On the Degradation of the Word ‘Polymath,’ and the Evolution and Imporance of Words in General

The English language is immensely intricate. It is also wondrously beautiful. Like Hemingway once remarked of the sea, English seems distinctly female in quality. Never mind the outdated gender stereotyping at play. The notion still holds value. English is precise, albeit irregular, and when handled properly, when wielded by a true master, the language has power beyond belief. The same might be said of other languages, but English is the one closest to my heart, the one with which I have the most experience. My relationship with English is an intimate one, and while I recognize and appreciate that English changes, naturally and artificially, and that change need not be bad, there may be such a thing as a bad change to a language. The accepted approach of linguists is to say all languages, in their various evolutions, are equally as good, or rather that the property of goodness is one that does not apply to languages as a whole. But, what about a particular change in a language? Can a change be good or bad? It is unlikely a linguist would answer in the affirmative, but I make no plans at appealing to authority, particularly not that of a particular field.

In the abstract, I agree there is no such thing as good or bad languages, or good or bad changes to language, but I do think viewing language from other domains offers an affirmative to my question. For the purpose of social advancement, economic efficiency, and any number of other matters, a language, or more likely particular changes to a language, might be good or bad. I would like to investigate one way in which this might play out, doing so by way of example.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines polymatas:

 A person of great or varied learning; a person acquainted with many fields of study; an accomplished scholar.

If asked to define the term, one might come up with something similar. It might therefore seem silly for me to choose this example, and while I agree there are much better examples to argue (e.g., the notorious “literally” is interesting), this particular example is nice in two ways. First, it is nice in that I want to speak about it. Second, it is nice in that the change is sociological and the lens through which we will view the matter is also sociological.

The term polymath has changed in one glaring one over the past many decades: Our standards of what constitutes a polymath have gone down. Frequently, one hears a modern man or woman described as a polymath, sometimes by themselves, but rarely does that individual truly have mastery over several domains, or great interest in a wide variety of topics. Some might say this is requisite to the specialization of knowledge and labor; however, that argument seems to fall flat when the word stops meaning its denotation. Is a lawyer who is also a doctor a “person of great or varied learning; a person acquainted with many fields of study?” I think two fields is probably too few, yet a great number would call such a person a polymath. (Perhaps they would require they also have a passing interest in a few other areas such as literature or physics, but such a person still seems to fail to meet the definition provided by OED.) In this way, we might say the sociological change of the definition of polymath is bad. It is bad from the perspective of society. By loosening the definition, perhaps we fail to fully appreciate the few true polymaths among us. Perhaps, we artificially boost egos. Perhaps, we contribute to the “everyone gets a trophy” phenomenon so many have argued is detrimental for development.

Whether or not polymath has truly come to be degraded is largely irrelevant. Rather, if you will recall, the example was conjured up for the purpose of illustrating whether it might be sensible to ascribe values of good and bad to linguistic changes. More broadly, the point of this short post is to illustrate the nuance of language, English in particular, and how the details of linguistics can significantly impact the world we live in. Writers and lexicographers spend a great deal of time considering the nuance of language — no such care or attention has been given in writing this piece — but the average person is not privy to the way of word. Yet, I think all ought to strive for understanding. We should do so not simply to speak and write more elegantly, with more sophistication, or with more precision, but also to gain a deeper knowledge of the world around us and gain perspective by way of reflection, investigation, and analysis.

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The Concerning Decline in Long-form Communication

We live in a world full of information. One can hardly walk down the street without being bombarded by a constant stream of textual data: advertisements, traffic signs, and of course the buzzing smartphone waiting to be acknowledged. Some time ago, I wrote a post in which I discussed the trend away from extensive reading and why it is disconcerting. Today, I would like to discuss a related albeit technically distinct phenomenon: the trend to shorten communication altogether. This phenomenon is a generalization of the decline in extensive reading, but this post focuses primarily on communication in the electronic, personal sense. And, what better way to criticize the abridged communication of the era than to write about it on a blog?

