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The Shallow End of the Screen Pool

July 31, 2019

Following up a bit on my thoughts about writer’s block from yesterday, an interesting notion occurred to me as I was writing it.

There’s this phenomenon in psychology called the Dunning-Kruger effect. This video goes into detail as to how it was observed and greater detail about it, but in essence the Dunning-Kruger effect is when one lacks competence in a given area, to the extent that he even lacks the level of competence that would be necessary to recognize his own lack of competence.

Too incompetent to know you’re incompetent, in other words.

This is not, it should be noted, the same as “too stupid to know you’re stupid.” Stupidity and incompetence are not the same. I fancy myself a fairly non-stupid fellow, but I would be a hopeless incompetent were I to attempt, say, glass-blowing. But the important point is that I know I would be incompetent, I have enough of an understanding of glass-blowing to know that it is out of my realm of understanding in any meaningful sense. I know what I don’t know.

But we’ve all seen the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. The video editor who talks about how great he is and barely knows how to work an NLE…the “handyman” acquaintaince who thinks he can fix your dryer better than the Maytag man, despite having never done so before…M. Night Shyamalan…they lack the competence not only to do the job, but also to understand even at the basic level that they’re doing anything wrong, let alone what it is.

Example I ran into many times myself — in the heyday of the Panasonic DVX100, I can’t tell you how many DV Rebels grabbed that bad boy, went out, shot with it, and cut it all together, and didn’t have the first clue what 3:2 pulldown was or why they got weird artifacting when they watched it anywhere but their TV screens.

I’m not going to get into it here, because it’s besides the point — suffice it to say that I would have to explain to technical details about how televisions display their images, how it differs from film, and how these technical details can be leveraged to convert a 24-frame-per-second film to a 30-frame-per-second video. I would have to explain this before it was possible to actually understand what 3:2 pulldown is, how it’s used, and what to do with it. That is, in its way, a small version of lacking the competence to comprehend a lack of competence.

That’s only part of the story, though. As opposed to simply being ignorant of information, the Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a paradoxical overconfidence as a result of said ignorance. Because you don’t know that there’s something you don’t know, you assume you know everything there is to know. Unaware you’re unaware.

As Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

It’s perhaps serendipitous that Darwin made such a statement. Recently, I’ve been re-reading Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which has got me seeing everything through the lens of evolutionary pressures. In a system involving reproduction, strategies that work will flourish, and those that don’t will diminish and die off.

Seriously, I’m going somewhere with this.

I think writer’s block is a mélange of laziness and fear, specifically fear of failure. If you never write anything down, you can’t write the wrong thing. That perfect idea in your head will never be sullied by your shortcomings as a wordsmith.

But, as screenwriter Terry Rossio is credited with saying, “My lousy way of getting it done is better than your great way of not doing it.”

Now, I happen to think Mr. Rossio himself to be quite a bit better than lousy (some of his credited work notwithstanding), but he makes a good point here.

I may not, in principle, be able to run faster than you; but if you don’t run at all, I’ll win every race against you. And I may write a shitty script, but it’s better than the script you didn’t write by the mere fact of its existence.

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