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The Certainty Trap

The solution to our broken political conversation won’t be found in censoring ‘misinformation’ but in recognizing the profound limits of our own beliefs

Ilana Redstone
May 10, 2022
Haymarketrebel via Flickr
Haymarketrebel via Flickr
Haymarketrebel via Flickr
Haymarketrebel via Flickr

In 2005, the writer David Foster Wallace gave what Time magazine has called “the greatest commencement speech of all time.” Wallace’s address breathed new life into “the main requirement of [such] speeches,” which is “to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff.” He explored how human beings create and sustain beliefs and addressed the often negative ways we view others who don’t share those beliefs. But perhaps most importantly, he offered a reason why this is the case.

Wallace tells a story of two men, drinking together at a bar in a remote corner of Alaska. He describes one of the men as religious, the other as an atheist. They are arguing over the existence of God. In Wallace’s story, the atheist says:

Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out “Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.”

The religious man looks at the atheist, and says, “Well, then you must believe now … After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist responds with, “No, man, all that happened was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

Wallace goes on to say that it’d be easy to take the “standard liberal arts” lesson from this imaginary exchange and simply conclude that the same experience can mean different things to different people. The lesson there would be one of tolerance, a reminder that we shouldn’t declare one man right and the other wrong. But Wallace goes further. He explains:

The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogantly certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

In Wallace’s framing, the intolerance that we often witness (and participate in) is a symptom, not the actual problem. It’s an inevitable consequence of “blind certainty.” Each man in Wallace’s Alaskan story behaves as though his position deserves to be held with unshakable confidence. Of course, such certainty can be accurate neither for an atheist nor for a person of faith. Taking Wallace’s thinking one step further quickly brings us to some of the biggest and most controversial challenges we face today.

In the case of thorny issues, certainty can be an invisible trap. And it turns out that by recognizing it the way Wallace suggests in his story, we can better understand and navigate disagreements far beyond those that concern the existence of God. Certainty often leads to a tendency to be dismissive or disdainful of ideas, positions, or even questions that one doesn’t agree with—particularly when those ideas, positions, or questions touch beliefs we hold dear. The most difficult problems set in when we hold them so closely that we cease to realize they’re personal beliefs at all.

One of those problems is political polarization. The term is vague, but here I’m using it to refer to multiple, interrelated factors. One factor is the way the primary political parties have adopted increasingly more extreme positions, especially in the United States. Another is the growing tendency to express disdain not just for the position one doesn’t agree with, but for the moral character of the person who holds it. Yet another is the exasperation many people feel with communicating across divides about difficult social problems. This is particularly true for problems that touch on topics related to identity, intent, fairness, equality, and various forms of bigotry—many of the most sensitive and controversial issues today. A final component in my umbrella use of the term “political polarization” is the pervasive lack of ideological diversity that has become the norm in many educational and cultural institutions. The negative consequences of these trends are difficult to overstate—and concerns about them come from all over the political spectrum (see here and here for examples). In other words, this problem is no one’s alone—it belongs to all of us.

The magnitude of the problem has motivated several people to try to come up with solutions. Some see the answer as a fight against mis- and dis-information and a reconnection with what some might call ground truth—what’s really real about the world. This has led to a proliferation of books such as Disinformation: The Nature of Facts and Lies in the Post-Truth Era, After the Fact?: The Truth about Fake News, Social Media and the Post-Truth World Order: The Global Dynamics of Disinformation, Politics of Disinformation, and The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.

Others see the path forward in the establishment of norms of civil discourse. While this focus has also yielded books, its real impact has been in the development of programming devoted to this goal. Examples include the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, the Padnos/Sarosik Center for Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University, and a $150 million grant to Johns Hopkins University to “address the deterioration of civic engagement worldwide and facilitate the restoration of open and inclusive discourse that is the cornerstone of healthy democracies.”

Both approaches—combating dis- and mis-information and promoting civil discourse—have value, but neither goes deep enough to transform our conversations. That’s neither a prediction nor a judgment; it’s an observation. Those approaches won’t be able to enact significant change because they can’t, no matter how skilled a facilitator or mediator you have. They can’t because they don’t get to the root of the problem.

The fight against mis- and dis-information—a worthy goal—is often based on two flawed assumptions. The first is that definitive answers are known to the disputed points. The second, related to the first, is that the right people to provide those answers can be identified and agreed upon. Both assumptions are themselves often steeped in the Certainty Trap—a resolute unwillingness to recognize the possibility that we might not be right in our beliefs and claims.

To understand the implications of the mis- and dis-information labeling, we need only consider instances like the initial response to claims around Hunter Biden’s laptop or the source of COVID-19. In 2020, several major media outlets dismissed as mis- or dis-information (see here and here for examples) the possibility that a laptop of incriminating emails belonged to Hunter Biden. The certainty with which this position was held led to the silencing of anyone who publicly questioned it—so much so that it has been called “the most severe case of pre-election censorship in modern American political history.” Recent evidence, however, has forced the same outlets who invoked those labels to acknowledge the laptop’s authenticity. Similarly, in early 2020, the suggestion that COVID-19 might have originated in a lab in China was dismissed as groundless fodder for racism and xenophobia. The certainty that led to this reflexive dismissal was walked back just over a year later, but the judgment of the once dissenting voices shouldn’t be forgotten.

Nothing about these reactions was inevitable. Rather than falsely demarcating lines between truth and fiction, a smarter and safer response would have been to say something like, “These claims require examination using normal evaluative criteria. We recognize that our knowledge and understanding will continue to evolve.”

