It’s one of the oldest tricks in the books, and university administrators have learned to play it with panache.  Professor X says or writes something politically incorrect. The media asks for comment, and the dean or president answers, quite correctly, that the university does not ratify the position of professor X. What the spokesperson doesn’t add – but would have to if asked – is that neither does the university condemn what professor might have said or written. This is because a university is not the kind of thing that opines on matters that fall under the expertise, or lack thereof, of its faculty members. But because the media isn’t trained in how negations scope in a language, the impression is left that the administration is admonishing professor X. Which is precisely the impression the university is counting on.

But understanding how negations scope isn’t rocket science. Suppose I say I do not believe in God. Have I just denied the existence of God? No I have not. Because what I’ve said is fully consistent with my saying that neither do I believe there is no God. Believing in God is called theism. Believing there is no God is called atheism. But believing neither is called agnosticism. The mistake – and it’s a very common one – is thinking the negation can be moved from one side of the belief operator to the other without changing the meaning of the expression.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. As such it owes no fidelity to the rules of logical inference. Don’t be conned. When a politician or administrator says he does not believe that p, ask whether he believes that not-p. People who do not believe that p are making no claim about p one way or the other. People who believe not-p are claiming to know a great deal and should be held accountable for that claim. Call them on it!

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

2 replies

  1. This also illustrates the risk of making ambiguous or unclear negative statements like “I don’t believe in God.” The viewer/listener can say that shows agnosticism or atheism. If the speaker had said either that he was an agnostic or that he was an atheist the risk of deliberate or unintentional misconstruing would be gone.


  2. “I don’t think murder’s wrong.” “Oh, so you think it’s okay?” Get it all the time.


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