The Astonishingly Funny Story of Mr. McArthur Wheeler

By Anupum Pant

In a wonderful paper titled “Unskilled and Unaware of it“, two social psychologists from Cornell University, Justin Kruger and David Dunning share an incredibly funny story of Mr. McArthur Wheeler. Although it is funny, the story actually beautifully demonstrates an excellent concept – a kind of cognitive bias (discussed later in the post). Here is the story:

The Story of Mr. McArthur Wheeler

On one fine morning in Pittsburgh (PA), in the year 1995, a man aged 44, known by the name McArthur Wheeler decided to rob a bank. Since he thought he knew a lot about a peculiar chemical property of lemon juice, he decided to smear the juice on his face before executing his plan to rob the bank.
His logic – As lemon juice can be used to write invisible letters that become visible only when the letter is held close to a heat source, he thought, the same thing would work on his face too. By smearing lemon juice all over his face, he thought that his face would become invisible to the security cameras at the bank. He did not just think that, he was pretty confident about this. He even checked his “trick” by taking a selfie with a polaroid camera. I’m not sure if the film was defective, or the camera wasn’t operated properly, but the camera did give him a blank image. The blank image made him absolutely sure that this trick would work. Or he would not have ever dared to rob a bank with lemon juice on his face.

That day, he went on and robbed not one, but two saving banks in Pittsburgh. A few hours after he had done his job, the police got their hands on the surveillance tape and decided to play it on the 11 O’Clock news. An hour later, an informant identified McArthur in the news video and contacted the police with the man’s name. McArthur got arrested on the same day. Ironically, the same surveillance cameras that he was confident would not be able to capture his face, got him behind the bars. During his interaction with the police, he was incredulous on how his ignorance had failed him.

The Dunning and Kruger effect

Both the psychologists Dunning and Kruger got story of Mr. McArthur. They decided to study it more deeply. The psychologists were interested to study about the utter confidence of Wheeler that made him believe he’d be able to foil the security cameras with lemon juice on his face. He had the confidence, but he clearly wasn’t competent enough…Why was he so sure he’d succeed?

Their study finally demonstrated that the less competent an individual is at a specific task, the more likely they are to inflate their self-appraised competence in relationship to that task. This phenomenon is today known as the Dunning–Kruger effect.

As Charles Darwin rightly said:

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

Dunning Kruger effect McArthur Wheeler
At zero experience in the x axis it’s not “no nothing”. It’s *Know nothing (There’s a spelling mistake in the image) – ‘On Finch’ mentioned this in comments below.

Indian Idol contestants and the Dunning Kruger Effect

This effect is clearly observed during the auditions of reality shows like Indian idol (etc). The auditions are usually thronged by a variety of good and bad singers. The ones who are bad at it, never realize their incompetence and yet are genuinely disappointed when they get rejected. Often times, they resort to noisy quarrels too.

If you’ve observed carefully, people who aren’t very good at humour or sarcasm often tell poor jokes and expect people around them to laugh hard. But when people don’t laugh, they seem genuinely shocked. It is incredible to see them totally unaware of how bad they are at it.

At every place, it is a common tendency of the least skilled people to have an inflated sense of self-competency.

Ignorance sure is a dangerous thing.

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Is There a Scientific Explanation for Everything?

By Anupum Pant

Today we have Dr. Eben Alexander III, an American Neurosurgeon and the author of a number one New York Times bestseller, in the house. Well, not really, but let us imagine he is here with us.

Background: Dr. Eben Alexander has been a member of the American Medical Association, a neurosurgeon and has taught at the Harvard school of medical sciences. He has spent a lot of time among scientists believing that there is always a scientific explanation for everything. But, one day, he experienced something that defied all scientific explanation. Turns out, there isn’t a scientific explanation for everything. Later he went on to write a number one New York Times bestselling book – Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.

Like logical open-minded Possibilians, let us read the book first, to start arguing against it. I haven’t read it yet. So, for now, I’ll stick to writing about just what I’ve learnt about it, rather than formulating theories against it.

The story: In the year 2008, Eben was affected by a severe case of bacterial Meningitis and fell into a coma for 6 days. His Neocortex showed no signs of activity. When he got cured miraculously (with just 2% survival chance) and returned from coma, he had experienced something out of this world. According to him, during the coma, he had experienced a vivid journey into the afterlife – kind of a near death experience.

The experience: When he fell into coma, he found himself in a dark and suffocating place for a very long time. Later a spinning bright light with a beautiful melody came in slowly and “rescued” him out of this agony. It took him to a fertile green land. Some points that he makes about this mysterious land:

  1. There was no need for a spoken word to communicate there. Every communication was telepathic.
  2. The instant you asked questions, you knew the detailed answers for those questions. (Something similar to the experience of Zen)
  3. The experience was more real than real-life. In comparison, real-life seemed like an illusion.

You can watch a 42 minute long interview here for further details. [Video] I’d also suggest reading: Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind

Possibilianism

Although we’ve progressed a lot in science and technology in the past 400 years, there is a much more science doesn’t explain than there are things it can.

For instance, to make our equations sound right, we assume there is something out there we can’t touch, feel or sense in any way; we choose to call it dark matter. The most incredible thing – 90% of our universe is dark matter (and dark energy). That is too much to sweep under the rug. And we know nothing about it.

In the words of David Eagleman – “Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion.”

Or in the words of Carl Sagan – “An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.”