The practice of truncating personal communications is one with a long history. By all indications, since the dawn of language, speakers have found ways to condense speech in an organic way. There is archeological evidence that idioms, proverbs, and slang were present even in very early human languages. It takes surprisingly little searching to find accounts of Latin grammarians complaining that the common tongue had strayed from the righteous path, representing nothing but a bastardized form of what they held as proper Latin. Besides idioms and the like, a significant reduction in communication length can be achieved by changing complex sounds to simpler ones, or eliminating certain sounds altogether. Much of the fuss coming from educated speakers of Latin was due to precisely this sort of phonetic shift. Native speakers of modern languages from Spanish to French to Italian have such shifts, among other things, to thank for their matris lingua, as the Romans might have called it. 

Of course, writing has not eschewed compressing language, either. Some of the earliest writings are carvings into stone. It makes sense to take less space and therefore less energy when writing in this manner. Later, animal hide, papyrus, parchment, and other materials revolutionized the practice of inscription, but such materials were for a long time quite valuable. The effort required to produce materials with which to pen the œuvres of the day was substantial, and frequently the economics of scarcity dictated terms. Scribes commonly reused whatever form of tablet was available to them, perhaps writing over works of considerable importance to the modern person. This is why we have individuals recounting stories of scribes writing over works by Archimedes, and claiming that said works would have accelerated the development of calculus by perhaps centuries, a completely unfounded claim, by the way. Less well known is the practice of employing a large number of shorthands and abbreviations, some quite intricate. It is a common misconception that “ye” (pronounced “y-ē”) was the predecessor to “the” in an older variant of English, specifically Anglo-Saxon. The word “þe,” the true predecessor to modern “the,” was commonly abbreviated by writing with the “e” above the “þ,” because this saved space on the line. (That weird letter goes by the name of “thorn” and makes something very close to the modern “th” sound.) With the advent of the printing press, “y” was used in place of “þ” due to the letters’ similar appearances. (Typesetters did not have the letter “þ” in their typefaces to work with.) So, the word “ye” was never anything but an approximation of “þe.” Sigla -scribal abbreviations – cannot be avoided if one wishes to read many important historical works. Some sigla were very intricate, even requiring some calligraphic skill (e.g., the siglum for “quoque”). Others were somewhat crude (e.g., the shortening of words to their first few letters such as “AVG”). 

We still use some of these abbreviations, for instance “RIP” originally stood for “requiescat in pace.” Other examples include “e.g.,” “i.e.,” and “etc” as well as the rare ligature such as “Æ.” Not only this, but sigla effected real linguistic change. We have Vulgar Latin scribes to thank for “i” and “u” being vowels while “j” and “v” are consonants. Some modern sigla such as dollar signs and ampersands are easy to identify, but medical scribes use far less recognizable abbreviations on a daily basis and journalists sometimes still use shorthand (in its many variants). 

Scribal abbreviations come in many forms. The simplest case is where letters are simply left out or replaced by a single, small symbol. Such abbreviations have always been made necessary due to scarcity. The tenth century monestary scribe had no option but to shorten his writing or communicate less. The modern medical scribe has no option but to shorten his writing or miss critical information, certainly slowing the pace is out of the question. So, why do we so commonly abbreviate our language today? Where is the scarcity? 

It did not take long after the dawn of the communication revolution for this practice of reducing the length of correspondence to become popular. In the early days of the internet, email, and cellular phones small groups were already using now mainstream abbreviations such as the ubiquitous “LOL.” Before long, several dozen truncations found their way into the vocabulary of the average internet user, and some groups took this even further, utilizing instead many hundreds in “leet speak” and other such internet dialects. More than likely, this state of affairs can be attributed to two things: scarcity of time and an opportunity to produce a novel lingua franca for the age of the internet, perhaps one of more efficiency and more humor. Few would argue with scarcity of time playing a role. With the world’s employed working as many hours as they do, the world’s transportation sector being as rushed as it is, and the world’s noteworthy events being as frequent as they are, it is hard not to feel we could all use more time. If only there were more hours in the day. 

