Why Nonscientists Think They Know More than Scientists

As a cosmetic chemist you will no doubt run into people (either in person or on the Internet) who hold strong opinions about beauty products, chemicals, and product safety.  They will be quick to tell you about the products that work and the ones that are a complete waste.  They also seem to know exactly which chemicals are causing all sorts of health horrors from cancer to birth defects.  You might even run into someone who writes books about the subject despite the fact that they hold no particular background in the subject.

This has always puzzled me.

Why would someone who has no background in cosmetic science or toxicology develop strong beliefs that are in contrast to what researchers and scientists who study the subject say?

Dunning-Kruger effect

It turns out, there is an explanation.  It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.  This is a psychological condition in which a person who is unskilled in an area believes themselves to have above-average intelligence in that area.  It’s thought that this is a result of the person’s inability to recognize their own mistakes.

Conversely, people who actually have a competence in an area tend to underestimate their knowledge and confidence in that area.  This is why scientists typically couch their words in terms of probabilities and possibilities.  They never say, “Use of this chemical is absolutely safe.”  Rather, they would say something like, “There is no evidence that this chemical will cause harm.”

Unfortunately, recognizing your own shortcomings is difficult so even if you are competent in one area, you might suffer from this same effect in another.  There are some things you can do to avoid it such as remaining skeptical of your own expertise and getting advice from trusted friends.

Here’s a pretty good article which discusses the Dunning-Kruger effect further.

What to do?

While there are things you can do to prevent this effect in yourself, you might become frustrated when you run into a person who is afflicted by the condition without knowing it.  If you are on Twitter, Facebook or read beauty blogs you will run into a lot of people like this.  Here are some ways that I try to deal with it.

1.  Avoid criticism.  Calling people names or telling them they are ignorant is not an effective way to help them see the light.

2.  Never tell someone they are wrong.  They may be wrong but if you tell them they are, you will not change their mind.  You will just make them mad and most likely increase their conviction in their erroneous belief.

3.  Offer your opinion when asked.  Rather than telling people what is right or wrong, offer your own opinion in as humble a manner as you can.

4.  Ask questions.  The number one way to debate/dialogue with a person suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect is to ask them questions.  If you can get someone to examine why they believe something, you might be able to crack their confidence.  For example, when someone writes that Parabens cause cancer and shouldn’t be included in cosmetics, I ask them what preservative they think is safer?  I’ve never received a good answer to this.

Non scientists can often hold very strong opinions that you know are probably incorrect.  I realize it is frustrating but as a scientist it is your responsibility to communicate what you know as the truth.  I know it’s not easy but if it were, everyone would be doing it.



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