If You Don’t Agree, You Must Be Ignorant
The Fallacy of Equal Knowledge
I have, on several occasions, wondered aloud what to call the following phenomenon:
A problem is recognized.
One of many possible solutions is advanced.
Those who resist said solution are understood to be denying that the problem exists.
Two modern instantiations of this phenomenon surround Covid and racism.
Problem: Covid is a real threat to human health and well-being.
Proposed Solution: Newly developed mRNA vaccines are the way forward to address the Covid pandemic.
Conclusion: If you are skeptical of the safety or efficacy of the mRNA vaccines, you are denying that Covid is a real threat to human health.
The more sane and accurate interpretation is that mandating a single, newly developed and experimental solution for a complex problem will cause many—including in the scientific and medical communities—to resist that solution, without the resistors ever denying that Covid is a real and abiding threat.
I experienced this first-hand in late May of 2021, when I took my then 15-year-old son to the pediatrician, to obtain the physical exam required by his Summer camp. Earlier the same month, the FDA had authorized Pfizer’s mRNA Covid vaccines for use in 12 – 15 year olds. Boys and young men were already suspected to be at higher risk for myocarditis from these vaccines (a fact that has since been documented), and children and young people of both sexes were then and are still widely recognized to be at low risk from Covid. Covid is a strongly age-stratified disease: the older you are, the greater your risk. For young people with no comorbidities, and especially for young men, the risks from the vaccine seemed to me—and to many others—to outweigh the benefits.
My son’s pediatrician saw it differently. He concluded—as per point 3, above—that by refusing to have my son vaccinated against Covid, I was revealing my belief that Covid was not real or, if real, not particularly dangerous. This, I should not have to say, was a preposterous and anti-scientific conclusion for him to come to. We have not returned to his office.
Problem: Racism is not merely an historical problem, but continues to negatively affect the lives of people of color.
Proposed Solution: The Black Lives Matter movement is the way forward to address enduring racism.
Conclusion: If you are skeptical of the wisdom or efficacy of BLM, its policies, or its actions, you are denying that racism is a real threat to human health and well-being.
The more sane and accurate interpretation is that BLM is an activist group with a very particular take,including being explicitly anti-family, and which is, in the same vein as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion offices and officers, dedicated to the belief that people of color are perpetual victims, and white people are perpetual aggressors (and racists). Black Lives Matter demands homogeneity in thought, I posit, and is divisive by its very nature.
I saw the use of this rhetorical tactic regarding BLM for the first time in 2016, while still a professor at The Evergreen State College in Washington state. On April 19 of that year, flyers were found posted a few places around campus which raised questions about the degree to which Black Lives Matter truly values all black lives. The flyers showed, for instance, a photograph of a black man in a military/police uniform, and asked, “tell me again whose life mattered?” In response, Evergreen staff promptly “removed the flyers and scanned buildings for additional flyers,” the “Bias Incident Response Team…concluded that the content of the flyers was biased…against people of color,” and the college asked for help identifying who was responsible for posting the flyers. Furthermore, in a document posted later that month, Evergreen’s “Bias Incident Response Team” argued the following: “Messages that are one-dimensional, presented as propaganda, and question the legitimacy of a social movement advocating for social justice for black people in the United States, convey bias against people of color.”
The Bias Incident Response Team’s response continues, “These flyers convey a message of opposition toward the Black Lives Matter movement….Black Lives Matter is a movement drawing attention to racism and violence toward a community of people that has historically been oppressed, marginalized, and discriminated against throughout U.S. history. Messages such as the one on these flyers diminish the disparities experienced by people of color.”
In other words: If you disagree with our solution to the problem, you are not only denying the existence of the problem, you are actually making it worse.
What to call this rhetorical maneuver?
The Fallacy of Equal Knowledge
The wise and insightful Dr. Ilana Redstone, a sociologist whom I recently had the good fortune to meet for the second time, has coined the term, “the fallacy of equal knowledge.” This is also the name of an essay she published in City Journal in January of this year. Her description of the problem is not a precise match for mine, but it is so close, and she has well named it, such that I think that slightly forcing my formulation into hers makes sense. The fallacy of equal knowledge is the often “unstated assumption that if we all had the same information, we’d all agree.”
