The Dunning-Kruger effect in pop-culture commentary
An interesting article by Amanda Ann Klein and Kristen Warner in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Note that they do not specifically mention the Dunning-Kruger effect, but that’s clearly what’s at work.
Academics in the humanities — but particularly those who specialize in film, television, and comics — have come to view the pop-culture thinkpiece with dread. Invariably some new essay on, say, taste and television is published to great fanfare, at least from other writers of pop-culture thinkpieces. They proceed to treat as “new” or “innovative” some idea or trend that we in academe been writing about for years.
Decades of scholarship are erased by a single, viral essay that is presumed to be the first observation of some “new” phenomenon. Mainstream journalists don’t realize that the subjects they’re writing about, the patterns and shifts they’re noting for the first time, likely have numerous journal articles and possibly even full monographs devoted to them.
If it were just a question of crediting the work of scholars, most of us would lick our wounds and slink away. But it’s not just that. What pains us more than the absent citation is the unsupported claim, the anachronistic parallel, the apocryphal anecdote.
In other words, these thinkpieces almost always get it wrong. The writers, like many a college student, simply haven’t done the reading.
In the college classroom, students’ initial evaluation of art is often based (understandably) on ignorance. They misread, misinterpret, and misunderstand because they simply don’t know what they don’t know. For example, the first time students see Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film, Breathless, they often assume his jump cuts are sloppy editing mistakes, rather than a conscious strategy on the part of the director to subvert the polished style of the 1950s French “Cinema of Quality.” In the classroom that is called a “teachable moment.” Mistakes and misunderstandings offer professors platforms for engaging students in productive but also corrective discussions.
The internet is not a classroom — however much we like to think it is. When writers for major news magazines misread, misunderstand, and mistake their objects of study, they are not synonymous with students and that situation is rarely a teachable moment. That’s because readers have been conditioned to expect that their news sources present them with accurate information.
But that is often not the case in the current online publishing landscape where speed, not accuracy, is valued, and clicks are king. The new culture of immediacy — based on anecdotal knowledge, individual experience, and the occasional nod toward what can be found in a quick Google search — is the lifeblood of this cultural moment.
We didn’t write this to knock anyone’s hustle; to the contrary, this essay is a request for reciprocity. We just want mainstream journalists to be aware: The thoughts and ideas that the news media spotlight as “original” aren’t actually all that original. Someone likely wrote something about that idea/era/film/TV show/music before, and it’s up to you to find out what’s been said and assimilate that knowledge with your initial argument. That write-up you’re planning on antiheroes, reality-television history, or the networks’ exploitation of black audiences? It has a scholarly antecedent just waiting to expand your knowledge of the subject.
In a recent article for The Chronicle, Noah Berlatsky offers a spirited defense of ignorance on the internet. Though Berlatsky is himself a dedicated pop-culture scholar, having published a monograph on Wonder Woman with a respected university press, he warns his fellow pop-culture scholars about getting too territorial: “The enshrinement of hard-won expertise — the insistence that value consists in being able to tell right from wrong — is exactly the mind-set that makes work in the humanities so easy to denigrate.”
Instead, Berlatsky asks that we celebrate the fact that there are so many people on the internet excitedly writing about art, whether or not what they are writing is factually or historically sound. “Art’s value isn’t in objective expertise,” he writes, “but in its ability to confound subjectivity and objectivity, to scramble the barriers between how one person thinks, how that other person thinks, and how everybody thinks. In art, a misinterpretation may be wrong, but it is always an opportunity.”
In other words, if you truly love art and want more people to love it too, then it is necessary to welcome critics of all skill levels into the tent. Popular culture is the culture of the populace, after all. Therefore, everyone’s opinions on popular culture have value, right?
Over 40 years ago, the French philosopher Louis Althusser, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, offered one of the best defenses of the humanities. He argued that . . .