Wednesday, February 10, 2021

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous: Reflecting on the Argument from Ignorance/Silence, False Analogy, and Either-Or Fallacies

The adage goes, A little knowledge is dangerous. That is because if we have a little knowledge about something and do not know that our knowledge is lacking, we can think that we have all the facts and draw conclusions that run counter to the truth. To paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, if you begin with small errors (in your assumptions) you end up with great errors in your conclusions.


To avoid this pitfall—especially due to the risk of committing rash judgment—we need to be on guard against assuming that what we know is all we need to know. Even if we know 90% of the information. It is possible that the 10% we do not know is crucial and ties the rest together.


As an example of this error of assumption, the novel Jurassic Park. The engineers assure everyone that it is impossible that any of the dinosaurs can escape the island because it is constantly monitored, and they boast that 92% of the island is covered by cameras and sensors. Then they discover a serious error in their assumption, and it is quite possible that they could escape:


“I think it’s quite simple,” Malcolm said. “The motion sensors cover an inadequate area.”


“Inadequate?” Arnold bristled. “They cover ninety-two—”


“Ninety-two percent of the land area, I remember,” Malcolm said. “But if you put the remaining areas up on the board, I think you’ll find that the eight percent is topologically unified, meaning that those areas are contiguous. In essence, an animal can move freely anywhere in the park and escape detection, by following a maintenance road or the jungle river or the beaches or whatever.”


Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park: A Novel (p. 310). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


The moral is, while the percentage that we do not know might be (or appear to be) small, it could contain something crucial that—had we been aware of them—could have entirely changed our perspective and our decisions. 


There can be moral responsibility for our ignorance depending on what it was possible for us to know. There are two types of ignorance. First, we have Invincible Ignorance. This involves things it would be impossible for us to know. For example, if a person lived in a time or place where it would be impossible to know about and accept Jesus Christ, he would not be guilty of rejecting Christ, because how could he know what had never been revealed to him?


However, there is also Vincible Ignorance. This involves things we could learn if we bothered to investigate the matter, but we never tried. For example, if I am a hunter who fires at movement in the brush without checking what is causing the movement and kill another hunter, I am guilty of killing that person (even though I did not intend it) because I could have verified my target before shooting and I was morally obligated not to act until I did.


Lately, I see people frequently commit three errors that lead them to draw conclusions that facts do not support. This leads them to justify sins or accuse others of evils they are innocent of.


The first of these is the argument from ignorance/silence. They are slightly different but lead to the same result. Arguments from ignorance assume that because a person does not know a thing means that thing does not exist. If we find ourselves saying “I can’t see any reason why this can be justified,” then beware. Our not knowing a reason does not mean there is no reason. There may be a reason to justify something that we are ignorant of, or a reason why we must not do what we think is acceptable.

In a similar way, the argument from silence claims that because no evidence has been presented to support one case, the opposite case must be true. For example, if nobody presents evidence of a person’s innocence, and we say it must mean the person is guilty is an example of argument from silence. Therefore, our legal system operates under the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” to avoid using the argument from silence to convict an innocent person.


The second danger is the False Analogy, where we assume that two cases that seem superficially similar are identical when the differences outweigh the similarities. If I were to compare Trump to Hitler or Biden to King Herod, I would be using the superficial similarities of demagoguery and dead children respectively while ignoring the differences that separated these two presidents from their evil namesakes. To avoid this, we need to avoid slogans and look at the facts of the case and not try to equate the current situations in government with reprehensible figures of the past. 


The third danger is the Either-Or fallacy where either you support my way, or you support the worst evils of the other side. This one has been particularly prevalent among people attacking the bishops for “supporting” Trump or Biden in the elections. The basis of the fallacy here is assuming that either the bishops flat out denounce the candidate we detest, or it is “proof” that they support the other side… including all the evils that side committed. The problem is it overlooks the possibility that there is a third possibility or only partial agreement with one or both options.


These fallacies lead people to false conclusions that could be avoided if we had bothered to ask if our assumptions were correct; if we had asked if we had all the facts; if we had asked if there were more possibilities for the reason things are as they are. That is vincible ignorance.


That does not mean we just accept evil that is done. It does mean we need to make sure that a person’s actions are what we think they are and are done for the motives we think they are. Too many assume that whenever another person acts differently than we think they should, it is “proof” of deliberate, malicious evil on their part, and never consider whether there is more to consider than we realize.


If we behave this way, we become living examples of the adage, “A Little Knowledge is Dangerous.”






(†) This is part of the reason Feeneyism was condemned.


(‡) N.B. This does not include intrinsic evils which are always wrong regardless of intentions or circumstances. It might include reasons why the Church does not exact a penalty we think it should.

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