Here is an extended quotation from her excellent piece:
The difficulty of talking across political divides owes much to this assumption. I saw a clear example of it in the fall of 2020, while teaching a course in social problems. It was the semester following a summer of nationwide protests on the issue of race and policing. For weeks, my students and I had been discussing social ills from various perspectives, gradually building up trust. At one point, we found ourselves talking about law enforcement.
Given the timing of the course and the events of recent months, the death of George Floyd was on many people’s minds. Over the course of our discussion, I asked the class if they thought a reasonable person could view his killing solely through the lens of bad policing, not race. The poll I conducted suggested that about 60 percent said yes, they thought that this was possible.
I was surprised by their openness to this idea. But as the discussion unfolded, it became clear that several people in that group of 60 percent had something else in mind. Many assumed that an otherwise reasonable person could only hold this view if they didn’t yet understand that the reality of racism made it important—even necessary—to see Floyd’s death through a racial lens. This point is controversial, even within the black community, but the students assumed that, once informed, such a person would change his mind.
I ran the poll again. This time, I asked: could a reasonable person, with the same information you have, perceive the killing of George Floyd solely through the lens of bad policing and be unsure about whether it should also be seen through the lens of race? This time, the share of students answering yes dropped to 30 percent.
I encourage you, my audience, to read Dr. Redstone’s essay in its entirety, and to think about where, in your own lives, you may be falling prey to the fallacy of equal knowledge, and to being overly certain that, on one topic or another, yours is the only viable position. As Redstone argues later in the same piece, “ignorance” is an explanation too often offered for differing views on topics as diverse as affirmative action, why we are seeing a rise in children identifying as trans, and Covid vaccine mandates. Sometimes people are simply ignorant. Often, however, that conclusion is just an easy out, and reflects a failure to actually engage the issues.
On some topics, there is only one viable solution. But especially when a simple solution is presented early in discussion of a complex topic, and is presented with certainty and authority—it is quite likely that the simple and absolute solution is not the best one.
Find more of Ilana Redstone’s written work here, learn about her consulting here, and follow her on twitter here.
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Bret Weinstein and I discussed this, and other rhetorical tricks used to shut down discussion and force acquiescence to authority, in livestream #82 of DarkHorse on May 29, 2021, in an episode called Dodging the Buzz Saw. Predictably, perhaps, but certainly ironically, the episode fell prey to YouTube’s censors, and has been redacted in its entirety from that site. It can still be found on Odysee. I also brought up these themes when Bret and I appeared on Glenn Beck’s podcast on September 17, 2021 (episode 117).
E.g. Hoeg et al 2021. SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccination-associated myocarditis in children ages 12-17: a stratified national database analysis. MedRxiv.
Even data from the CDC reveal that children are at very low risk from Covid.
E.g. Pegden et al 2021. Covid vaccines for children should not get emergency use authorization. BMJ Opinion.
I explored these topics on DarkHorse livestream #20, The Plague of Certainty (June 2, 2020), and also posted the text of 14 True Things on Medium.
An explicitly anti-family plank in the BLM platform has been removed from their website, but we discussed and documented it on DarkHorse livestream #25, Kafka Traps: White Fragility and #BLM, which aired on June 23, 2020.
I do not have access to the original flyer, so am reporting this from the document that Evergreen produced in the immediate aftermath of the incident, which it called a “Bias Related Incident” Response. This is the “worst” example that they cite.
As quoted from the previously mentioned document, which I have possession of due to a public records request.
Later this month, Dr. Redstone will have an essay published in Tablet, The Certainty Trap, in which she expands on this idea and on related topics. I highly recommend that piece as well.
Thanks for another excellent post Heather. I believe the biggest issue at hand is the link between (2) and (3). How public perception, as well as solutions, could be funneled down to such a narrow scope is the important matter. I believe a lot of this stems from confusing the public and adherence to heuristics as a tool to target alternatives or dissent (use of the words "horse dewormer" and "antivax").
I've had conversations with family about what's been going on and that for most healthy people COVID isn't a large issue as it should be highly manageable, only to be met with "well, then why are people dying?" There's been such a dumbing down of our society for little fragments of information that doesn't amount to much outside of gossip circles, and so it's rather disheartening that so many people have obtained this false sense of arrogance that they really know what it means to "follow the science" when they really have no understanding or idea of what the actual science is.
It's also close to Pilate's Dilemma:
1. Problem: The guy before you obviously has caused some trouble among the Jewish people.
2. Proposed Solution (John 19:6): Crucify him, crucify him!
3. Conclusion (John 19:12): If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar.