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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Why was "Necessarily" Necessary

Pointlessly piling on I quote Kevin Drum

Via Atrios, I see that ABC News is running a story today about right-wing attack ads. The story acknowledges that "the nastiest rhetoric right now is coming from the political right," and Jake Tapper and Greg McCown document this with several examples. Then they end with this:

Democrats aren't necessarily running clean campaigns, though. As the races tighten in the next couple of weeks, the left will likely unleash its garbage as well.

Needless to say, they present exactly zero evidence for this.

OK so Tapper and McCown have already been blasted by Atrios and Drum, but now they are in for some real trouble. Drum goes on to politely note that they must know that , as suggested by all of the specific evidence they present, Republicans are principally responsible for lowering the level of debate. He concludes "no one who's followed politics for the past decade or two can pretend not to know how we got where we are today. For some reason, though, they sure do try." He has an important point which he expresses perfectly. I want to add some pointless quibbles.

The word "necessarily" serves no legitimate semantic purpose. It does not change or even clarify the meaning of the sentence. I don't see how it could possible be true that "Democrats aren't necessarily running clean campaigns, though" if the claim in brackets [Democrats aren't running clean campaigns, though] is false. Nor do I see how the quoted claim could be false and the modified claim could be true. I know that logical postivism has its problems, but I can't resist believing that two claims such that either both are true or both are false are equivalent claims.

Logically, semantically, in terms of truth values or, I think, meanings, the word "necessarily" adds nothing and subtracts nothing. It was a waste of time to say it on the air and quoting it (again and again) is a waste of pixels.

Now consider the edited 2 sentences "Democrats aren't running clean campaigns, though. As the races tighten in the next couple of weeks, the left will likely unleash its garbage as well." Here we have a claim in the present continuous which is not supported by any evidence. Instead, the final sentence is speculation about what might the future. Clearly, the claim in the edited sentence is libelous. It is an accusation, and the accusers go on to confess that they have no evidence for their claim and believe that there is no evidence for their claim. The argument that a currently false accusation might become true in the future is, of course, no defence in a libel suit.

Instead Tapper and McCown's defence would have to be that their statement is rendered arguably true by the word "necessarily." I find this odd, since I don't think that addition of that word could possible have changed a false statement into a true one. The key word in my proposed legal strategy is "arguably." Ah yes, that is another matter. It is impossible to describe any way in which the word "necessarily" changes, adds or clarifies meaning. It is also impossible to prove that it makes no difference. It is semantically useless verbiage which can only create confusion.

I think the purpose of the word "necessarily" was exactly to create confusion -- to make people unsure that they had understood the sentence so they wouldn't be sure that Tapper and McCown had lied.

One of the principles of reading and listening is to attempt to interpret what people say so that all words are necessary. It is generally useful to assume that people aren't wasting their breath. This appears to be something we do spontaneously, automatically and effortlessly (Gricean attribution theory I think). It is useful, even though people often do waste their breath, since there are many many ways to uselessly toss useless words around (this blog is proof if further proof were needed).

Semantically useless words serve a rhetorical purpose, because they cause listeners to doubt their comprehension. They create confusion which can be useful when one feels the need to make a patently false assertion.

Now why would ABC reporters feel the need to make accusations against Democrats which they believe to be false ?

Back to Drum

ABC News political director Mark Halperin on Bill O'Reilly's show last night:

As an economic model, if you want to thrive like Fox News Channel, you want to have a future, you better make sure conservatives find your product appealing.

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