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In other words

Pernicious paraphrase

Inspired by WIIIAI’s merciless documentation of George W. Bush’s use of the phrase “in other words”, I’ve begun to take notice of it elsewhere. Bush usually says “in other words” in order to rephrase a policy in terms a five-year-old or idiot could understand (whether for the benefit of an audience to which he is condescending, or for his own benefit, is not always clear). But “in other words” can be used in more creative ways. And when you see the word “creative” you will, like me, immediately think of “Melanie Phillips”. One of the things that excited “her” last week was an article by Daniel Pipes, describing a book by Timur Kuran which argues that “Islamic economics” was invented so as to:

minimize relations with non-Muslims, strengthen the collective sense of Muslim identity, extend Islam into a new area of human activity, and modernize without Westernizing.

“Melanie” cites this passage with glee and immediately glosses it thus:

In other words, Islamic finance is a political and ideological weapon which was devised as a means of subjugating the west to Islam. [emphasis added]

Probably “Melanie” just read “extend Islam into a new area” and shut off what remains of “her” brain, intepreting it according to her apocalyptic obsession with Islam invading the west. Of course the passage in Pipes’s article clearly means extending Islam into the area of finance, not into the area where “Melanie” lives. As to how anything could really work as “a means of subjugating the west to Islam” while at the same time hoping to “minimize relations with non-Muslims”, we are in the dark. Perhaps they will use robots as intermediaries? ((Oh, no, wait, that’s “us”.))

In any case, it’s a useful illustration of the fact that in other words can often mean in other words, which mean something completely different.

Meanwhile, I have been reading Cass Sunstein’s 2.0, an update to his 2001 book about how the internet might hurt democracy, which now contains, excitingly, a chapter about blogs. (I wrote a short review of the book for the Guardian.) Therein we find a subtler example of “in other words”, used to cover up the author’s own gaping logical hole:

Some of the elite or “focal point” bloggers have their own biases. Many of them are primarily interested in cherry-picking items of opinion or information that reinforce their preexisting views. In other words, we lack a blog that succeeds in correcting errors and assembling truths. [pp142-3, emphasis added]

Let us stand back and admire the structure of this argument:

1 “Some” blogs are biased.
2 “Many” blogs are selective.
3 ???
4 “In other words”, no blog corrects errors and assembles truths.

That is an excellent “in other words”. It adopts the air of a logical conclusion, almost like a therefore, and yet a) the fact that “many” blogs are biased or selective does not mean that all are, which is what Sunstein is trying to insinuate; but anyway b) the subject has quietly been changed from being biased or selective to the ability to correct errors and “assemble” truths, which is not the same thing at all. It would be perfectly possible to be dedicated to the project of correcting Democratic Party errors while never criticising Republicans, thus being biased while still having a commitment to truths.

Really, Sunstein appears to be disappointed that no blog he has yet seen is a magical truth machine, which corrects all errors and “assembles” all truths wherever they may be found. The small problem that such a blog would perforce need to be infinitely large and thus make the entire internet if not the whole universe explode is inconvenient, but apparently not insuperable.

Isn’t it also rather odd, this glib talk of “assembling” truths, as though from spare bits of Meccano found under the sofa? Well, Sunstein’s formula only needs a little tweaking to serve as the slogan of this blog from now on. In other words, I dedicate to the cause of assembling errors and correcting truths. Join me!

  1. 1  WIIIAI  October 7, 2007, 2:00 pm 

    Actually, the word “assemble” is a hint that you can purchase such a thing at Ikea, so that while you would think it would be identical in size to the universe itself, it actually somehow all fits into a convenient flatpack. Of course, when… if… you succeed in assembling it, there will actually be extra truths left over. Some philosophers postulate that it is these seemingly extraneous truths that explain why the universe is the way it is.

  2. 2  Steven  October 7, 2007, 3:31 pm 

    Ah, thank you for the implicit correction: perhaps indeed a magical truth machine need not necessarily be infinite, as I hastily claimed, but only needs to be the size of the universe itself, which might not be infinite. However, once it is the size of the universe itself, an extra truth comes into being, which is the very fact that the machine is the size of the universe itself, and in order to store that truth the machine will need to become a little bit bigger than the universe.

    Or, as you point out, the machine could just leave a few extra truths lying around whose application is incomprehensible. Which probably is more practical than growing bigger than the universe. So probably the universe itself actually is the magical truth machine that Sunstein seeks. It’s pleasing to recall that this is not so far from the view of Seth Lloyd and others.

    The cosmological IKEA analogy strikes me as very profound. Does IKEA still describe its products as “self-assembly”?

  3. 3  Alex Higgins  October 7, 2007, 8:40 pm 

    Incidentally, the Melanie Phillips piece is entitled ‘The finances of lemmingland’, thus unfairly attacking lemmings who had nothing to do with 9/11.

