Everybody Knows

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“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.