“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded.
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
Everybody knows the war is over.
Everybody knows the good guys lost.”
– Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows
“It is known.” – Dothraki saying
It is not known. Everybody doesn’t know.
When someone claims that everyone knows something, either they are short-cutting and specifically mean ‘everyone in this well-defined small group where complex common knowledge of this particular thing is something we have invested in,’ they are very wrong about how the world works, or much more commonly, they are flat out lying.
Saying that everybody knows is almost never a mistake. The statement isn’t sloppy reasoning. It’s a strategy that aims to cut off discussion or objection, to justify fraud and deception, and to establish truth without evidence.
Not Everybody Knows
Let us first establish quickly that everyone doesn’t know. There are many ways to see this.
One way to see this is to point out that when Alice tells Bob that everybody knows X, either Bob is asserting X because people act as if they don’t know X, or Bob does not know X. That’s why Alice is telling Bob in the first place.
A second way is to attempt to explain something in detail as you would to a child.
A cleaner way is to consider some examples of things that a lot of people don’t know. According to the first Google hit, 32 million American adults can’t read, and 50% can’t read a book at the 8th grade level. Various other tests of basic skills from school don’t look much better. Here are some more basic facts many Americans don’t know, including 20% who think the Sun revolves around the Earth. Nigerian prince scams still make over $700,000 per year. Doctors can’t do basic job-relevant probability calculations within an order of magnitude. Just yesterday (as of writing this) I had to explain to a college graduate that Bitcoin was more volatile than the stock market, and Forex was not a responsible retirement savings plan.
What does the claim that ‘everybody knows’ mean?
There are a few different things ‘everybody knows’ is standing in for when someone claims it.
In most of them, the claim that literal actual ‘everybody knows’ is sort of the Bailey, and the thing we’ll describe here is the implicit Motte that ‘everyone knows’ is your real message. Which of course, in turn, not everybody knows. As is often the case, the Bailey is blatantly false. But demonstrating that is socially costly. It shows you are the one who does not get it, who is not in on the goings on. So much so that when someone ‘calls someone out’ on a blatant lie, the liar socially benefits.
I see four related central modes. They overlap and reinforce each other, and are often all in play at once.
The first central mode is ‘this is obviously true because social proof, so I don’t have to actually provide that social proof.’
Often the proof in question doesn’t exist at all. Other times, it’s a plurality of ‘experts’ in a survey, or a reporter’s reading of a single scientific study, or three friends backing each other up – or people who have been told or gotten the impression everybody knows, so they claim to know, too. The phrase ‘everybody knows’ is a great way to cause an information cascade.
The second central mode of ‘everyone knows’ is when it means ‘if you do not know this, or you question it, you are stupid, ignorant and blameworthy.’
It’s your own damn fault for going out in the rain and getting soaked. It’s your own damn fault for not knowing that everything politicians say (or something the speaker said) is a lie, even though they frequently tell the truth – which means they ‘aren’t really lies’ because no one was fooled. It’s your own damn fault for not keeping up with the latest gossip or fashion trends.
It is made clear that to question this is to show you are stupid, ignorant and blameworthy, especially if the statement everyone knows is false. You’d be all but volunteering to be the scapegoat.
A classic mode is the condemnation ‘everyone knows that X is (everywhere / great / the right thing / necessary / patriotic / fair / standard / appropriate / customary / the party line / how things get done around here / smart / right / a thing / not a thing / a conspiracy theory / wrong / evil / stupid / slander / rhetoric used by the out-group / rhetoric that supports the out-group / unacceptable / impossible / impractical / unthinkable / horrible / unfair / stupid / rude / your own fault / racist / sexist / treason / cheating / cultural appropriation / etc etc etc).
The whole point is to establish truth without allowing a response or providing evidence.
Note that this is self-referencing. To be someone, you have to know what ‘everybody knows’ means.
A third central mode is ‘if you do not know this (and, often, also claim everyone knows this), you do not count as part of everyone, and therefore are no one. If you wish to be someone, or to avoid becoming no one, know this.’
This works both to make those on the outs not people, and to make the statements used unquestionable.
Thus, one is not blameworthy for acting as if everyone knows, because if someone is revealed not to know, that means they are no one, and therefore they have no relevant impact or moral personhood. They can be ignored. Perhaps those who do not know this, or question it, are the outgroup. Perhaps they are simply those who don’t get ahead, the little people. Perhaps they’re just the fools we pity. Regardless, until they catch on, it is good and right to scam them – it is a sin to let a sucker keep his money.
A key variation on this is to flip the order into a way to admonish someone when they expose a falsehood or fraud someone wishes to perpetuate. First they argue that the thing is not a fraud, ideally that everyone knows it is not a fraud, but they lose, they fall back by flipping their position entirely. They now say: You’re calling this thing a fraud. But everyone knows it’s a fraud, so why are you wasting everyone’s time saying it’s a fraud when everyone already knows? This must be a social tactic, trying to lower the status of the fraud by pointing out what everyone already knows. Or if you think we don’t already know, that must mean you think we aren’t anyone. How insulting.
