We Don’t Know Anything

Degrees for everybody.
Degrees for everybody.

The Appeal to Authority is not a formal fallacy, but an “informal” one, a fancy way of admitting that arguments in the form of “Because I said so” are often valid and sound. If these arguments were always a fallacy, there’d be no use asking potential employees for their resumes, no point in asking, “What are my chances, doc?”, really no reason to ask anybody anything about which you are uncertain.

On the other hand, the argument becomes a fallacy routinely in the hands of the media and politicians. Surf over to Slate (I won’t link), tune in to NPR, or listen to Debbie Wasserman Schultz speak on nearly any subject for examples.

So much is common knowledge. And I think fallacious instances of “Because I said so” are on the increase. This is because of many reasons—the usual suspects: scientism, ideology, political correctness, privilege, insularity, etc.—but one occasion for sin, a certain form of the fallacy, is not well known.

This is the form “We now know…”, usually put in service of some sociological, educational, psychological, or other loose science, like the effects of deadly rampant out-of-control tipping-point global warming.

Just like its father, the “We now know…” form of the argument from authority is sometimes valid and sound. A journalist might write, “We now know the neutrino has mass…” and cite some press release put out by some university. The journalist will be right, because in this case (you’ll have to trust me) the claim is true. But the “we” part is risible. The problem is not just that the reporter himself boasts indirectly of an expertise he does not have and has not earned, but that he encourages the same flippant behavior in his audience. And the audience, duly flattered, makes itself part of the “we”. “We now know” is then on everybody’s lips.

For many propositions from the hard sciences, as said, this is mostly harmless, because the “We now know…” won’t be fallacious. The problem is that the knowledge comes cheap and is thus subject to easy misinterpretation and incorrect extrapolation. This is because complex scientific propositions are usually highly conditional, filled with technical premises and other presuppositions, and these rarely make it to the popular level. People go off half cocked, as it were.

Actual hard scientists, in their own fields of competence, rarely fall into the trap, not taking anybody’s word for anything which they can prove for themselves. And so knowledge in the fields manned by rigorous technicians increases. But since nobody bats 1.000 and not every claim can be personally checked, the occasional error slips by.

No, the real problem, as usual, comes from fields which make fewer demands on their practitioners, and fewer still to none on their popular audiences. It’s going to be a man of some mental training who bothers to seek out and to read anything about neutrinos. But sociological claims and the like are available to one and all. Indeed, they are hard to escape, like (bad) music in restaurants.

The problem starts at the “top”. Here’s a typical example, the paper “Taking a Long View on What We Now Know about Social and Environmental Accountability and Reporting” in the Electronic Journal of Radical Organisation Theory. The paper is filled with “We now know…” propositions which are at best only sketchily supported, and others that are only wild surmises. Results from papers like this are fed to students and the public, and those who take joy in that most vague of notions “sustainability”, will uncritically add the propositions to the list of things “We now know…”

You can’t really blame the students, the dears, at least not fully. The serious fault is with inexpert experts, a large and growing class, a growth given impetus by the swelling of higher education. More people earning a “degree” means more professors, and since the gifts of intelligence are varied, this means a necessary expansion in “degrees” which require less effort (from both parties). It is in these fields the “We now know…” is mainly found. Compounding the problem is that the students who carry these “We now knows…” feel that their beliefs have been certified by their degrees.

The solution would thus appear to be a return to (or increase in, since it still partially exists) some idea of educational elitism, the idea that some forms of knowledge are better or more important than others. But give our insatiable craving for Equality, I don’t see it happening.


  1. We now know that “surf over to Slate (I won’t link), tune in to NPR, or listen to Debbie Wasserman Schultz speak on nearly any subject” might cause permanent damage and should be avoided. 🙂

    Sustainability is a rediculous concept that apparently sells to people who don’t understand nature, life or basically anything beyond staring at their non-sustainable TV or surfing on their non-sustainable laptop. If they really understood, they’d realize they are not sustainable.

    Ever wonder why humans are the only creature on the planet that routinely believes they should sacrifice themselves for other creatures? Lions don’t worry about sustainability—they just eat baby cheetahs till the cubs are all gone. The lions don’t fret over their choice of meals. So why would humans, if a product of evolution, worry about this? Why do humans think they are soooo big and important that they can destroy the planet when nothing else seems to worry about that?

  2. All that’s presented, to some extent is likely true…but the “common [underlying] denominator” includes a clear element of inattention–a desire for the quick answer in lieu of thoughtful contemplation. Here’s a significant contributing factor:

    “…the printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. In stark contrast, the Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources. Its ethic is that of the industrialist, an ethic of speed and efficiency, of optimized production and consumption—and now the Net is remaking us in its own image. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.”

    See: http://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?ID=20598

  3. Ken: Agreed. Surfing through articles and skimming information is a very common activity. I know I often do exactly that. However, when I research for an article on my blog, I print out all the pertinent information. There is just no way to lay out the information on the computer screen and compare, contrast and review like one can with the printed word. It’s probably also why we have catchy headlines that in no way actually reflect the content of the article—the media realizes many people only read the headlines.

  4. One of your best short essays, Briggs.

    I wouldn’t absolve the dear students, though. For the more ambitious ones, their greatest desire in life is to become one of the inexpert experts; not through any love of expertdom, but rather for the perks (including the occasional article published in ‘Slate’).

    I don’t think the root of this problem (or at least this problem) is the drive for Equality (pernicious though that is). I’d place more emphasis on the ‘love of the world’ that used to be criticized and is, now, lauded everywhere.

    A great short essay.

  5. Reading all the comments about the inability of the internet to provide the profundity of bound printed matter (books, that is), I was struck by the irony / incongruity.

    Why are we all posting, if we should be putting our noses into a book?

  6. “It AIN’T so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”

  7. M. Briggs:
    You, sir, are a far better man than I to have read the Gray paper and be able to comment on the subject matter. I spent so much effort following the convoluted jargoneering of the first paragraph to decipher the reasoning behind the words that when the second opened with “[t]his paper has a number of motivations” my brain just shut down and I had to have a lie down. I willingly accept a considerable amount of poor English in informal speech and writing and when time constraints (like a daily posting schedule) prevent editing, but a formal paper can and should be written better. The use of language in this paper is so poor that this reader had difficulty evaluating the author’s claims because it was hard to figure out what exactly the author was claiming. And let me blot from memory the horror of no evidence being presented to justify assigning specific motivations to an inanimate object like the paper, which has no discernible means of having those motivations in a formal paper.

    Is English composition still taught in colleges?

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