The ignorance of the ignorant is an unconvincing proof

This post is about a popular tactic in arguments between two people who don’t know much of what they’re talking about. (I am often part of such conversations, always as one of the ignorant parties, though I believe I myself normally manage to avoid this bad line of argumentation, despite how often I am subjected to it.)

“There are no good arguments for x. Think I’m wrong? Produce a good argument. No? Then apparently I’m right.” The same goes for, “There are no examples in history of y ever successfully working.”

To make a blanket statement, and then say that if someone largely ignorant of the field can’t find a specific counter-example then the point is established as true, is the most ridiculous thing. It amazes me how often it is attempted, and it troubles me to think how often it must successfully be persuading people who don’t know better.

Now, this line of argument makes sense at the highest levels. A person who’s an expert could lay this sort of challenge to a room full of fellow experts, and that would make a lot of sense.

But to reason toward a substantial conclusion as if on the basis of the ignorance of an ignorant person – that is just wrong in every way. The ignorant person can’t make a good argument either for or against the point in question. The fact that this person has no counterargument to you is boundlessly irrelevant. Of course, if in the moment you want to insist that it is relevant, that is very likely because you don’t have any good arguments for or against the point either.

What’s a better option for two people who want to talk about a thing they’re ignorant of? Well, if they feel angry, indignant, defensive, then the best option is probably just not to talk.

But if anything worthwhile is to come of the discussion, I think two things should be attempted. The first is to understand the shape of their ignorance; they can’t be absolutely ignorant of the thing, since that would prevent their wanting to talk about it, and so they should work from the scraps of knowledge available in order to find where they reach the limits of what they can competently say. The second aim is to seek out and agree on some high quality resources at an appropriate level, which might begin to alleviate the ignorance. From there, a worthwhile conversation will either need to conclude, or else to continue by way of studying the resources, if we’re really serious about wanting to be knowledgeable and not just to waste time arguing and growing bitter.

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