The “Poor Ignorant Soul” Fallacy

Here’s a rhetorical fallacy for you. I’m calling it the “poor ignorant soul”. If it has been named and claimed before, let me know in a comment.

The Poor Ignorant Soul Fallacy is when one person claims that the other would agree with them, if only they knew what the claimant knows.

This is particularly keenly used with esoteric knowledge “If you only knew Jesus, you’d see I’m right.” But is also used as a kind of argument from authority “If you had spent as long studying this as I have, you’d see I’m right.”

It is a fallacy for two reasons:

a) It assumes that the claimant has more or superior knowledge: the target of the claim might be perfectly aware of everything the claimant knows, and more besides.

b) It assumes that both the claimant and the target are significantly deriving their positions from knowledge.

It is mostly used as a power grab. To avoid really discussing something, or really listening to another person’s views, you set yourself up rhetorically as their superior. Then you can smile sympathetically as they fumble to erroneous conclusions, a consequence of their unfortunate condition of ignorance.

It is attractive because, in many cases it is true: a person can hold an opinion based on ignorance. But the temptation becomes to assume ignorance because of their position.

This is a fallacy I am guilty of a lot. Just about every disagreement in the comments of this blog results in me pulling this one at some point. In this post, I did it deliberately, because I was responding to the fact that it is a hugely popular tactic for believers to pull. But perhaps the irony was actually lost on me, since I manage to display the tendency plenty without any conscious aim at satire.

Do you fall into this? If you genuinely do happen to be more knowledgeable than your interlocutor in a subject (say if I’m discussing evolution with a creationist) should you try to avoid it, if so how?


Filed under Uncategorized

24 responses to “The “Poor Ignorant Soul” Fallacy

  1. Mike Gantt


    In my experience, you are not unique among erstwhile Christians in practicing this fallacy, but you are quite unique among them in acknowledging it.

    I think it is a mistake that is easy for any of us to make. If we see someone trying to take down a tree with a chain saw whose motor is not running, it’s only natural for us to think no one ever told him how to pull the cord.

    Generally speaking, I find that asking questions instead of making statements helps to avoid the mistake – but even that is no guarantee. Moreover, asking questions in blog interaction is not nearly as efficient as doing so face-to-face because of the absence of body language as an adjunct to the questions and answers.

    Thanks for your honest and circumspect observation.

  2. I know that too much has been made of the Dunning-Krueger effect, but sometimes people really are overconfident about what they know, or what they think they know–they really are poor, ignorant souls! More often, I think this achieves fallacy status when some layperson reads something somewhere and then tells his opponent that he just needs to read this thing that the first guy just read. Then, after the other guy reads the thing, he will surely see things as the first guy does, and then–ta-da!–they can enjoy warm tea and stale biscuits.

  3. Ian

    @mike – thanks I appreciate that you appreciate my self-effacing posts 😉

    @dan – yes, there really are “poor ignorant souls” but then sometimes correlation is causation too. I think these things are only traps because they are so often useful heuristics. But yeah, Dunning-Kruger – very common. And another one I’ve been known to partake of myself 🙂

  4. Mike Gantt


    Just chalk that up to too small a sample size of our interactions. I wouldn’t want you to think that sort of thing is all I’d ever be able to appreciate about you.

  5. Ian

    @Mike – I’m really only doing it so I can butter you up into thinking I’m a half-decent person before our next disagreement. Or perhaps I’m doing it to convince myself that I’m reasonable, so I’ll feel more virtuous about my intransigence later. Its hard to know… 😉

  6. This “Fallacy” of yours seems like a combo of the “Ad Hominem Fallacy” (you are not educated soo… or you are stupid, sooo) and the “Appeal to Misleading Authority”

    Funny, I always wonder about the word “Fallacy” for all those logical fallacies.

    For certainly, having inadequate knowledge can be part of the picture — the questions you ask safeguard the pitfalls of those sort of accusations.

    So maybe it should be called: “The Pitfalls of the Poor Ignorant Soul attack” — for certainly sometimes, it is the correct attack: “Pitfall” covers that subtlety.

