Tuesday, May 16, 2017

“Refutation” inflation

The present note is an exercise in logic and linguistic hygiene.  It is not political per se, and in particular is agnostic as to the facts and merits of the tangled case under discussion.]

One of the top stories in today’s crowded news:

The family of slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich rejected Fox News reports that he had leaked work e-mails to WikiLeaks before he was fatally shot last year in the District.
The reports, which gained traction on social media, said an FBI forensics examination showed Rich transferred 44,053 DNC e-mails and 17,761 attachments to a now-deceased WikiLeaks director.
Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Ann, said Tuesday through a spokesman that they do not believe their son gave any information to WikiLeaks.

That is admirably and neutrally stated.  However, some news sources are reporting the same facts with headlines like “Seth Rich Parents Refute New Claims On Wikileaks Contact”.   Therein lies a confusion.

To refute is (in its original, non-catachrestic sense) to disprove.  The allegations in question are perfectly precise and emprical, subject to either (partial) refutation or (partial) confirmation.
But the only party in a position to refute the allegations is someone who professionally and forensically examined the laptop in question.    Does it contain such material, or does it not?  The family is in no position to “refute” the allegation, however false it may be.  Indeed, on the Post account, they cannot really be said even to have denied the allegations;  they simply said they don’t believe them.  A perfectly rational stance; but not exactly a denial (for after all, how would they know -- if their son had been secretly betraying his employer, why would he inform his family?), and certainly not a refutation.

Increasingly, the less careful media uses refute where deny would be appropriate.  Part of this may be simple semantic weakness on the journalists’ part (to which many other technical terms, like impeach, are subject), but partly also to the fact that deny has accumulated invidious connotations, as though anyone who “denies” X  is himself shady in some way.   That is a legitimate worry;  other synonyms are available (the family discounted/pooh-poohed/scoffed at/… the allegations) which lack such connotations.  Better to use these than to induce a crucial ambiguity in the verb refute, in a way that renders it inapt for precise usage.

Note:  There are other ways of disposing of an allegation, other than outright refutation:  you may undermine, or infirm, or discredit it, in various ways.   Thus, if a witness presenting himself as Dr. Smith (M.D. Harvard) testifies that the deceased died of psoriasis, another doctor (or team thereof) might refute that testimony (on its own ground) by presenting evidence that the deceased had a huge malignant brain tumor but had never had a skin condition.  But anyone -- say, a lowly clerk at Harvard Medical School -- could discredit the testimony on entirely other grounds, by showing that Smith never attended Harvard Medical School, nor (with a bit of extra digging) ever so much as finished high school.  That would be devastating counter-evidence, but not a “refutation” in the technical sense.  (Logically, Smith might nonetheless have blundered upon the correct explanation of the demise.)

One can’t help suspecting that the media’s terminological laxity might be connected to an epistemological weakness:  presenting counter-allegations as evidentially telling (whether or not they are actually awarded the accolade “refutation”) although (consider the source) they are suspect or underminded at the outset, as coming from the accused's family, or attorney, or partner in crime.  Some of these are treated with great journalistic reverence, and actually pass into folklore  --“he was hoping to go to college”, “he was starting to turn his life around”,  “he didn’t have a gun” (though one was found in his possession, surrounded by spent cartridges).


A particularly piquant use of the term “refutation” occurs in the mathematical polylogue by Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations (1976).  The title impishly echoes that of Karl Popper’s better-known Conjectures and Refutations (1962).  But whereas that title reflected the expection rough-and-tumble of normal science, Lakotos’ phrase produces a double-take:  if a “proof” gets “refuted”, it wasn’t really a proof to begin with, but only a purported proof.  But Lakatos is not referring to those (relatively rare) instances of purported proofs that turned out to be fatally flawed, and left no progeny in mathematics.  Rather, he considers mathematical demonstrations that were all right so far as they went, but which contained hidden assumptions.  These being unearthed in a “refutation”, the original proof, or something much like it, gets deepened, until further unsuspected subtleties become revealed.    He offers a dialectic analysis of the process of mathematizing.   The result does not demote mathematical truth to a mere just-so story, as among nihilists and relativists.  It rather offers a more epistemologically modest picture of the mathematical enterprise (the human excavation of a transcendental reality, a Platonist would say), in which the notions of “proof” and “refutation” both get toned down a bit, and the process becomes a bit more like developing a software package, finding and fixing bugs along the way.  The result is real progress.

For a more technical discussion of refutation and its semantic field, try

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Trolley Problem: a new variant

What is currently commonly known as “the Trolley Problem” is an old chestnut in moral philosophy.  History and variants here:


In today’s superheated psychosocial climate, a new variant has arisen:

A child is lying unconscious across the trolley track.  Donald Trump is standing nearby, oblivious, thinking about his ratings.  A trolley is rapidly bearing down on the scene. You only have time to do one of two things:

(a)  Pull the child off the track to safety
(b)  Push Trump in front of the trolley

Which do you do?

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Word of the Day: “Appropriation”

The latest catchphrase from the “trigger-warnings” crowd  is:  “cultural appropriation.”   Snowflakes are melting in the heat of the phrase.
The current epicenter of this kerfuffle is Canada.  Since Canada doesn't get to be the epicenter of all that much, we'll put the maple-leaf links front & center:


Bad, bad  Bard !

Take an example: Logically, if an author is male, there could be no female characters in his book.  He couldn't possibly present their inner truth -- and if he did, it would be even worse:  appropriation.
Quickly running the classics through the mind, the only novel that passes the test is Moby Dick.  All others, by male authors, must be burned.

It's okay -- a male whale

For more about our lovable subaqueous sea-chum, try these

[Update] This just in:  PETA has demanded the censorship of Moby Dick.
HarperCollins is preparing a new P.C. edition, minus the whale.

(/ satire.  Not worth analyzing.  We have not to get down in the sandbox with the bisounours, to wrangle over such notions.  As Hegel (or someone) once wittily put it:  “When you hear the terms ‘safe space’ or ‘appropriation’ -- entsichern Sie ihren Glock.”)


A generation ago, a somewhat related notion was that of coöptation.   The Establishment (that was the “They”, back Then) would dangle a carrot; and if you took it, you’d been co-opted.


Although lists of huffy demands by aggrieved poetical Eskimos  have little resonance outside a certain milieu, there is a deeper and much more general issue hiding behind it, one discussed  over the decades  under such rubrics as “The Uses of the Past”.
An especially subtle one is offered by the historian Tony Judt, in his wide-ranging pre-post-mortem exposition Thinking the Twentieth Century.   Here he refers to the “misappropriation” of the Holocaust narrative, by a motley assortment of factions.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A side-bet for “Pascal’s Wager”

For the most part, Pascal’s Wager gets little respect these days, whether among believers or agnostics.  But it turns out you can take Pascal’s logic quite seriously, and wind up … backing a horse of another color entirely.

Such are the Yazidis:  devil-worshippers by repute;  but not, it appears, Satanists.  Let us explain.

Historically, Satanists do not form any single actual church, apart from occasional aberrations:
Rather, they are individuals of a particular bent, who, like Faust or Aleister Crowley, out of diabolical Superbia, dabble in the dark arts.  They generally (like Faust or Crowley) formed part of some ambient mainstream faith, before defecting in service of the Prince of Lies.

As for what is really going on with the Yazidis, it is difficult to know, since they themselves -- a hermetically closed sect -- are mum on the subject, and their neighbors, being all of them detractors, cannot well be relied upon.  But roughly (and since we are dealing here with theological logic, and not with Mideast anthropology, that rough cut will do): 
(Not history, but rational reconstruction):
At some point around the dawn of the sect, its elders reasoned thus:

(1)  God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, is notoriously forgiving.  -- Here they reason with Heinrich Heine, whose reported last-words, trifling with God on his death-bed, were:
Bien sûr, il me pardonnera; c'est son métier.
(2)  Satan, on the other hand, has an evil reputation:  vicious and vindictive.  You don’t want to get on his Enemies List.
(3)  Ergo:  Placate Satan (in words, at least) in this life;  and hope for forgiveness in the next.

Such a prudentially propitiatory policy  may be compared with paying protection-money to Al Capone.  Doesn’t mean you like the guy;  it’s just an expense of doing business.

Se non è vero, è ben trovato;  think of it as a Gedankenexperiment.

The pros and cons of Pascal’s Wager  are reviewed here:

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Leckerbissen aus dem deutschen Sprachraum.

