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The Dunning-Kruger Effect (I used to know everything!)

I have a confession. I used to know everything about nutrition. I was an expert. See, I was a chubby kid—not obese—but carrying enough extra weight where I was teased and picked last for teams in gym class.

The summer before ninth grade I lost weight and although my weight yo-yoed over the years, I never lost my fascination with nutrition. I devoured every article on nutrition, read books, had subscriptions to every health magazine, and jumped on every trend or fad that happened along.

I listened to so-called experts and parroted their words. My ‘education’ made me super smart knowing more than the average person, always willing to pipe up with the latest I learned—whether welcome or not. I became the go-to person for all thing’s nutrition.

The Resident Expert

If it were today, I’d be on forums or Facebook feeds, being the know it all, saying things like:

  • You’re still doing the gluten-free thing? That’s so last year. Have you tried the FODMAP diet? That’s what you should do.
  • Are you drinking that Diet Coke? Oh you better not. Artificial sweeteners are horrible.
  • What, you’re not doing a cleanse every week? Ohmygosh…all those toxins hanging out in your body? Hmmm, not good.
  • I’m learning about intermittent fasting and will let you know what I discover.

Yes, that was me. I was the resident expert.

I Wanted to Know the Truth

Then things changed. I heard conflicting information about food and nutrition. A topic back in the day was the margarine/butter debate. One moment I read what one supposed expert said—that makes sense I thought.

The next day another expert contradicted what I learned. But it made sense too. It was confusing. The ping-ponging back and forth. Dang, can’t you make up your mind? Who was right? I needed to learn more.

I wanted to know the truth.

In a life-changing phone call with my mom in October 1993, I had an epiphany. Although I performed well in my business and sales career, I wanted a change. We were discussing my career options when Mom said, “Sweetie if you want to do something different, you’ll have to go back to school.”

“If I went back to school, I’d study nutrition.”

Bam! Confused by everything, not knowing who or what to believe, I thought it logical to go back to school and find the answers myself.

Back to School

The next thing I knew I was looking at universities. Exercise and sports nutrition interested me and right up the road was Texas Woman’s University. Dr. Betty Alford was available to help me and we discussed the master’s program.

At the time, the book Lean Bodies had my attention. I was following Cliff Sheats guidelines with diligence. The book made sense to me and page by page I got smarter and smarter (or so I thought).

During our meeting, Dr. Alford explained the course load my first semester—chemistry, anatomy and physiology, microbiology, and introductory nutrition. She spoke of the intro to nutrition class I’d take and what I’d learn.

“Take for example this new book, that popular Lean Bodies.” My ears perked up and I got excited—that was the one I was reading. She paused and said, “I think of the metabolism of protein.” 

(I saw that day what I thought was the coolest thing. She was thinking about the metabolism of protein. The process of digestion, absorption, and transport in the body. I was in awe. Wow. I want to do that someday. And I do, now. I teach my students that every semester.)

Dr. Alford contemplated—that look someone has when she’s thinking. Her next words though felt like I got sucker punched, “It doesn’t make sense.” The wind was knocked out of me.

No, what do you mean I thought? It makes total sense to me! I needed to know more but part of me didn’t want to. What did she know and what would I learn?

I was a Victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Spring 1994. My first semester of school in ten years. Excited and confident that I’d breeze thru the classes—not the science but nutrition for sure. Hmmm, could I test out of the intro class? Ha.

Although I didn’t know it then, I know it now. I was a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Never heard of it? Neither had I until I read this. What I learned was I was so confident with my knowledge not because I was smart about nutrition, but because I was ignorant.

When I got to school and studied, I started thinking back to all the people I needed to apologize to. When I thought I was so smart it was because I didn’t know any better.

dunning kruger

Albert Einstein stated, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Yes! To continue—I’m not sure if this was Einstein but, “The more I don’t know, the more I want to learn.”

True experts tend to think they are less knowledgeable than they are. They are not, but it’s like Dara O’Briain speculated, “Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise it’d stop.” He goes on to say, “But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.”

I see the old me everywhere—on social media and in the classes I teach. The first few weeks of the semester, there is often someone confident like I was, echoing what she thinks she knows.

What can you do if you suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Have an open mind and never stop learning.

Make certain you get information from trusted sources grounded in science. Nutrition is confusing. I get it. Read my two-part post Making Sense of Nutrition News.

What are you confused about and how can I help?

-Neily


Want to learn more about the Dunning-Kruger effect?


Image credits: pixabay.com and neilyonnutrition.com

Jennifer Neily, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist | Wellcoach® Certified Health Coach
NeilyonNutrition.com
@JenniferNeily Twitter
@NeilyonNutrition Instagram
linktr.ee/neilyonnutrition

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