    On my job (medicine) I try to help patients increase their knowledge so that they make better decisions — and indeed they come to me for that. Sometimes they don’t like the knowledge I share and certainly often don’t like its implications. But I assume daily that my interlocutor is ignorant and would make better decisions if they had my knowledge. Such a role has tons of pitfalls. But pretending otherwise is counter productive.

    I don’t think I am addressing your final question at all, but I am not sure I follow your final question.

  7. The ad hominem fallacy is generally mistaken for mere name calling, when what makes it fallacious is its attempt to discredit an argument by discrediting a person: “I don’t have to listen to his argument because he’s an adulterer.” The italicized part is what makes it fallacious because being an adulterer is irrelevant to an argument.

  8. So, Dan, in this case, “I don’t have to listen to his argument because he’s stupid,” is an hominem fallacy, right? Isn’t that what I said?

  9. Ian

    @sabio – So a bit about my terminology (which is how I understand this to be used in rhetoric generally).

    “Rhetorical fallacies” apply to other things than merely logical fallacies, which I’d associate with things more like affirming the consequent or excluding the middle. And I think all fallacies are only used because they are ‘pitfalls’ for reasonable thought.

    We affirm the consequent because some things where A implies B also have B implies A. We exclude the middle because “A and not A is true” is a core part of many logics. We go ad-hominem, because personal integrity is a useful social indicator of reliability. We appeal to authority because authority is very useful source of information. And we treat others as poor ignorant souls because some people genuinely are.

    It isn’t a fallacy because it is inherently wrong. It is a fallacy because we use it as a heuristic without justification.

  10. @ Ian
    “So, ……” [Ohhhh, I love that rhetorical tone. Ironic for this post]

    Don’t know if you have seen this pictorial guide. Where poor Hemant seems to blur the terms too — his taxonomy is apparently sloppy.

    Looks like you are categorizing — fun, eh!

    “Fallacy” has several uses. Here are the ones from a few on-line dictionaries:

    1. A false or mistaken notion.
    2. A statement or an argument based on a false or invalid inference.
    3. Incorrectness of reasoning or belief; erroneousness.
    4. The quality of being deceptive. [obsolete: Guile, trickery]

    So, one one side the strong nuance for me is “false”, “mistaken” and thus to call something a “fallacy” is to ironically mislead or be deceptive by implying some mistake, whereas, many rhetorical tools, that are labelled as “Informal Logical Fallacy” here), are not necessarily “false” but certainly meant to use to win by being deceptive (intentionally or not).

    So, ironically, I was just trying to point to the fuzzy categories of labeling and naming these issues. But I am just a poor ignorant soul.

    BTW, I think this sentence is wrong: “It is a fallacy because we use it as a heuristic without justification.” Aren’t ‘heuristics’, by definitions of sorts, just fast ways of getting to some result by skipping laboriously, resource consuming justifications? But maybe my taxonomy is mixed up there too.

  11. To be clearer on one point:
    “fallacy” has two rather different uses. One where there is wrong usage in thinking, and another where a device is used to deceive or win.

    Some techniques are just wrong, some are often correctly useful but have pitfalls. Your newly named “poor soul fallacy” seems to be the later.

  12. PS – I note that my comment with links is awaiting moderation. That is probably because you have your WordPress software screening comments with links. I would suggest setting that screen to allow 3-4 links (I think I put mine up to 5). Doing so has not let in any significant spam for me and filtered comments can make published ones come out of order and not make sense. Just a thought.

  13. Ian

    @Sabio – I’ve no idea what to make of the tone of this response. I wasn’t trying to be obnoxious. Perhaps I’ve got into some kind of rut of unintentionally triggering you, and I should let others respond instead? I don’t know. Regardless, I’m sorry if I have or do come across that way.

  14. @ Ian
    Ah, yes, it may just be my trigger, or a cultural rhetorical difference (Brit vs American).
    Please don’t let my first line trigger you, you are more than welcome to respond to the rest. But perhaps my writing has such clear mistakes/confusion that anyone else could just as clearly respond to my directed comment to you.

  15. Ian

    @sabio In this article it says

    So says, “I understand the question and how it displays your incomplete knowledge of the subject. What follows is an answer that will help you comprehend what’s really going on and, in addition, suggest a unified theory of the reality.”

