You have probably heard, on multiple occasions, the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit,” they say, “But wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” This distinction indeed exists, and perhaps even the tomato example is appropriate. But there is still something wrong, and the problem comes down to the takeaway. Most people, when presented with this example, interpret it as knowledge compared to intelligence. In reality, intelligence is no less different from wisdom than it is from knowledge. Intelligence usually refers to the ability to learn and use logic effectively and efficiently. Wisdom is much more complex, and it may be more useful to read the Book of Proverbs than to read a definition or a summary. The point is that they are different from each other, no less than either of these things are different from knowledge. There are also concepts such as wit, cunning, and many others that are in this category of qualities. Yet when we are presented with the difference between knowledge and wisdom, we often think that we understand knowledge vs wisdom, while in reality we only understand knowledge vs intelligence. We are even more misled than before, now with a faulty confidence about the subject.
Knowledge vs Wisdom is an example of a Bad Dichotomy. A Bad Dichotomy is different from a False Dichotomy in that it isn’t wrong in and of itself.
Unlike a False Dichotomy, a Bad Dichotomy not only represents a real distinction, but it also does not deliberately imply that there are no other options.
The problem with a Bad Dichotomy is not that it is wrong; the problem is that it confuses people. Furthermore, a Bad Dichotomy creates a false sense of completion about a given topic. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon, and in this post I will go through a few.
Illustrations of Bad Dichotomies begin with phonology. When learning how to pronounce words in foreign languages, Bad Dichotomies come up all the time. Most notably, sounds that are similar to the English ‘h’ but with a stronger articulation in the throat tend to all be lumped into one category. The big distinction is made between the normal ‘h’ and the hard throat ‘h.’ But this hard ‘h’ is different in Slavic languages than it is in Germanic languages. Furthermore, most dialects of Arabic have at least three ‘h’ sounds, and there are likely countless versions of the ‘h’ sound in various languages. The extreme focus on the distinction between the normal ‘h’ and the hard ‘h’ allows many individuals to use the wrong ‘h’ sound in many contexts with extreme confidence. In some contexts (especially in Slavic languages) it sounds incredibly ugly, and it would have been better if the distinction between the different kinds of ‘h’ was never made in the first place.
The next notable example relates to something we are taught from a young age. You may remember around third grade when the difference between a fact and an opinion was belabored over and over again. Our impression of a fact now roughly comes down to an objective statement about physical reality. Our impression of an opinion roughly comes down to a subjective statement about morality. Because of the extreme focus on this distinction it is now incredibly common to confuse opinion with taste. In reality, an opinion is still a statement about an objective truth; what differentiates it from a fact is the degree to which it can be known. A fact is something that is both true and either known to be true by all, or there is a near-universal agreement about how to test whether it is true. An opinion is still a statement about objective truth, only now it is more difficult to check whether it is true using a test that everyone agrees with. Meanwhile, a taste only holds for the person who has the taste. If I like vanilla ice-cream while you like chocolate, we cannot debate about it unless we are crazy. Thus there is a colossal difference between opinion and taste, and the emphasis on the fact-opinion distinction throws it under the bus. Of course, there are gray areas; for example, comparing Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings is somewhat a question of opinion and somewhat of taste. It is a matter of taste because it is about personal preference with regard to literature, but it is also a question of opinion, because objective statements can be made about quality of writing, and there is more to it than agreeing to disagree. Similarly, there are gray areas between opinion and fact, such as the belief in the theory of evolution. The field of opinions, facts, and tastes is most likely even more complex than I am presenting it.
The take home message is that a fact is almost always distinguished from an opinion with a false sense of completion, allowing opinions to be lumped with concepts like taste. The last two examples have to do with politics, but they are also very important. Political commentators, especially those on the right or the center, often bring up the distinction between “equality of outcome” and “equality of opportunity.” The left, as they say, wants everyone to be equal in outcome, while the right still believes in equality, only not that all people should have the same amount materially, but simply that they should have the same “opportunity.” But what is meant by this word? It is usually the left that talks about “leveling the playing field” or “giving everyone a chance.” The right, more commonly, rejects the idea of guaranteeing equal opportunity with government power and instead focusing on equality as equal treatment under the law. The phrase “equality of opportunity” comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of America. What he meant by the phrase can be disputed, and he could have easily meant equality under the law. Yet the confusion does not go away when “equality of opportunity” is brought up, and it is confused with all other non-extreme versions of equality, including equal treatment under the law, equal treatment in general, and likely many other concepts. I have seen people specifically be misled, thinking that the right is for ensuring equal opportunity. Thus when Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson bring up this distinction between “equality of outcome” and “equality of opportunity” they are making things somewhat worse in terms of understanding of the issue. To give Ben Shapiro credit, I have heard him correct himself and give a more nuanced point of view.
Now let us move on the Political Compass. You may be familiar with the online political test that places users on a two-dimensional grid: one dimension being “economic” and the other one “social.” After taking the Political Compass test, a user is placed somewhere on this grid. The more capitalist (and less socialist) the user is, the farther right he is placed. The vertical axis attempts to measure views on “social” issues, placing those who are more “authoritarian” farther up and those who are “libertarian” farther down. What we have now is a horizontal axis for economic issues and a vertical axis for all other issues lumped into the same category of “social” with those who are more socially liberal being labeled libertarian and those who are more socially conservative being labeled authoritarian. This model has put our brains in boxes for years now when thinking about political positions. At least with the traditional left-right scale it is obvious that there are nuances. Someone can be both fiscally and socially liberal, while, for example, being authoritarian, pro-war, and anti-immigration. But the two-dimensional model creates an impression once more that there isn’t much more than “economic” and “social,” and that a political position can be summarized with a position on a two-dimensional grid.
Of course, simpler models of reality are almost always more useful than laying everything out to the last detail. I am not advocating for always presenting every single piece of information with all the details explained completely. I am fully aware that simplification is often necessary. The main caveat is as follows. When adding a new dichotomy to a topic it is crucial that we do not leave a taste in one’s mouth that the details are complete. Complex issues require at least a warning that they are complex. If this warning is impossible or inefficient to make then it is often better to leave the subject even more simplified to avoid propagating unnecessary confidence.