Stupid people are confident, while the intelligent are doubtful

That is how an introduction to a transcript from a radio program begins on the Australian network, ABC. On the program The Science Show, they explored the conclusions reached by David Dunning and Justin Kruger when they studied people’s perceptions of their own talents. Now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, it helps explain why moderately skilled people act as experts, and inept politicians get our votes.

We’ll touch on how this relates to wildland fire in a moment, but first here are some excerpts from the radio show transcript.

…And here’s the kicker; across every test, the students at the bottom end of the bell curve held inflated opinions of their own talents, hugely inflated. In one test of logical reasoning, the lowest quartile of students estimated that their skills would put them above more than 60% of their peers when in fact they had beaten out just 12%. To put that misjudgement in perspective, it’s like guessing that this piece of music [music for 5 seconds] lasted nearly half a minute.

Even more surprisingly, the Dunning-Kruger effect leads high achievers to doubt themselves, because on the other end of the bell curve the talented students consistently underestimated their performance. Again to the test of logic; those topping the class felt that they were only just beating out three-quarters of their classmates, whereas in reality they had out-performed almost 90% of them.

The verdict was in; idiots get confident while the smart get modest, an idea that was around long before Dunning and Kruger’s day. Bertrand Russell once said, ‘In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’ From his essay ‘The Triumph of Stupidity’, published in 1933.

Charles Darwin once said, ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge,’ and Dunning and Kruger seem to have proven this point. In light of this, it suddenly becomes clear why public debate can be so excruciating. Debates on climate change, the age of the Earth or intelligent design are perfect real-life examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It beautifully explains the utter confidence of those who, with no expertise, remain stubborn in their views regardless of overwhelming evidence. It makes you want to shake them by the collar and scream about how stupid they are. But evidence shows that’s not the best strategy.

Have you ever been on a fire and met a Squad Boss, Crew Boss, or Division Supervisor who you knew was not the sharpest tool in the cache, but who was supremely confident in their abilities? They might be the person who just can’t understand why their supervisors have not recognized their huge potential and wonder why they have not been promoted every year.

In some cases, this person may be ineffective but benign. Their screw-ups may be inconvenient or costly but not life-threatening. But if someone on a fire, with power and authority, over-estimates their skill and ability, the consequences can be disastrous.

Some people don’t know what they don’t know. They have no idea or self-awareness about the holes in their knowledge and experience. You may know of a politician or two that can be described this way coughsarahpalincough.

I can think of several fatality and near-miss incidents on wildfires where this was, in my humble opinion, the primary cause of the accident. But it is not politically correct for the writers of the accident reports to spell it out so clearly. One report that came close is the one about last August’s escaped prescribed fire in Yosemite National Park where the the writers used the term “hubris”.

How do we avoid the trap of over-confident people making poor decisions on fires?

  • The first step is to be sure that firefighters can proficiently perform the jobs that appear on their red cards.
  • Next, be sure that everyone receives an honest performance rating on every fire, at least a verbal one, and preferably a written one for significant fires or assignments.
  • Conduct After Action Reviews at the end of shifts or fires.
  • And, if you are given an assignment that does not make sense, or causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, say something.
  • If an individual does this to you repeatedly, have a chat with their supervisor or the Safety Officer. Filing a SAFENET form that does not list names may not be effective.


BLM may ban fireworks in Colorado

In a surprising announcement, the Bureau of Land Management is proposing to ban all fireworks on the 8.3 million acres of land it manages in Colorado. The surprising part is that they have been allowing fireworks at all. Current BLM rules in the state only prohibit fireworks in developed campgrounds and on a seasonal basis when there is high fire danger.

If the new policy is adopted, it will bring the BLM rules in line with other land management agencies in the state.

The public can comment on the proposal until August 9. Wildfire Today’s comment: yes, ban fireworks. Geeze. You had to ask?

Fire truck stolen from British Columbia community

East Gate fire truckSomeone stole a fire truck from British Columbia’s East Gate Fire Protection Society over the weekend. The truck is one of two the community has and the other one is too large to negotiate some of the narrow, steep roads in the area.

The truck is a white 1997 Ford F-350 with a flat bed, a 500-gallon plastic tank, and aluminum equipment bins.