    Okay, I need to stop saying that then. Its seriously, like, offensive, dude.

    So, to me, so just means “in respect to that” or “following on from your observation” (as at the start of this sentence). Hmmm… who knew?

  16. Ian

    …and didn’t you use it in the same way in the comment before mine aimed at Dan, or was your use there as per the quote above – seriously confused now :/

  17. Ian

    … or this brilliant comment by Jeri Reilly from the above thread:

    The most arresting use of “So” in my experience is as the first word of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. Hweat is translated as So and thus begins the poem: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by/ and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.” As Heaney explains it: “so” operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.


  18. @ Ian
    That article is hilariously vindicating! Especially that quote by Heaney. (what, it takes someone with higher authority to convince you?) 🙂 Thanx

    Interesting about its connection to programmers — your domain.

    Concerning my comment to Dan, yes, indeed that is the way I used it.

    Note, that I am admitting such. I am not saying the rhetorical tool is a “fallacy”, just a pitfall laden. Denying one’s use of such a tool is another level of rhetoric, eh? Ah the rhetoric rabbit hole! 😉

    Smilies, of course, are a modern rhetorical tool.

    Thanx for responding, Ian

  19. Oh, but back to my original comment: Do you see my point about the word “fallacy” in labeling such rhetoric?

  20. Ian

    Yes, I do. Pointing out fallacies in a discussion is itself a rhetorical trick, that hinges on that double-definition. I don’t think it is unreasonable to talk about fallacies in their rhetorical sense in the way this post does though.

    I also think this is an issue only with regard to rhetoric. In your example, if you disagree on a treatment program with a client. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they don’t know know the facts and then give them the relevant facts. It is not reasonable, I think, to tell them their ignorance is why they don’t want the treatment. Perhaps in healthcare even that is justifiable in some cases.

    But I do that far too much, and often to shut down the conversation rather than extend it. And others use it about their beliefs in the same way.

  21. Ian

    @sabio – re “Smilies, of course, are a modern rhetorical tool.”

    I’ve thought a couple of times of writing a post “In Praise of Emoticons”. They are certainly a rhetorical tool, and one I’ve been very sniffy about in the past. But I’ve come to think they’re rather important, and worth the typographical ugliness and punctuation paradoxes.

  22. I agree with your two comments above. But must say, I did not understand the XKCD comic. ;-(

    “sniffy”: Disposed to showing arrogance or contempt; haughty.
    another new word for me!

  23. I was just about to ask if you agreed with the criticism of your last sentence with the word “heuristic” — but I see you deleted it.

    Concerning medicine. My clients [more politically correct than “patients”, I imagine] often thank me for the careful explanations and drawings I do for them — following that, I usually say something like this:
    “I am fine with whatever choice you make, but it makes me feel better to know that you understand how I understand the issue.”

    That seems to go over well. [another great rhetorical tool]

  24. Ian


    “I was just about to ask if you agreed with the criticism of your last sentence with the word “heuristic” — but I see you deleted it.”

    Oh. I didn’t delete anything intentionally I don’t think. I just looked and I can still see it.

    So I think of a heuristic as a rule-of-thumb. It is a convenient and fast way to get to a result. But a heuristic, to me, is intimately bound with the possibility of an incorrect result. To follow a heuristic is to follow an approximation of the truth. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    Heuristics can be useful even if they are wrong much more often than they are right. So “don’t get in a car with strangers” might be a good heuristic, not because most strangers are dangerous, but because the cost of not getting into a safe car is much less than the cost of getting into a dangerous one. Similarly “if the clouds are dark, take an umbrella.”

    Technically this comes up all the time in my day job. We generate heuristics from data mining (a heuristic is a pattern that is triggered on incomplete data) and use cost metrics to determine what heuristics are warranted. There are also a bunch of well known heuristics on certain problems that dramatically speed up calculations (but can be wrong, and can even make the problem unsolvable). Anyway…

    On the medical example. Yes, that’s more what I was thinking; a good example of not using the poor ignorant soul as a rhetorical device.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s