Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Amateur Psycho Linguist
attempts to explain why an interpretation of a newspaper article which respects the dictionary definitions of words is, nonetheless, plainly dishonest.

Atrios sends me to this controversy

Very briefly a Kos diarist (Stark) objects to an article written by a journalist (Graham) describing his actions and does not reach agreement with a journalist. I think that elementary semantics shows that the journalist is arguing dishonestly. Sad to say, I don't know elementary semantics. Sadder still, I never let my own ignorance stop me.

To briefly summarise uncontested facts: Stark challenged George Felix Allen Jr with some tough questions. Stark claims that he requested and received explicit permission to ask questions before asking them. Senator Allen said he would answer the questions after a press availability. A campaign aid asked Stark to leave the hotel where Allen was. The manager of the hotel asked Stark to leave. Stark left. Note that it is agreed that Allen did not answer all of Stark's questions.

Reporting Graham wrote "Allen at first requested that Stark wait to speak with him until after he had addressed questions from the members of the media who were awaiting the start of the press availability. Allen campaign aide David Snepp then asked Stark to leave after he became combative" (this is actually a rewriting. Graham removed the claim that Stark had been escorted out in response to Stark's objection).

Stark objected to the use of the phrase "after he became combative" (among many other things) "...Sixth:I've got this entire sequence recorded and I just listened to it on my IPod. I defy you to show me any point at which I became "combative". Yes, I asked difficult questions, but there was no point at which I raised my voice or otherwise acted ignobly....

Graham replied "6: ..."Combative" is another word whose definition would seem to be pretty clear. The wording of your opening question to the senator was "combative." Your resistance to the overtures from the senator and Mr. Snepp to allow the senator to proceed with the Q and A session that had been prearranged - obviously outside of your realm of knowledge - with members of the local media was also "combative."..."

Stark replied "... the audio of the exchange is here:http://www.callingallwingnuts.com/audio/mstark-podcast-2006-08-26-1217.mp3 ...
As you can tell by listening to the tape, I agreed to wait for the Senator. I never became "combative" after that."

Note that Stark makes audio publicly available. Graham, in contrast, wrote "5: My tape recorder was running at the early part of your conversation with the senator. I have played it back, and could not detect the answer to your question as you noted."
Thus journalists feel it is sufficient to report their impression of their audio recordings while Kos diarists make the audio publicly available. The point at issue is whether Allen said "no" audibly. Click the link above.

To me the intersting point is that Graham argues "The wording of your opening question to the senator was "combative." " as justification of the statement "Allen campaign aide David Snepp then asked Stark to leave after he became combative." I think this argument is consistent with the dictionary definitions of the words involved and with the standard rules of English grammer. It is also an argument that any reasonable person would find patently false and dishonest. Why ?

I'd say that there are other rules of communication than those found in dictionaries or grammer texts. These rules are not taught in school, because almost everyone finds them obvious and applies them instantly and effortlessly. They have something to do with Gricean attribution theory which Ehud Reiter briefly attempted to explain to me about 17 years ago.

Graham proposes that "combative" could be interpreted as "asked an opening question which was combative". Does anyone believe that Graham could have written what I put in parentheses

("A University of Virginia law student and self-identified supporter of Democratic Party Senate candidate Jim Webb was asked to leave a George Allen campaign event in Staunton today after interrupting the start of a local press availability with the senator to ask him a series of questions that included a racial slur."Have you ever used the word `nigger'?" the man, who later identified himself in a Web log posting as Mike Stark, a first-year law student at UVa., asked the Republican incumbent after Allen had finished up speaking to a local chamber of commerce group.

After repeating the question, Stark then asked Allen about a Confederate flag and noose that he keeps in his office.

Allen at first requested that Stark wait to speak with him until after he had addressed questions from the members of the media who were awaiting the start of the press availability. Allen campaign aide David Snepp then asked Stark to leave after he" asked an opening question which was combative).

Such words in such an order could not be written in a newspaper or uttered by a human being. It is absolutely implausible that someone would describe a combative opening question, then describe other events, the write "after Stark asked his opening question" then describe still other events. Such an article would not include a false claim of fact, but it would be absurd, since the qualifier "after Stark asked his opening question" is plainly redundant, the question itself having been described previously. When writing and speaking we avoid redundant statements and qualifiers. The reason isn't just to save breath or ink and paper or the time of our listeners or readers. We do so also because such statements are very very confusing.

Since people don't repeat themselves when writing or speaking without interruption, we assume that a statement (or qualifier) which can be interpreted so as to be redundant is not correctly interpreted so that it is redundant, and that it must have some other meaning. The rule "don't add totally pointless words" is usually applied automatically and effortlessly, that is, without concentration or concious concern about the rule. The rule "when interpreting something you hear or read do not interpret statements or qualifiers so that they are totally pointless" is, similarly, applied automatically and effortlessly by all reasonable people.

No normal person would interpret "after he became combative" as a reference to the combativeness which had already been explicitly described.

Another rule of semantics is that one does not qualify only one of two statements when the same qualifier applies to both. Thus if "after he became combative" applies to everything that happened after Stark asked his opening question, then one would normally apply it also to "Allen at first requested that Stark wait to speak with him until after he had addressed questions from the members of the media ". No reasonable person would imagine that the qualifier could have been applied equally to both clauses given that it was applied only to "Allen campaign aide David Snepp then asked Stark to leave".

Finally (and this is very obvious) the words "then ... after" strongly suggests that the time of the event (asking Stark to leave) is characterised by coming after (he became combative) in contrast to the immediately precedent events (Allen says he will answer after the press availability softened by Graham to Allen asked to answer after the press availability).

I think it is clear that Graham's argument is patently dishonest. He interpreted his article in a way which is consistent with the dictionary definitions of the words in it and with the rules of English grammer, but which is not consistent with the rules of human communication.

When thinking of Graham think of the following stupid joke "Why does the fireman wear red suspenders ? To keep his pants up." It is not funny, but the reason it is a joke is that the qualifier "red" is irrelevant. Thus the interpretation of the question as "why does the fireman wear either suspenders or a belt" is consistent with the dictionary meaning of the words, but is clearly not at all reasonable.

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