The tendency to prefer efficient communication is sensible enough. I would not be all that surprised if in a few centuries the world’s predominant language was not English but a constructed language, which was compact and easy to learn, the best of Mandarin and Esperanto. There is something to be said for formal English, or, more precisely, Standard American English, but that is a discussion for another day. At least the motivation for and utility of abbreviations such as “LOL” is well understood. Can the same be said of sound-bite media coverage or one hundred forty character expressions of self? Are incredibly brief summaries of vast amounts of information justifiable in the same was as sigla or phrases of speech? Is there sufficient scarcity to warrant the extremity of the action?

I will pose as a response to these questions a sympathetic “no.” While efficiency is generally seen as good, this is not efficiency, but rather exclusion. The eighty-twenty rule may have some truth to it, but no one has ever argued for a ninety-one principle. I feel that drastic reduction in length has doomed us to misunderstanding and plagued us with inefficiency. 

My birthplace of Hagerstown, Maryland came under the national spotlight recently, for one of the only times in my life. There was an incident involving a fifteen-year-old girl being pepper-sprayed by police while being detained after involvement in a traffic accident. Many saw this as an example of police brutality and racism (the girl was of mixed race). The first national publication I saw mention the story was Mic on Twitter, where the organization posted a video showing the girl being pulled off her bike, pushed against a wall, and pepper-sprayed in a squad car. I took issue with this coverage, because, whether this is an example of excessive force or not, there was some significance to the other ten minutes of the encounter such as the lawful order of a police officer to stop, the attempt of the girl to flee the scene after being given said lawful order, the violent language and action taken by the girl directed toward the police officers involved, and the girl’s failure to move her legs into the squad car so that the door could be closed. I replied to Mic’s tweet with one of my own, which reads as follows:

@mic whether you think this was wrongful or not, you’re deceitfully leaving out her language and hitting officers among other things.

Never before have I received as much backlash for something said on Twitter, or indeed online or in person whatsoever, as I did for that tweet. The problem is with the phrasing. It can be perceived as implying I did not sympathize with the girl involved, or perhaps that I thought foul language was enough to warrant use of pepper spray. To be clear, neither of those things are true. My opinion on the matter could fill several pages, but it could be succinctly summarized to some degree of accuracy in a single paragraph. I had no chance to accurately express myself in an unambiguous and not easily misinterpreted way in a mere one hundred forty characters. I generally keep this in mind when using Twitter, and I try not to read too far into tweets, but this is not the case for everyone, and it is difficult to clarify when one’s conversational partner is actively angry or looking to fulfill an agenda from the beginning. 

There is a reason Twitter has considered increasing the character limit, services specifically dedicated to longer tweets exist, and a large number of photos posted on Twitter are of text to supplant a traditional tweet. The current system is a bad one, leaving us liable to misunderstanding one another. It is artificial scarcity of the highest order. Restricting users to one hundred forty characters requires they inefficiently communicate. Often, the path chosen is to attempt to speak to something incredibly complex in just a few words.

There is a limit to how efficiently we can represent ideas. Words represent ideas; they themselves have intrinsic meaning, but that is not generally what is important in everyday conversation. Language might reduce the efficiency of communication, but some space is required to communicate substantial amounts of information, irrespective of language. 

Out of the entirety of the internet, the website I enjoy visiting the least is probably either Buzzfeed or Forbes. The reason is simple: advertisements are everywhere, pushing out any actual content and encouraging bad design. Every other page on the site seems to be the same cookie cutter slideshow format. A typical story might be entitled “Twenty Tips to Operate a Successful Start-Up,” which will consist of twenty-two individual pages: an introduction, a page for each of the twenty tips, and a conclusion page. 

Again, we have artifical scarcity, this time in the form of page space. It seems some have forgotten how the scroll function works. Note that time is actually lost due to the time required to load pages. Worse still, the process is horribly inefficient. You are typically presented with very little information about the subject at hand, instead receiving a dozen or two brief blurbs, each of which is supposed to be somehow significant and memorable. The little time spent reading is time wasted. There is no substance left to the tips. There is actually a great deal of information present on the pages, it is just that most of it is in advertising, which is information you did not ask for, do not want, and do not need; it is useless information. The inefficiency in this example is thus twofold. 

