Why Dunning-Kruger Does Not Explain All Conspiracy Theories

There’s a battle raging in West, both online and in real life. Actually, there are a number of battles raging, but the one I’m talking about here is the battle between the “conspiracy theorists” and the “rational thinkers.”

If you’re think this is an odd topic, you’re right. It’s one I wish I didn’t have to tackle — but it’s one I must.

Since the phrase conspiracy theory itself is often misleading–or trotted out in order to shut down discussion of an otherwise fair question — I’m going to limit my discussion to two conspiracy theories; Anti-vaxxers and Flat Earthers.

Why these two?

Well, since one of them is objectively wrong and the other one does raise legitimate questions. Not only does it raise legitimate questions, but the experts have spent the better part of the past twenty years ignoring those questions, choosing to mock and ridicule rather than to educate.

In order to understand why people believe things that are objectively untrue, we need to first understand the circumstances that led to their decision to believe what they believe.

An article published on The Skeptical OB blog in September of 2016 titled Dunning Kruger nation and the disparagement of expertise, the author makes the predicable claim that “confident idiots” which includes Anti-vaxxers — but might include Flat Earthers as well — suffer from what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

If you don’t know, the Dunning-Kruger effect basically says that…


incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize–just how incompetent they are.


To be clear, I fully believe this conclusion of Dunning and Kruger is accurate. However, the problem is not in the Dunning-Kruger effect itself, but rather in the ways it is often applied.

To illustrate what I mean, consider that it’s probably correct to attribute Dunning-Kruger as an explanation for people believing the Earth is flat.

That the Earth is spherical is a well-established fact dating back to Ancient Greece. Whether or not Pythagoras was the first to assert that our planet was round is open to speculation, but we know that Plato taught the concept. Archimedes offered the first proof and Eratosthenes was the first to calculate the circumference of the Earth (circa 240 BC).

Since we in the West have known since antiquity that the Earth is a sphere, and even an estimate of it’s circumference, to deny this fact today is nearly impossible without the Dunning-Kruger effect as an explanation, but there’s more at play here than you might think.

Anti-vaxxers are different than Flat Earthers.

Vaccines are a relatively new scientific discovery and despite them virtually eliminating many devastating diseases, there are people who refuse to vaccinate their children, or themselves. The common method for discussing the Anti-vaxxers is to simply slap the Dunning-Kruger label on them and move along with the next wave of insults without asking whether or not the Dunning-Kruger effect really explains their objection to vaccines.

While some Anti-vaxxers, particularly the most vocal ones online, may demonstrate elements of the Dunning-Kruger effect I think applying that effect to everyone in the Anti-vaxxer movement is wrong. Most of the people questioning the current state of vaccines do so out of fear, not because they believe they know better than the experts — though they may end up seeing those experts as untrustworthy enemies.

How do people get to the point where experts are no longer trusted?

Going back to the blog post in The Skeptical OB I cited earlier, the author states…


Be wary of anyone who lacks formal education in the topic but nevertheless makes claims about vaccines, childbirth or climate.


When I last checked Noam Chomsky lacks formal education in political science, yet that doesn’t stop him from making claims about politics. Likewise, Richard Dawkins, to the best of my knowledge, lacks any formal education in theology, but that doesn’t stop him from making claims about religion and spirituality. Not having a formal education in a subject does not, and should not, preclude someone from discussing (or even making claims about) a topic. If the Dunning-Kruger effect implies that the only people allowed to make claims about a topic are those with a formal education in said topic, then it is a completely useless construct in a free and open society.

It would seem that Anti-vaxxers concerns and fears are to be ignored and them ridiculed by calling them “confident idiots” rather than addressing their concerns. Some do have concerns about the number of shots given at one time or the possibility of vaccines contributing to autism. Others fear possible mercury poisoning. While others have moral objections to aborted fetal tissue used in the development or production of the vaccines.

Are these concerns worth addressing?

Is it possible for the experts to address these concerns without without being arrogant asses?

The Dunning-Kruger effect can explain why the lowest achievers in society fail to recognize the depths of their ignorance, but it doesn’t explain every conspiracy theory. It doesn’t even explain the two we are considering here.

I’ve already shown that Anti-vaxxers (for the most part) are not really explained by the Dunning-Kruger effect, but what about Flat Earthers?

I readily admit that most are probably suffering the Dunning-Kruger effect — and likely represent the best example in modern society — but this does not mean the effect is responsible for people turning into Flat Earthers.

For Anti-vaxxers, their rejection of vaccines is rooted mostly in fear and moral objections. Flat Earthers reject the accepted — and true — shape of the Earth because they simply don’t trust science or the government.

Give that Most scientists ‘can’t replicate studies by their peers’ and that The U.S. Government really was spying on its citizens it is really a surprise that “just trust me, I’m an expert” or “just trust me, I’m the government” doesn’t work on everyone anymore?


Trust is earned, and once earned trust is violated, it’s ever more difficult to earn that trust again.


The Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t the reason these conspiracy theories exists — and I hesitate to call the Anti-vaxxer movement a conspiracy theory. They exists because people have lost trust in the experts (Flat Earth) or because the experts aren’t sufficiently addressing their concerns (Vaccines).

There’s a lot more to say on the subject of conspiracy theories, so make sure you subscribe to stay in the loop.

And look for my latest book, Stolen History, available 10.31.2017.

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