Back in 1995 a man named McArthur Wheeler was quickly arrested after he robbed two banks in Pittsburgh. He’d smeared lemon juice on his face believing it would prevent surveillance cameras from recording his image. An article in today’s New York Times by writer and film maker Errol Morris entitled the Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong But You’ll Never Know What It Is takes a delightful look at what is now known as “The Dunning-Kruger Effect“. The gist of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that people who don’t know what they don’t know are prone to inflated self-assessments. See this link for Professor Dunning’s original paper on the subject.
I’ll quote the abstract of Dunning’s paper in full:
People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.
As they say in a popular TV commercial: “Dogs don’t know its not bacon!”
The direction of Errol Morris’ piece in the Times is that not knowing what you don’t know frames an epistemological opportunity but only if one recognizes the limits of self-knowledge. “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” (Confucius)
One thinks of Wallace Stevens‘ famous concluding line from his poem “The Snow Man: “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” We know who we are and who we are not provided we possess sufficient skepticism about the consolations of sentiment and the errors of consciousness.
All of which is to say that none of this is news to poets. Consider the following short poem by Charles Simic:
When a tree falls in a forest
And there’s no one around
To hear the sound, the owls
Have to do all the thinking.
They think so hard they fall off
Their perch and are eaten by ants
Who, as you already know, all look like
Little Black Riding Hoods.
Or these lines by Anselm Hollo:
wherever there is a hole
in a metaphysical fabric
you are sure to find a
attempting to fill it
but above our residence
on earth the sky
is clear, an
What we do not know is the framing or incitement principle of poetry in the 20th century. Here are some lines by Gunnar Ekelof that I particularly like:
This music is like ankle rings
if nothing is the ankle and nothing the rhythm…