March 23 2017
The Dunning-Kruger effect is defined as a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority. In other words, it’s when dumb as rocks folks think they’re brilliant.
We all know people who suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect: spin instructors, mommy bloggers, anti-vaccination zealots, essential oil peddlers, people who shop at Whole Foods. Nearly every Hollywood actress suffers from the condition. Alicia Silverstone—of Clueless fame—wrote a book, Kind Mama, in which she doles out medical advice. Just last week, another actress, Hayden Panettiere, made headlines (and a spectacle of herself) by tweeting out a conspiracy theory about the contrails made by the water vapor trailing behind jet planes:
Fran Drescher—best known for her role as an annoying nanny on television—often lectures the world about plant biology, despite lacking any sort of education or background in the subject.
And of course, there’s movie actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who is well known for her complete lack of humility when it comes to areas of study she’s not actually, you know, studied, but causally observes and practices like hobbies—such as nutrition, fashion, dermatology, gynecology, plant biology and now, marine biology.
People magazine reports:
The goop founder revealed on Sunday that she considers octopus “too smart to be food.” The topic came up when Paltrow and her staff were trading restaurant recommendations in their L.A. office Slack group. One goop staffer suggested ordering the barbecue octopus from Cliff’s Edge in Silver Lake, sparking Paltrow’s “tangent.”
“They have more neurons in their brains than we do. I had to stop eating them because I was so freaked out by it,” she said in a series of screenshots shared on goop‘s Instagram account. “They can escape from sea world and s— by unscrewing drains and going out to sea. #tangent.”
Indeed, there is a popular YouTube video (now up to 11 million views; thanks Gwyn), showing an octopus escaping his jelly jar by unscrewing the lid. It’s cool and fun to watch and I’ll be showing it to my three kids tonight. But should we base our food decisions on a YouTube video or the idea that animals have some, yet obviously not human-level, cognitive abilities?
Beyond the silly YouTube video, Paltrow has indeed stumbled into what is actually a very complex ethical question. Should we eat animals that are intelligent or exhibit intelligent behavior? According to Paltrow, octopi have large, complex brains and can accomplish difficult tasks. Therefore, they should not be used as a food source for humans.
It’s a valid point and while there is significant scientific evidence that certain animals (pigs, elephants, rats, and yes, octopi) have a higher level of intelligence and are able to learn, use tools, and express some basic emotions, it’s important to understand the difference between intelligence and consciousness.
In a recent review of Peter Godfrey-Smith’s book, Other Minds, which examines the world of Cephalopods (octopuses, squids and nautiluses), Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at the University of York in Britain and the author of The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea, examines the issue of humans’ ethical responsibilities toward these animals. Given their brains and higher intelligence, do cephalopods know what they are? Do they have a sense of themselves, an identity? According to Godfrey-Smith, the answer is no.
While cephalopods are capable of exceptional complexity in their signaling, the machinery of interpretation is too limited. Humans, perhaps uniquely, have gained the ability to step outside ourselves, to think about our thoughts by means of an unstoppable internal monologue. While cephalopods can produce highly patterned signals, they can’t see their own skins, Godfrey-Smith argues, so he rules out the possibility of any internal monologue.
It’s common to anthropomorphize animals. Giving animals human qualities—they think like us, they feel like us, they have emotions, they care, they love—is as human a human quality as there is. Who wouldn’t want to live in a Pixar movie where, when we leave the house, our animals come to life, raiding the fridge, turning on the television, napping in the human bed. Would any of us have pets if we didn’t engage in this kind of fantasy?
And of course, there’s room for sympathy for Paltrow, the hobbyist who generates headlines. Plenty of us spout off and say stupid things. Her moments just happen to grab the world’s attention, especially when she talks about an octopus.