The Boulevard

Who Cares About Complexity and Nuance?

Good and bad, healthy and toxic, clean and dirty, right and wrong. These are the kinds of distinctions the public, pundits, and policy makers can embrace. We too like simple guideposts – when they’re valid. But standing in the way of finding such simple guidance is a lot of complexity and nuance on many difficult subjects. In dealing with that complexity – especially on the subject of obesity – many people lose their patience. This message on our personal facebook account, from someone who does not know us, illustrates it perfectly:

“I heard you don’t know what’s causing obesity. Let me throw you a lifeline. It’s overeating.”

The idea that obesity is a complex, chronic disease with hundreds of contributing factors brings out a blank stare in such people.

The Less You Know, the More You Assume

Back in 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning published studies to demonstrate how ignorance creates a double burden. In common parlance, people don’t know what they don’t know and thus over-estimate their ability to deal with a subject. Matthew Motta and colleagues applied this insight, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, to help explain anti-vaccine beliefs. They found overconfidence in one’s own knowledge about vaccine science closely correlates with a low level of knowledge on the subject – “knowing less, but presuming more.”

Last month, in Science Advances, Nicholas Light and colleagues built upon this knowledge about knowledge gaps. Through a series of five studies across seven critical issues, they showed that people who knew the least but presumed the most about what they knew were most likely to reject the scientific consensus on those issues.

Don’t Confuse Me with Facts!

In truth, these social scientists are more than half a century late with their revelations. In 1945, Roy Durstine captured this idea in Advertising Fortnightly with an article titled “Don’t Confuse Me with Facts!

So it is that people can rationalize anything. No matter how blatantly false. In recent years, we’ve seen this demonstrated repeatedly. No doubt our readers can name endless examples.

Does this make the pursuit of a better understanding of the complexity and nuance of obesity futile? Hardly. Rather, offers us a caution about engaging with folk who insist that obesity is a simple matter and yet have no interest in the facts of that matter.

Click here for the recent paper from Light et al, here for the Motta paper, and here for the Dunning-Kruger paper.

The Boulevard, painting by Gino Severini / WikiArt

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August 21, 2022