Guy Burgess: The QED Trap

By Guy Burgess

Sept. 27, 2022

In high school geometry class, I learned that I was supposed to finish every "proof" with the acronym QED (for "quod erat demonstrandum"). This meant that I had established an incontrovertible fact and that, going forward, I could use that fact as a basis for subsequent "proofs." In the course of a career spent studying intractable conflict, I have adapted this concept into something that I call the QED Trap — a trap that plays a major role in making intractable conflicts intractable. 

The QED trap arises when people follow a line of evidence and reasoning that leads them to conclude that some fact or position is absolutely correct and, by extension, that anybody who disagrees is absolutely wrong — often so wrong that they no longer deserve to be treated with respect or even accepted as members of the community. The trap is triggered when other people follow other lines of evidence and reasoning and reach equally firm, but incompatible, conclusions about closely related (though not necessarily identical) issues. When the resulting collision of proven facts involves issues of great consequence, the result is often a major societal confrontation between parties who are absolutely convinced that they are in the right and who are willing to use all of the powers they have available to them in an attempt to force their conclusions on others.

The trap's power is almost always reinforced by the fact that people inhabit information bubbles in which content providers realize that they won't be able to retain the trust and loyalty of their audience unless they steadfastly support the group's core truths.

For example, with respect to climate change, there is one group that, based on one line of evidence and reasoning, has reached what they see as an unassailable conclusion that climate change poses an existential threat to humanity that is so urgent and critical that a climate emergency should be declared and societies should be forced to switch over to carbon-free energy as quickly as is humanly possible.  Anyone who disagrees with this conclusion is derided as a "climate denier" — someone to be firmly opposed and not to be taken seriously.

There are others who follow what is, to them, a similarly compelling line of reasoning — one that looks at available evidence and, from their perspective, concludes that climate change is just one aspect of a larger and even more serious problem — oppressive capitalism. This conclusion leads this group to support comparably urgent, populist calls for dismantling the oppressive world order that has been built around capitalism and liberal democracy.

Still others look at available evidence from a third perspective — one that is much more skeptical about the likely effectiveness of the decarbonization strategies being championed by the first group. While this group acknowledges that climate change is a serious threat, they think that we have time to develop truly workable solutions and that it is a mistake to rush toward expensive, feel-good solutions that won't actually work. Their focus is on maintaining the productive capacity of the global economy so that, as genuinely effective technologies are developed and as uncertainties about actual impacts are resolved, societies have the capacity needed to protect their citizens.

And, of course, there are those who think that the climate change scare is a scam designed to enrich the green energy industry at the expense of everyone else.

The QED trap operates by locking these groups into a win-lose struggle for power with little or no effort to synthesize the opposing perspectives into a more sophisticated approach to the problem — one that takes advantage of the reasonable insights of all groups (while filtering out truly erroneous information).  

The above is, of course, a highly simplified explanation of one instance in which the QED trap is operating. Similar stories could be told about virtually all of today's other big conflicts.

Like any trap, the QED trap is most dangerous when people don't see it. Once you recognize its dangers, it's much easier (though still difficult) to avoid.  People have to learn to accept the cognitive dissonance that comes with admitting that they might, to some degree, be wrong. People have to be willing to do some information bubble hopping and seek out thoughtful explanations of the other perspectives. And, they need to do the hard work of synthesizing multiple perspectives into more workable solutions.

The challenge, of course, is doing this when most everyone else is still operating under the influence of the trap and is likely to regard efforts to look at things from other perspectives as a serious betrayal. That said, the key to avoiding the trap still seems to be making many more people aware of the danger it poses and the importance of avoiding it.