It would be reasonable to say humans seek the path of least resistance. We want things to be easy. Politics should be simple, distillable to nothing more than a few zingers and a stump speech or two. Science should be easy to understand, nothing more than a few physical laws stated in plain English. Success should be effortlessly obtained, only a list of tips on Forbes is required. This is all fantasy, but that is a good thing. Things worth communicating have depth to them. We should not expect to ponder the intricacies of tax policy, the philosophy of religion, or the efficacy of sport strategies in a few words. To do such a thing is simply impossible. 

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The General Theory of Opinion

The following are some general thoughts on opinions, which originally appeared as tweets while I pondered the (what was at the time only potential) British exit from the European Union, better known as the “Brexit.” This post, however, owes its inception to more than the controversy and discussion surrounding the events of tonight, for the matter of opinions in politics has been of particular interest to me for some time in light of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The body of this post considers opinions in a more general setting than American or British politics; however, it does draw most of its examples and inspiration from such domains. Moreover, were a person given sufficient time to contemplate a scenario involving human beings, I conjecture he or she would always find the scenario to be isomorphic to the modern political theater.
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While it is absolutely unacceptable to deem idiotic another’s opinion solely on the basis of differing from your own, it may also be that some opinions are better than others. I propose that opinions are ultimately the result of comparing arguments. What arguments are for or against something? Are those arguments valid? Are they convincing? Individuals weigh arguments regarding a certain issue against one another to derive a conclusion: what we may call their opinion.

In this view, there are invalid opinions, something which is seen by most to be largely untrue of more naive views of what an opinion is. In particular, opinions based solely on fallacies are invalid, because the arguments which belong to the set to be considered in order to form an opinion are invalid. For instance, should an individual support the Brexit solely because their political party has taken the same stance, that person’s opinion on the matter could be said to be invalid. The only argument they have considered is own which is invalid by way of logical fallacy. They have fallen victim to an argumentum ad verecundiam, an appeal to authority.

The preceding example was one of absolute invalidity. But, it would seem opinions are not binary with respect to validity. Rather, an opinion may be considered valid to some continuous degree; to what degree an opinion is valid is certainly subject to some level of uncertainty, but that is not a matter we shall consider at the moment.

Furthermore, arguments based on false premises might be said to be false. If one supports gun control because crime is proportional to the availability of firearms, then one’s opinion is false, because the sole premise of the sole argument contributing to the opinion is false. Again, the truth or lack thereof of an opinion is not binary.

It is often unclear which if any premises forming the basis of an argument are reasonable. Sometimes there is insufficient data from which to complete sound statistical analysis, for instance. Similarly, an argument’s validity can be difficult to determine. This may be due to reasoning which is not absolute, e.g., probabilistic reasoning. Neither the premises nor the arguments comprising the set to be evaluated to form an opinion are straightforward to analyze. Thus, it seems appropriate to say opinions are nothing short of complicated.

Considering arguments to draw conclusions, which are frequently demanded by society to be unrealistically absolute, is itself an argument, and therefore, the matter of analyzing an opinion is at least as complex as the analysis of the arguments which form the basis for the conclusion.

This situation is made worse by issues we care about enough to have opinions being a subset of those we are likely to be emotionally invested in, or at least this is very nearly the case. We are accordingly prone to fallacy. We are only human, after all.

To make matters even worse still, it is practically impossible to independently devise and consider all arguments pertinent to an issue. Accordingly, we delegate much of this work to the media, which is well-known for skewing matters. Deferring in this matter amounts to a dependence on testimony. Such a status quo is a “slippery slope,” indeed.

It is for the very circumstance explored hitherto, as well as perhaps several more, that I advocate for open-mindedness in one’s politic and beyond.

Moreover, in spite of political pressures to think otherwise, I am of the opinion that changing opinions is not a bad thing. On the contrary, the ability to admit wrongdoing and reconsider an issue is of the utmost importance. We are faced with new premises and new arguments every day. It would be astonishingly illogical and foolish to do otherwise and not alter our opinions in accordance to new information.

