Published: Sunday November 23, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday November 23, 2014 MYT 6:51:43 AM

The molehill of stupidity

You know him. The one that sticks to his point of view even in the face of contradictory facts. The one who stands alone on his molehill of stupidity, cutting through arguments with the razor-sharp logic of a blunt hatchet.

IN Malaysian coffeeshop talk, it is common to hear how, with only a cursory knowledge of the facts, one can produce the obviously correct solution to whatever the current hot topic is. If that isn’t the solution being implemented, it is then presented as proof of how inept or corrupt the current implementers are.

In this highly connected and information-rich world, the phrase “I don’t know” is rapidly being replaced by “I’ll Google it”. The Internet provides answers at the speed of light, but for more complicated topics, it brings a deluge of facts and opinions. It takes time to sift the 1s from the nulls.

The thing is, when you first learn about something, you think “Oh, that’s how it works”. And when you read up about it more, you say, “Oh dear, that’s how it really works”. Learning is not a gradual ascent, but a series of peaks where you make the occasional breakthrough. And sometimes, you may have to backtrack on your assumptions to make real progress.

This revelation that things are not as simple as they seem is in the nature of how we learn. We cannot see the gaps in our knowledge and understanding, when it is precisely that missing knowledge that will give us the insight. It’s related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, when individuals who have only a little skill do not realise how much they don’t know.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger’s work (published in 1999 in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology; was partly inspired by the story of a robber in the United States who was confident he wouldn’t get caught because he was wearing lemon juice on his face – his logic was that he knew that lemon juice could be used as “invisible ink”.

What the research showed was that when people are given tests to take, and then asked to estimate how well they did compared with the rest of the class, many will overestimate their abilities. Furthermore, the shortfall between how well they actually did and how well they thought they did was largest for those that scored the lowest. When you don’t know a lot, you also don’t realise how far behind you are.

On top of that, when those that performed poorly were given a chance to examine the answers given by the others, they failed to recognise that their own answers were wrong. If they took another test after that, they still performed poorly and – most glaringly – still thought they did much better than many of the others. They couldn’t see that it was their answers that were wrong, not the other test-takers’.

This is the phenomena seen every day in the mamak shops and kopitiams when we froth about the issues of the day over our teh tariks. We imagine we are learned counsels arguing a case, but we are less lawyers, more lawyer buroks.

And how often have you seen somebody stick to his point of view even when presented with numerous contradicting facts? The one who stands alone on his molehill of stupidity, cutting through arguments with the razor-sharp logic of a blunt hatchet.

One topic hotly debated currently is the Court of Appeal’s decision to declare that section 66 of the Syariah Criminal Enactment for Negri Sembilan is void because it is inconsistent with several articles of the Federal Constitution. (Section 66 is the law that states, “Any male person who, in any public place, wears a woman’s attire or poses as a woman shall be guilty of an offence”.)

As expected, this judgment has been controversial. Immediately, people came out to either condemn the decision or to celebrate it.

One letter to the Bernama news agency said “Apa yang merisaukan saya ialah alasan-alasan yang diberi untuk mengisytihar Seksyen 66 itu bercanggah dengan Perlembagaan Persekutuan. Mereka mengabaikan peruntukan Perlembagaan Persekutuan yang mengiktiraf kesalahan terhadap suruhan agama Islam.” (“What worries me are the reasons given in declaring Section 66 inconsistent with the Federal Constitution. They ignore provisions in the Federal Constitution that recognise crimes against the teachings of Islam.”)

In contrast, a column appeared in this paper earlier this week saying, “It is not enough for public authorities, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to have noble intentions... They must also stay within the substantive limits of their powers and observe all procedural requirements.”

The critic who wrote to Bernama was none other than former Chief Justice of Malaysia Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamad ( The columnist was Prof Shad Saleem Faruqi, a recognised expert on Malaysian constitutional law, writing in his column, Reflecting On The Law (At the crossroads, Nov 13, The Star;

Even these two learned men cannot see eye to eye on this issue. Perhaps it’s because the case is complicated, and there is no easy answer.

Among these giants, where does the man at the coffeeshop stand? Perhaps he still rages, unaware his position is not immutable. Or he may calm down, come down off his perch, and accept there is much to learn.

Whatever the case, the impact of his decision will fade as his tea cools down. Where I am concerned is the stand taken by those who believe that they must do their job as a leader. Those who will choose a side, not on the merits of the argument, but on how well it aligns with their advertised beliefs. Those that debate with such conviction that they can persuade a crowd they are right, turning them against those who are indubitably wrong.

For what do we know about people who are so confident that their answers are always right?

Without doubt, this debate is another step forward in moulding our nation’s future. The kind of country we want depends on where we, as citizens, want to move it. But I hope that we are guided by sound principles and open debate in our search of the truth and not by the blustery polemic of those looking to raise a storm.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s contradictions.

Tags / Keywords: Column, Contradictheory, Dzof Azmi, Shad Faruqi, Dunning Kruger effect, overconfidence

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A Nepalese transgender putting on makeup before a beauty pageant in Kathmandu. When even learned men cannot see eye to eye on complex issues like cross-dressing, as demonstrated by the controversy over the recent ruling on cross-dressing, people need to acknowledge that the case is complicated, and that there is no easy answer. – File pic

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