Sorting Through Sophistries:
The Know-Nothings
—Part I

By Gabriel Blanchard

One wouldn’t think that ignorance, which is by definition a lack of something, would ramify into a variety of subtly different forms. Of course, one would be wrong.

We now turn to a family of sophistries we might call “the know-nothings,” those based on a mistaken or dishonest representation of human knowledge and ignorance. The simplest form and prototype of these sophistries is the ad ignorantiam, the appeal to ignorance: its basic form is something like “Well, we don’t know that X is false. Disprove it, otherwise I win the argument!” In terms of debate etiquette, this is called an attempt to shift the burden of proof. The burden of proof is essentially a way of deciding who (if anyone) has “won” an argument; the reason behind it boils down what is sometimes called Hitchens’ razor: “What is asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence.”*

Before we continue, the word assert there could use some definition. Technically, any statement along the lines of “X is true” is an assertion; sometimes the more specific phrase positive assertion is used, since (with a little fancy footwork) denials can be phrased to sound like they assert something. Properly speaking, a positive assertion—e.g., that God exists, or that smoking has health benefits, or that there is a hidden planet called Antichthon that doubles Earth’s every movement—proposes something; and the word propose comes from the Latin prōpōnere, meaning “to put in front, put forward, set forth.” A positive assertion puts an idea on the metaphorical table and makes the claim, “This is not only a concept, but a real thing.”

So, since it is the person or side proposing an idea that has an investment in the metaphorical table, lest their idea fall to the floor like an undercooked egg, they are expected to pay for the table: i.e., to make and defend the arguments that will uphold the idea.** Granted, few if any debates are really quite as simple as Mister A saying “I positively assert [Idea]!” and Miss B replying “Prove it”; most philosophical, political, theological, and scientific ideas are more nuanced than that, and often made up of a complex of assertions and denials, like the different pieces of a circuit board. But the complications are mostly made up of multiple instances of the simple, and what piles up are circumstantial exceptions, recursions, things like that.

Accordingly, the ad ignorantiam is really a lazy type of rudeness. It essentially demands of the other side that they prove there isn’t a table, and also that everyone promises never to say anything about it if their egg hits the ground with a splat. Yet the ad ignorantiam, in its pure form, is only the beginning of the know-nothing sophistries.

Is it a debate if one person is like "Maybe!" and everyone else is like "Yeah, but probably not"?

In recent years, ignorance has become a subject of both anthropological and philosophical study (the latter under the name of agnotology); this topic was touched on in our final post from the Great Conversation series, discussing the seventh meaning of “wisdom.” A great many fallacies come from errors about probability and statistics—mixing up correlation with causation is only the tip of the iceberg. These will receive a post unto themselves next week.

Another sophistry in this family is the false dilemma. All dilemmas present us with a situation (practical, intellectual, or both), and claim that only two responses to that situation are possible.† Obviously there’s no problem in saying this when it’s true! However, this isn’t true very often, especially if the situation is a practical one. And when there are compromises and further options available, pretending that there aren’t is, well, wrong.

Twin to the false dilemma is what we may name the fool’s-golden mean (in honor of the mineral pyrite, naturally). You’ve probably heard people say something like “I think the truth always lies somewhere in the middle of the extremes,” which … well, we’ll come back to this in a moment, but it is often a symptom of the fool’s-golden mean at work. The golden mean proper is a doctrine from Aristotle’s Ethics. He treats every virtue as having not one, but two opposite vices, which are also one another’s opposites. Take the virtue of courage: cowardice is the opposite of courage, true, but on Aristotle’s showing, rashness is also the opposite of courage. The virtue of courage lies at a midpoint, a golden mean, between the rash and the cowardly.

The fools’-golden mean is a misapplication of the same principle. It first transfers what is essentially practical advice over to a very different sphere, that of intellectual inquiry, which operates on different rules. Then, it assumes that the intellectual extremes on any given topic always work like practical, strategic extremes. This is not true, and in fact Aristotle pointed out that “the golden mean” needed to be used judiciously, because it simply did not apply to everything even in the ethical and practical sphere: for instance, there is no “just the right amount of murder,” beneath which an equal and opposite vice is reached by not committing enough murders.

Moreover, we may not recognize true intellectual extremes for what they are, depending on circumstances created by history. Sometimes, an idea really is new, as Abolitionism seems to have been; before then, the “extreme” positions may have been more like “All slaves should be freed after seven years” and “People never have to free slaves.” Is truth assuredly to be found at the midpoint between those two extremes, so that the proper view is to free slaves after something like fifteen years? Of course not. This is why the fallacy is fallacious!—because “lying between a pair of extremes” doesn’t tell you anything about an idea’s truth value. The fool’s-golden mean is an appeal to ignorance, not logic.

*Related, though not identical, is a razor proposed by Carl Sagan: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Although the present author must in honesty disagree with many of the conclusions these men came to (and finds the late Mr. Hitchens, to be perfectly frank, somewhat repellent as a human being), the principles on which they operated were often admirable, and these two razors exemplify them at their best.
**That is, this is normally the case. Some special circumstances can reverse the burden of proof, typically due to assumptions granted by both sides in common (and which therefore do not need to be argued).
†For this reason, situations that are structurally similar to dilemmas—i.e., have a small, definite number of possible responses, each of which excludes the others—but those responses number more than two, they are often named with a numerical prefix and -lemma: “trilemma” for three, “quadrilemma” for four, etc. (In practice, only the terms dilemma and trilemma see much use.)

Gabriel Blanchard has been working for the Classic Learning Test since 2019, and serves as its editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD, and is an uncle of seven nephews.

Happy beginning of spring! If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our author profiles of such celebrated reasoners as Archimedes, Origen, Héloïse d’Argenteuil, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and Anna Julia Cooper. You might also enjoy the official CLT podcast, Anchored: our founder, Jeremy Tate, hosts professional academics, active and former teachers, working artists, educational activists, and even the occasional CLT student, for conversations about the great books, education, and culture.

Published on 21st March, 2024. Page image of a cubic crystal of pyrite (iron disulfide), better known as “fool’s gold”; this specimen was found in Peru, and was photographed by Ivar Leidus in 2021 (here used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license).

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