Self-Evident, The Fallacy of the

The self-evident—a statement of the obvious which is likely to turn out to be untrue.

The social scientist Elinor Ostrom writes,

I have learned to be sceptical whenever I hear the phrase, “it is self-evident” that some empirical regularity occurs in a sociological setting. Patterns of relationships among individuals and groups tend to be relatively complex and rarely lend themselves to simple explanations. Reforms based on overly simplified views of the world have led to counterintuitive and counterintentional results.S19

In other words, avoid . . .

a KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach. If we keep it too simple, we lose our understanding of what’s going on out there.S20

And Ostrom offers an example of the limitations of the self-evident in her study of the organisation of police departments in the United States. It would no doubt be best if they were all roughly the same size and organised in the same way—until you look at it more closely, that is (Anomaly).

Here are some examples of self-evident truths that turn out to be untrue:

• Redundancy is inefficient.

• Local users of a resource cannot be trusted to take a long-term view.

• You can manage a whole region on a single set of principles.

• Order comes from centralised direction.

• The presence of agencies working to different principles is inefficient.

• Local decisions are always best.S21

The ominous problem associated with the self-evident is that it tends to join up with good intentions to produce, not just unintended consequences, but comprehensive deconstruction of the institutions which it was intended to reform. There is scarcely an ideology that does not come motivated by good intentions. That is, ideologies are not wicked cover stories for darker purposes; they are migraine visions of the obvious and—especially if reinforced by resentments—they are hard to stop.

The problem is not only that the self-evident is typically wrong; it is that it departs from the central principle of incremental discovery—the evolutionary, conserve-what-is-there ethic which recognises truths, inconvenient or life-saving, which are not by any standards self-evident.

The philosopher Jamie Whyte suggests suitable candidates for self-evident truths: “I’ve just fallen in a puddle”, or “This tea is hot.”S22

 

Related entries:

Canard, Pharisee, Harmless Lunatic.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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