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.

Part of the problem in the fluidity of use of refute  might be  not political, but cognitive and linguistic:  confusion with the paronym rebut.
 [TBC ...]

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


The flip side of the coin, by which the media use artificially strengthened language when presenting the allegations of the victim class, is artificial down-grading when the allegations come from the authorities.   As, headline from a moment ago:

South San Francisco police officers on Wednesday morning shot and killed a man who they say was allegedly armed with a shotgun.

Either “they say” or “allegedly” would be an adequate and appropriate editorial distancing from the official police statement.    Together, they are at best redundant, or, if taken literally, false:  the police did not state “He was allegedly armed with a shotgun”;  such a statement would be in place if, say, the police had not actually seen the shotgun, but a bystander reported such possession of a shotgun (which had  been abstracted from the crime scene by the time the police arrived). 

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