For its part, civil discourse—also a worthy goal—can only succeed when there’s a willingness among the participants to recognize that there’s more than one reasoned way to see a given issue. (This limitation also explains why books that purport to teach how to tackle “difficult” conversations also can’t work.) The Certainty Trap makes this conversation impossible.

For example, some of the biggest controversies today occur over issues of racial and gender identity. On these topics, both approaches—combating mis- and dis-information and focusing on norms of civil discourse—fall short. Let’s say one person holds the following opinion: “I think that people overstate the importance of white privilege.” And another person sees that position as a denial of racism today. Will the promotion of civil discourse convince the person who sees the position as a denial of racism to engage as a moral equal with the one who holds it? Unlikely. And will battlers of mis- and dis-information be able to convince either person that focusing on white privilege is or isn’t the right way forward? Unlikely and, for reasons we’ll go into later, one might even say, impossible.

Instead, breaking out of the Certainty Trap requires recognizing three common and interrelated barriers keeping us within it. These barriers pull us into The Trap and, once we’re in it, they make it hard to break out. The Certainty Trap tells us that there are two possibilities for an opinion we disagree with: ignorance and hateful motives.

However, outside of its walls, a third possibility emerges that can reshape how we engage: One might have principled reasons for the position they hold. And when we refuse to hear or recognize these reasons, we can’t communicate. Sometimes we will find those reasons compelling. Sometimes we won’t. And sometimes, when all we know is the person’s position, we still won’t be able to tell which of these three possibilities drives them. But remaining within the Certainty Trap will always constrain us to the shorter, two-item, list.

So what are the three barriers that tie us to this shorter list? The first is the Settled Question Fallacy—we fall into this when we behave as though certain questions have definitive and clear answers when they, in fact, do not.

If you’re unsure how frequently we treat open questions as though they have definitive answers, consider the example of our current discourse on gender, biology, and transgender rights. Insisting an open question is closed was the undertone in a January 2022 statement put out by the Ivy League in support of Lia Thomas, the record-breaking transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania. The league wrote, “Over the past several years, Lia and the University of Pennsylvania have worked with the NCAA to follow all of the appropriate protocols in order to comply with the NCAA policy on transgender athlete participation and compete on the Penn women’s swimming and diving team. The Ivy League has adopted and applies the same NCAA policy.” The implication is that, because the NCAA (and, by extension, the Ivy League) has a policy, no reasonable questions around fairness remain. But a question isn’t closed simply because someone asserts that it is.

The second barrier is the Fallacy of Known Intent—committed when we behave as though we know someone’s motives. Consider, for instance, current debates over the application of critical race theory in schools. Those on the political left who insist that racism or a desire to conceal history are the only reasons someone would object to or have concerns about the use of these ideas in schools are pulling from that short, two-item list that exists within the Certainty Trap. The same is true for those on the right who advocate for legislative bans on this set of ideas, asserting that the goal is to indoctrinate students. The Certainty Trap knows no political boundaries.

The third barrier is the Fallacy of Equal Knowledge—this is our mistake when we believe that, if the other person knew what I know (or had my experiences), they would think what I think. This op-ed in the LA Times, written by a social psychologist, shows this well. The author writes, “Many Americans have a hard time recognizing the magnitude and persistence of racial inequality because, psychologically, we resist these truths.” So far, so good, as he points out the importance of being informed. He then follows with, “Unless Americans understand and acknowledge inequality as a fact, we won’t be able to build the political consensus needed for real change.” Here, he’s slipped into the third fallacy. Will getting everyone the same information about the magnitude of racial inequality build the consensus that he is referring to? I submit that it never has and it will not.

To be sure, none of this is to suggest that information has no value nor is it to paint a rosy picture of ignorance. It’s simply to point out that, because we interpret evidence and experiences differently, having the same information still won’t get everyone on the same page.

Recognizing the phenomena I’ve introduced here—the Certainty Trap, the Settled Question Fallacy, the Fallacy of Known Intent, and the Fallacy of Equal Knowledge—can have significant implications. That recognition lets us label behavior and hold others and ourselves accountable for its consequences. For instance, you might imagine saying to someone (or to yourself), “This backlash is the result of the Settled Question Fallacy,” and explaining why, or telling someone that “You don’t get to complain about the culture war without acknowledging your role in it, via perpetuating these fallacies.” Or, “By continuing in this vein, knowing that you’re committing these fallacies and not changing your behavior, you are yourself fueling polarization.”

Understanding these modes of discourse will help us address the many broad questions that swirl in our culture today. The debates over transgender issues are a resonant example, as debates rage about whether trans women should participate in women’s sports, or whether it is right or wrong to give adolescent girls or boys puberty blockers based on what might sometimes be passing gender dysphoria? We don’t know the answers to these questions. And to behave as though we do—to treat people as though the answers are known and obvious and, if they see things differently, they’re denying reality or motivated by hatred and bigotry—is to remain within the Certainty Trap.

Breaking out of this trap provides a path forward based on curiosity and a more precise reflection of what we know about one another. It’s a path that can nurture openness and build trust. And ultimately, it’s a path that can transform how we communicate with one another in ways that absolutely do not end with political topics. Better solutions, better communication, and more open conversations are within reach, if only we’re willing to take them.

Ilana Redstone is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a Founding Faculty Fellow at UATX. She is the founder of Diverse Perspectives Consulting and the Faculty Director of The Mill Institute. She is the co-author of Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education and the creator of the Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes video series.