    I believe the implied metaphor here is that the people of Britain are like lemmings, possessed with an irrational desire to jump off cliffs and be impaled on the Muslims below. Or drown in Muslims. Or something.

    In an article in which she succeeded in taking something Daniel Pipes wrote and making it sound more paranoid and racist than it was originally, her perpetuation of the libel against lemmings – that they commit suicide en masse – may not be the biggest offence here.

    But I always feel roused to action whenever the Right casts aspersions against the integrity of small, furry animals.

  4. 4  Alex Higgins  October 7, 2007, 10:37 pm 

    The alternative to “in other words”, and favourite of amateur misrepresenters of arguments everywhere is “So what you’re saying is…”

    It is generally followed by some preposterous/grotesque false dichotomy which no one has ever seriously proposed.

  5. 5  Cian  October 7, 2007, 10:56 pm 

    “her perpetuation of the libel against lemmings – that they commit suicide en masse – may not be the biggest offence here.”

    A libel which was created by a Disney documentary crew faking he behaviour. There’s a metaphor there if you can be bothered to look for it.

  6. […] Posted by cabalamat on October 8th, 2007 Steven Poole examines the thought processes of Mad Mel, or rather, what passes for thought: One of the things that excited [Melanie Phillips] last week was an article by Daniel Pipes, describing a book by Timur Kuran which argues that “Islamic economics” was invented so as to: minimize relations with non-Muslims, strengthen the collective sense of Muslim identity, extend Islam into a new area of human activity, and modernize without Westernizing. […]

  7. 7  Alex Higgins  October 8, 2007, 7:00 pm 

    “A libel which was created by a Disney documentary crew faking he behaviour. There’s a metaphor there if you can be bothered to look for it.”

    Yes, I read about that!

    The camera crew were unable to induce the lemmings to commit suicide, so they resorted to throwing them into a river with Orson Welles intoning in the background “And onward they go…”

    It’s really quite a hideous story.

    It didn’t occur to the film crew that the reason why their lemmings weren’t trying to kill themselves was because they don’t. It was a triumph of unsubstantiated conventional wisdom against observed reality.

  8. 8  Steven  October 8, 2007, 7:09 pm 

    While we’re on the excellent subject of libels perpetrated against small animals, let’s also hear it for the much-maligned frog. If you put a frog into a pan of water and then slowly heat it up, the frog will not sit there obliviously and boil to his doom, but jump out when the water gets uncomfortable. A frog is not an idiot.

    I have James Fallows at the Atlantic to thank for my embarrassingly recent illumination on this topic.

  9. 9  Alex Higgins  October 8, 2007, 7:18 pm 

    Incidentally, I found this among Melanie’s diary entries, as she explained why South African politicians identify with the cause of the Palestinians:

    “The ANC does so because it is a revolutionary Marxist movement which ultimately stands for the extinction of freedom…”


  10. 10  Alex Higgins  October 8, 2007, 7:21 pm 

    Thanks for that info on frogs, Steven!

    How embarrassing! I can’t believe I ever thought that now…

    I really have to appreciate that any piece of information I can’t track down to an authoritative source on any subject is almost certainly garbage.

  11. 11  Alex Higgins  October 8, 2007, 8:14 pm 

    Actually, since we are on the subject of Melanie, I hope no one will mind if I bring up some of the stuff she writes about education. She has a little bit in her diary praising a speech by David Cameron which appears to lift the title of her book on education, ‘All Must Have Prizes’.

    (In case it’s not clear, an outcome in which all children receive some kind of ‘prize’ from their 12 years of compulsory education is one Melanie mocks and opposes.)

    Cameron’s bit goes like this:

    “…the educational establishment, some of whom still think it’s wrong to say children have got something wrong, because you’ll brand them as failures…”

    It’s the familiar routine. I’m a liberal teacher but I hope Cameron won’t mind if I tell him he got this badly wrong and grade it F for failing to understand a basic argument.

    The issue is, firstly, as has been explained multiple times over the course of the last century, whether teachers look only at children’s answers or if they take into consideration the process they underwent to arrive at it. A correct answer to a maths problem might, for instance, be guessed at, while a wrong answer might have been close and the result of an otherwise impressive attempt to solve the problem. So, you to try to adjust assessment to take this into account.

    The second issue is whether children are set up for constant, demoralising failure if they are compelled to do tasks that are inappropriate for them or they have no interest in (often for good reason).

    “…who still seem to think that all must win prizes”

    Which is a euphemism for saying we shouldn’t feel guilty if a child gains nothing from their entire period we compel them to go to school. Because a truly rigorous education system, functioning properly, should expose some children as worthless and mark them out as such.

    (That’s my ‘in other words’ paraphrase, but I think it’s fair :o))

    “who still seem to think we have to treat all children the same.”

    Who thinks that? Which educational establishment is he talking about?

    “So we need to be courageous and strong on standards…”

    Talking about raising standards – what a courageous, unexpected move for a politician.