Anyone with information about the stolen truck should call Princeton RCMP at 250-295-6911. The vehicle’s licence plate number is 4060JF, and the truck’s cab reads East Gate Fire Department.

Winner of photo caption contest announced

Wildfire Today is pleased to announce that Judy Van Aswegen  has won the photo caption contest. Judy’s caption was:

When the cooler box and refreshments failed to materialize, Dave began to suspect he had misread the memo.

The photo WITH the winning caption is below.

firefighters in canoes
When the cooler box and refreshments failed to materialize, Dave began to suspect he had misread the memo. Caption: Judy. Photo: Peter Willis, State of Minnesota

Judy is a software developer in the Vancouver area and has marketed Firebreak Equipment’s Blackline Burner in North America. She has been a reader of Wildfire Today since we started in January, 2008.

The response to the contest was overwhelming. We received 57 comments with captions, and some of them had multiple entries. Many of them were great, and it was very difficult choose a winner. Thanks to everyone who participated, we really appreciate it.

Here are some Honorable Mention entries:

Todd says:
Boy Scout troop attempts to fulfill their wildland firefighting and canoe skills merit badges in a single day.

moenkopi says:
Portage to Portage? I thought it was Portal to Portal.

Leann Briggle says:
So boss, really, how are we going to identify where to put that wet line?

sage says:
I must have missed the day they taught this in 130, 190.

Brian says:
Nomex shirt $95, aluminum canoe, $699, commuting to a fire in the BWCAW, priceless.

Dick Mangan says:
Taking the WCT in Minnesota: paddle/portage a 45 pound canoe for 3 nautical miles in under 45 minutes.

Jeff says:
With the recent rise in Forest Service health benefit costs, American firefighters flee to Canada by any means possible.

Tim Walton says:
“There were a hell of a lot things they didn’t tell me when I signed on with this outfit”

Jeff says:
Joe always made fun of firefighters who wore goggles on their hardhats until he realized that if he just had a set of goggles and a snorkel he would have one hell of a story when he got home.

The story of the photo:

We heard from Peter Willis, the photographer, and I asked him about the story behind the photo:

The fire was the Cavity Lake fire [July 14, 2006]- one of the big fires that happened in the blowdown area in the BWCAW [Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness]. Yes the firefighters were heading to the smoke across the lake. They were then to cut line across to another lake to contain the north end of the fire.

If I remember right there were around 200 canoes leased to get fire fighters in to the fire. Some canoes were flown deeper in to the fire by tying them to the floats of the beavers the FS has. This crew was spiked on some islands across the short portage I was standing on. They then canoed to work every day. On this fire as on many of the fires I have been on in the BWCAW in addition to the standard ground support unit they also have a boat support unit.

I was the COML [Communications Unit Leader] on a Type 2 team for this fire (It was right about the time a Type 1 team took over so I left shortly afterwards). I had just done a reclone for this crew before they headed across the water.

Happy birthday Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park turns 100 today, May 11. In honor of the occasion the park held a Rededication Ceremony this morning. I just talked with Dave Soleim, the Fire Management Officer and an old buddy of mine, and he is serving as the Planning Section Chief for the Centennial activities in the park. There are seven live web cams in the park, including one that showed today’s ceremony.

The park was created during the infamous year of the Big Burn, 1910, during which huge fires raged across portions of Montana, Idaho, and Washington. This year western Montana is dry, and NICC has projected that the area will have “increasing to above normal fire potential” mid-July through August.

Glacier NP fire crew
Glacier NP firefighters

According to the Park’s web site, the fire staff consists of 16 people, including:

  • 1 Fire Management Officer,
  • 1 Fire Operations Specialist,
  • 1 Fire Ecologist,
  • 1 Prescribed Fire Specialist,
  • 1 Fire Program Assistant,
  • 1 Lead Fire Effects Monitor,
  • 1 Cache Manager,
  • 4 lookouts,
  • 3 engine crew personnel and
  • 2 fire effects monitors

The fire season of 2003 was a busy one for Glacier National Park. Several pages on their site are devoted to photos and videos of those fires.

Robert fire
Robert fire. A Burnout was conducted near the Fish Creek Campground and near Kelly Camp in an effort to reduce fuel sources from the advancing Robert Fire. This was taken across Lake McDonald.