What You Don’t Know

—from the NYTimes (June 5, 2019):
“I don’t see any protests.” Mr. Trump called the demonstrations “fake news,” contradicting photographic and video evidence.

Somehow the rest of us know that thousands of Brits are protesting Trump’s visit to the UK, and somehow the President has missed this fact. The President’s frequent denials of reality have taken a number of forms.

This time the kind of denial he’s made is called argumentum ad ignorantium or the argument from ignorance. If you’re claiming something cannot be the case because you haven’t seen it, then you’re denying about 95-percent of reality. When you shut your front door, what’s on the other side of it does not disappear. It’s a lot like the case of the toddler who covers his face with his hands and says, “You can’t see me.”

Again, the argument at the base of these kinds of claims is “if I can’t see it, it can’t be happening.” Your inability to see the tumor does not mean you have no tumor. Your inability to see your heart does not mean you lack one. “I didn’t know I was pregnant,” but you were. And “I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that smoking cigarettes causes cancer” is a fallacious argument that you may have heard from a smoker you knew who didn’t want to quit. Your personal ignorance of evidence is not good enough to claim there is no evidence.

This kind of confused ‘thinking’ also produces a fallacy known as Special Pleading: “My Grandpa smokes two packs a day and he’s 94.” One supporting example from your personal experience (sometimes called anecdotal evidence) is not enough to carry the day. “My camellias are award-winning so I should be allowed to water them during the water restrictions put in place because of the drought.” More Special Pleading. And there’s the now-classic claim from Richard Nixon: “When the president does it, it isn’t a crime.”

These fallacies share a common element. The claims are based on the unanalyzed experience of a single person. In general, we should be wary of ‘I’ based arguments. The perspective of an individual can be extremely limited and their experience could easily be unusual rather than the norm.

Below: a NASA image of the night sky showing what you will never see in the night sky—  X-rays


Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.