactly what it sounds like).

Famous examples aside, what all of this research suggests is that peak creativity happens when we’re pleasantly absent-minded. Or, as psychologist Allen Braun writes, “We think what we see is a relaxation of ‘executive functions’ to allow more natural de-focused attention and uncensored processes to occur that might be the hallmark of creativity.”

None of this means that you’ll always be able to capture those brilliant ideas before they fade away. There’s no foolproof method involved in making use of creative distraction. But as Leo Widrich writes at Buffer, there are some tricks that may help. To increase your creative output and maximize the insights in incubation periods, he recommends that you:

  1. “Keep a notebook with you at all times, even in the shower.” (Widrich points us toward a waterproof notepad for that purpose.)
  1. “Plan disengagement and distraction.” Widrich calls this “the outer-inner technique.” John Cleese articulates another version of planned inspiration.
  1. “Overwhelm your brain: Make the task really hard.” This seems counterintuitive—the opposite of relaxation. But as Widrich explains, when you strain your brain with really difficult problems, others seem much easier by comparison.

It may seem like a lot of work getting your mind to relax, produce more dopamine, and get weird, circular, and inspired. But the work lies in making effective use of what’s already happening in your unconscious mind. Rather than groping blindly for that flash of brilliance you just had a moment ago, you can learn, writes Mental Floss, to “mind your mindless tasks.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Play Chess Against the Ghost of Marcel Duchamp: A Free Online Chess Game

Earlier this year, Colin Marshall told you how “Chess has obsessed many of humanity’s finest minds over centuries and centuries and Marcel Duchamp seems to have shown little resistance to its intellectual and aesthetic pull.” His passion for the game (which he describes above) led him to design a now iconic Art Deco chess set, to print an array of chess tournament posters, and to become a pretty adept chess player himself, eventually earning the title of “grand master” as a result. In a pretty neat project, Scott Kildall has looked back at records of Duchamp’s chess matches and created a computer program that lets you play against a “Duchampian ghost.” Just click here, and then click on the chess piece you want to move. It will turn green, and then you can move it with your trackpad/mouse. Enjoy.

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If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

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Hear Elementary-School Musicians Perform 43 Songs by Sun Ra (1994)

If you heard Sun Ra’s Christmas-day radio broadcast of poetry and music we featured on, well, Christmas day, perhaps it inspired you to create something — music, poetry, radio — yourself. More than twenty years after his death, the flamboyant jazz visionary continues to inspire all kinds of creative acts on the part of his listeners. Surely he played no small part in motivating the production of Big Music, Little Musicians, an album by the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders of music teacher Randy Porter’s classes at Chabot, Montclair, and Thornhill elementary schools in Oakland, California. The album offers not just 43 (!) compositions by these elementary schoolers, but, 42 tracks in, their interpretation of Sun Ra’s “Planet Earth” (in its original form the opening cut from 1966’s Sun Ra and His Solar Arkestra Visits Planet Earth):

You can hear the entirety of this out-of-print 1994 release (incidentally, the year after Sun Ra took his leave of planet Earth) at Ubuweb. “With as little as a couple months of experience under their belts,” say the notes there, the ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-old students “are encouraged to improvise and compose and this disc documents it.” And admittedly, “while some may cringe at some of the technical problems young, inexperienced players are bound to have, the creativity exhibited is undeniable. It is also refreshing to hear such unabashed, egoless joy as we have here. Many a seasoned player could stand to give this a listen.” It puts me in the mind of not just the grade-schoolers who sang David Bowie’s Space Oddity but the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an amateur orchestra at the Portsmouth School of Art that compensated for each member’s shaky grasp of their instrument (including, at one point, none other than Brian Eno’s on the clarinet) with its sheer size and the famousness of its selections.

Just above, you can hear a few original cuts of intriguingly named big music from these little musicians: “Ghost Train,” “Tom Foolery,” and “Help! I’m Drowning in a Sea of Harmony.” Seeing as these kids would be the same age as me today, it would certainly interest me to hear how they’ve turned out; such an early and strong dose of Sun Ra certainly couldn’t make one’s life less interesting.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Home Movies of Duke Ellington Playing Baseball (And How Baseball Coined the Word “Jazz”)

“When they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.” — Gerald Early talking to Ken Burns.

In this clip unearthed by the Smithsonian earlier this year, we find two great American traditions intertwined — baseball and jazz. As John Edward Hasse explains in his online essay, jazz and baseball grew up together. According to some, the first documented use of the word “jazz” came from a 1913 newspaper article where a reporter, writing about the San Francisco Seals minor league team, said “The poor old Seals have lost their ‘jazz’ and don’t know where to find it.” “It’s a fact … that the ‘jazz,’ the pepper, the old life, has been either lost or stolen, and that the San Francisco club of today is made up of jazzless Seals.” Or, if you listen to this public radio report, another use of the word can be traced back to 1912. That’s when a washed-up pitcher named Ben Henderson claimed that he had invented a new pitch — the “jazz ball.”


During the Swing Era, jazz musicians often took a keen interest in baseball. Writes Ryan Whirty in Offbeat, Louis Armstrong’s “passion for America’s pastime was so intense that, in the early ’30s, he owned his own team, the Secret Nine, in his hometown of New Orleans, even decking the players out in the finest, whitest uniforms ever seen on the sandlots of the Big Easy.” (See them in the photo above.) And then other band leaders like Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington formed baseball teams with members of their groups.

Above, you can watch Ellington playing ball in some home videos, both hitting and pitching. When the Duke was a kid, he imagined himself becoming a professional baseball player one day. But the youngster eventually got hit in the head with a bat during a game, and that’s where his baseball career ended. He later noted, “The mark is still there, but I soon got over it. With that, however, my mother decided I should take piano lessons.”

Note: The Duke Ellington Center writes on Youtube that “The appearance of Ben Webster at the end of the clip times the video to around 1940-41.”

via The Smithsonian and That Eric Alper

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Is There an Afterlife? Christopher Hitchens Speculates in an Animated Video

Ten months before his death — a death he knew was coming — Christopher Hitchens debated the question, “Is there an afterlife?”.  Sharing the stage with Sam Harris, and Rabbis David Wolpe and Bradley Shavit Artson at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hitchens lamented how “It’s considered perfectly normal in this society to approach dying people who you don’t know, but who are unbelievers, and say, ‘Now are you gonna change your mind [about the existence of God]?’ That is considered almost a polite question.” “It’s a religious falsification that people like myself scream for a priest at the end. Most of us go to our end with dignity.”

After spending years as an unapologetic atheist, Hitchens also wasn’t going to start believing in an afterlife  — or what he half jokingly called “The Never Ending Party.” The video above takes some of Hitchens comments from the debate and turns them into a whimsical animation. It’s classic Hitchens. Equal parts emphatic and funny.  Below, you can watch the original debate in its entirety.

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