Aus dem Deutschen Goethes, aus dem Deutschen von Hammer-Purgstall, aus dem Persischen von Hafis…

Quelle: West-östlicher Divan, Buch Suleika…

Den starken Zeitwörtern  zugewidmet

Der Detektiv -- Private Eye, versteht sich -- ist ein Mann ohne Eigenschaften…

The following poem is not merely “correct”, from the standpoint of German;  it embodies the Germanic folk-ballad  to the very core …

Znüni ?  It’s Schwizerdütsch for what in general German would be Imbiß (etymologically: ‘in-bite’):  ‘snack’, or rather specifically a morning snack, since etymologically it means “a nine-o’clock-er” (from the Alemannic equivalents of zu + neun).


“Träume sind Schäume”

… aiming for a slight Entfremdungseffekt,   along the lines of Heidegger’s  Was heisst Denken? or Dedekind’s Was Sind und Was Sollen  die Zahlen?

"Die Vermessung der Welt"

I have frequently had occasion to quote the Comments of the alert and witty Figaronauts;  here, the readers of the Frankfurter Allgemeine  likewise do not disappoint.

Es war eben nur kurz nach meiner Promovierung zum Doktor der Medizin, als ich noch mich als Forscher im Physiologischen Institut Brückes in Wien tätig machte, da kam es zu mir im Labor  eine mir bisher unbekannte junge Dame …

“During a performance of Parsifal  in the Vienna Staatsopera,  in the middle of the most solemn scene,  he had the most irresistible impulse  to shout at the top of his voice:  Mazzesknoedel!” “

“Unter allen großen Völkern der Erde  entnationalisiert sich keines so leicht  wie die Deutschen.”

Hurra!  Wir kapitulieren !!!

“Who Am I – Kein System ist sicher”

This sort of logopoeic confection was completely characteristic of the Russian of the time, e.g. Komsomol (roughly: COMmunist /SOviet/MOLodyets (youth).)
Somewhat similarly, in German, among the opponents of the Hooligans (who are perceived as right-wing) are the Antifa

the parallel between Schutzverwandte and dhimmis,

“Künftig ist es verboten, Kennzeichen oder Symbole der Miliz in Deutschland zu verwenden…”

“Der dunkle Schatten des F-Worts”

“Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.”

Gröfaz:  a name ugly enough to have served some monster of mythology, some twisted kobold or goblin…”

"Hör' zu, Maria, zärtliche Vorschläge

It is the central plot-device of Chamisso’s celebrated  novella Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte, in which the hapless title character (a Pechvogel, and eponym of all later schlemiels and schlemazels) sells his shadow to the Devil

“Palmström loves  to wrap himself in rustles … “

“Der Gröfaz ist ein gräßlich Ding…”

So,  schneeweiss means ‘snow-white, white as snow’.  Whereas schlohweiss means:  white as snowbunnies.

“Meinecke … was never taken in by those he called the Schlagododros …”

Wie eine Kultur  sich selbst auffrißt

A mittel-europäischer rationalist recalls “those golden, and, all in all very peaceful final decades of the colonial system”,  and adverts ad the hermeneuts …

Monday, May 1, 2017

Blue Lives Shatter

This is what police in France have to put up with these days, under the socialiste government that has manacled them and berated them for the past five years.

Vivement le 7 mai !



At this attack, the police didn't even shoot back.   While they watched their comrade being turned into bacon, they responded with ... tear-gas (against a mob that was already well-proteced against that).

The CGT (Communist unions) chortled over the incident, speaking of poulet grillé (poulet, literally ‘chicken’, is slang for ‘cop’).


Berlin as well  had its share of incendiary attacks on police.

Berlin, 1 May 2017

32 officers were injured in Berlin alone.


For the background to such atrocities (cela ne date pas d'hier), consult:


Footnote to a footnote

(Or rather, to what turns out to be even less than a footnote, but merely an after-echo of C.S. Lewis.)

Just added to the essay “Internal, External, Universal”:

I had rather hoped to have added a “Footnote to CSL” with that shtick about creatures as homomorphic images (of various cuts and complexity) of their Creator, a more flexible metaphor than Lewis’ example of the faces of a cube.  But upon re-reading his essay “Transposition”, I learn that Transposition is his term for much the same thing -- he even uses the term algebraic in that connection.  The whole idea is worked-out exquisitely in that place.