The fourth central mode is ‘we are establishing this as true, and ideally as unquestionable, so pass that information along as something everyone knows.’ It’s aspirational, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps we already have done so by the time you’re hearing this (and that’s bad, because it means you’re not hearing about new things everyone knows quickly enough!) or perhaps you’re the first person to be told.
Either way, join the conspiracy. Spread that everybody knows the dice are loaded and rolls with their fingers crossed. Spread that everybody knows the war is over, and everybody knows the good guys lost.
So they’ll cross their fingers rather than demand fair dice. So that they’ll stop trying to fight the war.
In my experience, when people pull this particular rhetorical trick in any context which accommodates back-and-forth conversation, there’s a relatively easy way to defuse it while dodging many of the costs that it’s designed to impose on those who do so: ask “who is ‘everyone’?”, and remain softly pushy on the matter in the likely event that the speaker tries to avoid giving a clear answer. If they give a clear answer, then the ‘everyone’-related equivocation that they’re trying to pull falls apart, and at that point it’s possible to give counterexamples to their more-precisely-defined group-under-discussion without running into most of the traps described in this post. If they refuse to give a clear answer, even after some repeated prodding on the matter, then that leaves things rhetorically open for you to propose your own answer on their behalf, which will either force them to clarify themselves in order to deny your proposed answer or dismantle their equivocation in the same way that their own offer of a clear answer would. And, crucially, asking the question doesn’t imply that the asker isn’t part of ‘everyone’, making it harder (although admittedly not impossible) to launch the sorts of counterattacks against that would have been launchable if the asker had more straightforwardly disputed the ‘everyone knows’ claim.
(Because, after all, everyone knows that not literally everyone knows, and won’t it be easier to discuss the matter if we’re clearer on who it is that we’re actually talking about?)
Sometimes there’s equivocation on “knows,” in which people are acting or talking in *some* contexts as though the thing were common (or at least mutual) knowledge, but in other contexts they make decisions or assertions that only make sense if they didn’t know about the thing or didn’t think their audience knew.
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It’s kind of cute when a little kid says it, but also scary too that they’ve learned what it means enough to use it.
There’s an exasperated form of this to which I’m sympathetic and there seem to be enough heightened perception of malicious opposition, among lots of people on lots of topics, that it’s, sadly, too infrequently worth even gently resisting these expressions.
I positively enjoy ‘everybody knows’ being almost universally untrue; relevant xkcd:
– [xkcd: Ten Thousand](https://xkcd.com/1053/)
When I watched Behind The Curve, the documentary about people that believe not only that the Earth is flat but that almost everyone else is maliciously supporting or ignorantly repeating the opposite, I felt *challenged* – I would love to demonstrate to them, to even just one of them, that Earth is in fact an oblate spheroid and that truth is connected to almost all other truths in such intimately, and intricately beautiful ways, and I was saddened to realize that I couldn’t readily do so, off the top of my head, because I was too much of a person in that ‘everybody knows’ camp and, ironically, because of being in that camp, I actually *didn’t* know myself, directly.
I found what you’ve written here to confirm a bit more something I believe about what Eliezer has termed ‘the Bayesian revolution’ – that it so wonderfully *dissolves* so much tension and fear concerning ‘believing the right thing’. When beliefs are either only True or False, belief feels fraught – and it is! But when we forego ‘proof’ for evidence, and ‘knowing’ for a *degree* of belief, we become much freer to change our minds and admit that what ‘everybody knows’ is, at least sometimes, something we personally only believe because people we love or trust or admire have told us is true.
Next time you feel *challenged*: http://www.mezzacotta.net/100proofs/
Thanks for the reply. I just scanned the (currently) first item, number 19, at that page, and I don’t think a flat-Earther would find it convincing. One reason being that it’s using GPS to measure the movement of vertical towers of suspension bridges – obviously the GPS system is part of the round-Earth conspiracy!
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This is related to pluralistic ignorance, in fact you’ve described kind of a weaponised version of it.
Great recent show about it (using Jones Town as an example which some may find distressing) on the You Are Not So Smart podcast – https://youarenotsosmart.com/2019/07/02/yanss-157-the-psychology-behind-why-people-dont-speak-out-against-and-even-defend-norms-they-secretly-despise/
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A much-belated comment here, but I had to point out that in a truly inspired self-own, the author of your linked post on all the things Americans are too dumb to know appears to believe that the US was responsible for the Holocaust:
‘Despite being a constant fixture in school curricula, another 30% of Americans didn’t know what the Holocaust was. Despite being some of the worst devastation in human history, Americans were unable to identify the country responsible: We were. Us.’
The “source” link in the linked post is broken but this seems to be the intended page: https://www.alternet.org/2015/03/ignorant-america-just-how-stupid-are-we/
There’s only one use of “Holocaust” on that page and it doesn’t mention anything about answers as to which country was responsible.
But in the comments on the linked post several people claim that the “We were. Us” is the _incorrect_ answer that the survey respondents gave.
I admit that it’s very confusingly written!
That does sound a *bit* like post hoc rationalization, but fair enough!
Yeah, I’m skeptical too, but I just figured I’d report what I discovered!
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