Axiometry, Part I: “We Fear What We Don’t Understand”


There are sayings, quotes, and mantras that permeate our world, formulations that have become shibboleths, accepted as true because they have been around forever. They are, shall we say, the conventional wisdom.

You know how I feel about the conventional wisdom.

Like my series on what I call “cultural traps” I’d like to examine some of these sayings in-depth, testing whether they even make any sense. And given my love of portmanteaus (for example, the name of this blog), I call this series Axiometry:

Axiom: “A rule or principle that many people accept as true.”

-metry: “Art, process, or science of measuring.”

I want to measure these axioms to determine whether we should accept them as true.

Our first is that well-known old saw: “We fear what we don’t understand.”

Do we?

Is the unknown always frightening?

I have several problems with this statement. This is almost too easy an axiom to parse, but as it’s so commonly used and taken as “The Way Things Are,” I think it’s worth discussing.

I contend that the saying, “We fear what we don’t understand,” is feel-good shorthand for people who want to sound like THEY CARE to signal to other people the depth of their empathy.

Let’s perform some axiometry!

Lessons from The Law


Count I: “We fear what we don’t understand” implies that all we have to do to be unafraid is to understand something. I hate to jump straight to the Nazis, but this analogy drives my point home: If you were a Jew living in Germany in 1938 or 1939 and found yourself afraid of the Nazis, though you didn’t know too much about the finer points of their philosophy, would reading Mien Kampf really put you at ease?

I didn’t think so.

Count II: There are plenty of things that, when you understand them more, increase your fear. I don’t like sharks, and would indeed be afraid of swimming near them, precisely because I know about them. The same can be said about my feelings regarding poisonous snakes, scorpions, and jihadists: I would like to remain as far away as humanly possible with each of these things due to my knowledge of their ill-effects on my health and well-being.

Love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan had a great saying that speaks to this point:

How do you tell a communist? Well, it’s someone who reads Marx and Lenin. and how do you tell an anti-Communist? It’s someone who understands Marx and Lenin.


I’m not saying that Reagan’s word is law, but his quote sure makes a whole lot more sense than “We fear that what we don’t understand.”

Count III: My previous points are driving towards this, but fear can keep you alive. If you live in a high-crime neighborhood, for example, you might fear burglars or robbers, whether or not you understand their motivation. This fear might lead you to purchase a firearm. This firearm might lead you to successfully defend yourself against a person who has far less regard for the law than you do. In this case, your fear of crime sounds like a pretty good thing to me. It kept you alive.

And while we’re talking about Ronald Reagan, fear of the Soviet Union launching nuclear weapons impelled the Untied States to build up its own nuclear arsenal. This lead to the M.A.D. scenario: Mutually Assured Destruction, where each side knew that, the second it launched its nukes, the other would respond in kind. And guess what: Both sides feared dying in a nuclear holocaust, and therefore did not launch any missiles (though there were a few close calls during the Cold War)

Count IV: While it’s true that understanding something might make you fear it less or not at all, it might actually justify your initial fear. Again, let’s take a look at jihad. The more you understand these people’s methods and motivations, your fear of them seems even more appropriate.

Want a less-heavy example than jihad? How about drugs. Using heroin sounds like a bad idea. Something to even be afraid of. The more I learn about this substance and the demonic addiction it causes, the more I know I’m right to fear it.

Count V: Sometimes the unknown can be fun. Exciting! When we go on adventures–or what passes for adventure in this modern world–sometimes the unknown is what we want. We run towards it. You might argue that it is the fear itself which is exciting. And yet, by running actively seeking it out, one isn’t displaying the typical behaviors associated with being frightened of something. So the unknown, therefore, is not always feared.


The best defense I can muster is that this axiom is sometimes true.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had a famous saying that bears repeating here:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns–the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

(Don’t you love how I’m using sayings to test the veracity of other sayings?)

So for those of you who like lists and bullet points, there are:

  • Known knowns: Things we know.
  • Known unknowns: Things we don’t know.
  • Known unknowns: Things we don’t know we don’t know.

I argue that the unknown unknowns are what we should fear more than the known unknowns. If you know you don’t know something, you can work to increase your knowledge of it. If you don’t know that you don’t know something, you don’t know what you’re looking for.

You know?


“We fear what we don’t know” is not an entirely false axiom. It’s just not always true. It’s a bit misleading. It doesn’t give the complete story.

One could rewrite it to read: “We often fear what we don’t know. What we should truly fear is what we don’t know what we don’t know.”

But that’s not very pithy or aesthetically pleasing. It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue in the way that all good axioms do.

Final Recommendation: Use this axiom with care, and don’t take it as an absolute truth. After all, we sometimes fear sayings that we don’t know are accurate or not.

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