The Delusion of Competence

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Several kinds of behavior fall into a pattern when we see them as examples of the delusion of competence. Political position, fame, celebrity, or supposed prestige feeds one’s delusion of being able to remedy bad conditions and promote good ones.

Authoritative pronouncements about injustices committed long ago suggest competence almost to undo regrettable history and to compensate long-dead victims while imposing the burdenĀ· somewhere, somehow, even though the offenders are long dead also.

Examples include the state of Alabama’s apologizing for slavery, the Catholic Church’s apologizing for disparaging Jews and mistreating Galileo, and resolutions to label mass killings of Armenians during World War I as genocide. (In some European countries, even just denying that genocide, or denying the Holocaust, is a punishable offense.)

At Duke University, 88 and then 87 professors, apparently basking in supposed academic authority, signed letters drawing fashionable conclusions from mere unsupported charges that rape was committed by members of the lacrosse team.

Movie actors and other celebrities give congressional testimony and join public campaigns to promote conventional opinions about climate change or about the harm done to poor workers in poor countries when one buys their products.

Holding hearings and drafting bills lend legislators an air of being able to do something about public concerns like tasteless song lyrics, drug-tainted sports records, drug addiction, abortion, and gay unions.

Politicians and celebrities like to appear knowledgeable about ongoing progress in science and technology, as by advocating computers for young school children, broad- band access for practically everybody energy conservation (as by mileage standards for cars), and subsidies for ethanol and glamorous alternative energy sources.

Some years ago a congressman, having heard that the oceans are full of hydrogen, worked on a bill to promote a hydrogen-based economy until an adviser clued himĀ·in to chemical realities.

U.S. officials have often spoken and sometimes acted as if they were competent to democratize badly governed countries or sensibly to prefer some factions there over others. Foreign policy, like other public issues, must be dealt with somehow; yet the sad record of unintended consequences should be taken to heart.

But let’s not be arrogant: we ordinary persons, not just politicians and celebrities, sometimes suffer delusions in our private lives, not to mention our policy positions.

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