    Will he have the guts, though, to declare that he is tough on crime, or thinks terrorism is bad?

    Melanie is delighted with this tortuous boilerplate:

    “Sentiments, indeed, that could have come from my own book, All Must Have Prizes.”

    So they could have. How fortunate are the children of England that Melanie can hope to wield the influence over them she has mercifully failed to wield over climatologists, doctors and the Middle East.

    “The reason no government has yet got to grips with our British education catastrophe… is that ministers have refused to address the dysfunctional ideology, which long ago became educational orthodoxy, that no child should fail, that everyone should achieve equal outcomes and that education was not about knowledge but what children themselves brought to the party.”

    Put aside her unsepaky distortion of whatever argument she is actually attacking for one moment. Or the fact that Melanie regards most forms of knowledge (from atmospheric physics, to evolutionary biology, to vaccination programmes, to AIDS awareness, to British history) as left-wing propaganda from which children should be shielded.

    Read that passage and try to imagine what her philosophy of education actually is, and what the experience of school would be like for children in a world where she ran the Department of Education.

    Melanie, leave those kids alone.

    OK, that’s my bit. Thanks!

  12. 12  sw  October 8, 2007, 8:31 pm 

    This is very good stuff, and I agree with the critiques for the most part. The only thing is, if you attach little lead weights to the frogs’ legs, then they do in fact sit there while the temperature increases. In other words, frogs don’t leap out when the temperature increases and will get boiled to death.

  13. 13  Alex Higgins  October 8, 2007, 9:50 pm 

    That’s interesting, sw. Does it work with lead weights on other animals though, or are frogs unique in this respect? We turn to you for an answer because it seems that you have endeavoured to find out.

    I’m going to try it with a wolverine.

  14. 14  richard  October 8, 2007, 10:12 pm 

    Is there a name for flawed analogies which nonetheless seem to be useful? The frog-boiling one is memorably gruesome, and has been very useful for anyone on the left or right who thinks Society is going in the Wrong Direction. Also, some shrouds do have pockets.

  15. 15  sw  October 8, 2007, 10:40 pm 

    Alex, it only works on frogs – I tried it on budgies, butterflies, and goldfish, all of which escaped the simmer, however much lead I used. Strong little bastards with an incredible will to live.

    Regarding the question, “Is there a name for flawed analogies which nonetheless seem to be useful?” Well, one is “language.” Perhaps, though, a more useful response would be to refer to George Box who put it rather nicely: “All models are wrong; some are useful.” Doesn’t so much answer the question as enlarge it.

  16. 16  Steven  October 9, 2007, 12:05 am 

    I’m baffled. In principle it should work with an elephant, if you have sufficient lead. Of course then the problem would be finding a pan and stove big enough.

    I’m glad that someone called George Box gave us an aphorism about models.

  17. 17  Guano  October 9, 2007, 9:07 am 

    Is that where the phrase “Thinking outside the box” comes from?

  18. 18  Alex Higgins  October 9, 2007, 12:42 pm 

    ‘Is that where the phrase “Thinking outside the box” comes from?’

    Is that the worst cliche in the world?

    My favourite ever Onion headline shows a pciture of a cat and a turd it has left on the carpet with the caption:

    Independent-Minded Cat Shits Outside the Box

    For me, the cat said it all.

  19. 19  richard  October 9, 2007, 2:21 pm 

    couldn’t we do with a George box about now?

  20. 20  belle le triste  October 9, 2007, 2:58 pm 

    this is from vague memory only but i think the phrase “thinking outside the box” refers orignally to some eysenckian lateral-thinking question: you were asked to draw something on a diagram — which before only features a box — which conforms to certain geeometrical requirements.

    the correct solution required something drawn outside the lines of the box, except with this not given as a clue, the tendency is to assume that the box marks the limits of where you can draw, even though it is never stated the the solution must be inside the box

  21. 21  belle le triste  October 9, 2007, 3:01 pm 

    even better than eysenck — it’s disney!

  22. 22  Guano  October 9, 2007, 4:30 pm 

    And there’s a lot of lateral thinking going on here, too.

  23. 23  Steven  October 11, 2007, 5:29 pm 

    belle – thank you for the derivation of “think outside the box”, which has actually made me hate the phrase a little less. I doubt that anything can save the stupid “lateral thinking” though.

  24. 24  judith weingarten  October 22, 2007, 4:21 pm 

    I know I’m late to this discussion, but, better than frogs (which aren’t furry) spare a thought for the self-castrating beaver: “Beavers (castor) are so-called from castrating (castrare)” — a self-evident truth on the authority of Isidore of Seville, Pliny, Juvenal and Aristotle. When beavers spot a hunter, they bite off their own genitals.

    Nobody seems to have thought to go out and look at some beavers.

    In other words, no need for little lead balls here …


    Visit Zenobia’s blog at Empress of the East: I’ve just put up an Isidore post, but missed out on the beavers.

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