Admission of fault, whether actual or only potential, in the context of opinions is another thing which we are expected not to do. But, does it seem at all reasonable to expect one will fully understand something? Even should you be the world’s leading expert on a topic, you do not know one hundred percent of the facts relevant to it, and therefore your opinion is in some way lacking. Suppose the opinion were who you thought would best complete the duties of the Presidency of the United States of America after President Obama leaves office. Let us imagine you were Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, and let us generously take for granted that you know 99% of all there is to know about economics which might be relevant in any way to the Presidency. There are still dozens if not hundreds of topics of the same depth and breadth to consider, none of which you will come anywhere close to 99% mastery of (in terms of knowledge of the field’s canon).

Due to there being a plethora of issues individuals care about, and moreover a large number of issues pertaining to each of those larger issues, and so on and so forth, it is impossible many times over to have full “command” over one’s views. In fact, it would seem our views are utterly insufficient in this manner. Any of us would be lucky to have a mere 0.01% command over our opinions. We should discuss which of our views may be dubious, and we should openly admit to our overwhelming ignorance. This seems an effective way to increase the command we collectively have over our opinions.

Although it is neither possible nor even desirable to always engage in serious, deep, and meaningful debate, to do so more often is something I personally advocate for. Regardless, it being easy to marginalize or belittle the opinions of others using one’s favorite mantra or buzzword does not justify such action. Such an affair, despite being so common, is counterproductive, unapologetically ignorant of the complexity of the matter at hand, and is generally outside the realm of civil discourse.

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The ‘Make America Great Again’ Mentality Is Not Entirely Wrong, nor Is It Necessarily Discriminatory

U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” has come to be synonymous with prejudice and fear mongering among much of the American electorate. The candidate is now widely known for statements and actions, which have been construed as insensitive, racist, sexist, and more. Much of the public has interpreted the slogan “Make America Great Again” as a call for a renewal of the dominant culture’s supremacy, a call to make the nation great again for straight white men, not for all. This is thanks in part to the staunch criticism of Mr. Trump for matters such as his calling to ban Muslims from entering the country, his apparent mocking of a disabled reporter, and his speaking of the Mexican government intentionally sending rapists and murders to the States. 

Perhaps there is some truth to the statement that Trump and many of his supporters have in their minds a second uprising of white or male supremacy. Polls have been conducted asking individuals which era of U.S. history was the best to live in, and other things to that effect, and there is a clear tendency among Trump supporters to respond with post-WWII or Reagan’s presidency years as their ideal era. Those are the times they seek to return to; that was when America was great. 

Critics have been quick to point out that far fewer Americans had rights in the years immediately following WWII than today, and that the great prosperity therein only applied to whites or males. Similarly, the Reagan years were during the peak of the war on drugs — a doctrine many believe to be covertly racist, even if ostensibly representing a just cause; this time was also marked by violent crime, questionable economic growth, and the denial of rights to gays and others. 

There are reasonable arguments that conclude times like the late 1940s were among America’s greatest in the sense that America was the clear superpower of the world, leading in more metrics than any sane person would care to count, but should we really strive to return to a time when many citizens were denied basic human rights? Few would argue that we should. Many have labeled all Trump supporters extreme, but I will not do that.  Even if Trump himself were truly extreme, his supporters need not be. His mistakes and the vocal minority have tarnished the representation of the whole. It is true that there are extremists among the Trump camp, but I have to believe nearly 50% of the nation does not want to do away with minority rights. Perhaps a sizable chunk of Trump supporters want to see themselves, their family, and their friends reach the socioeconomic class they were once in. In this way, some Trump supporters ignore the plight of others, but this is far from seeking to strip other groups of their rights. Also, many Trump supporters care very much about the problems faced by others. They wish for the improvement of the lives of all Americans. 

Imagine you are a 50 year old white male today, and growing up your father worked for a factory forty hours per week. Of course, your mother stayed home to take care of the house, you, and your siblings. Back then, this may very well have been enough for your family of four or five to afford all the necessities of life as well as many small extravagances. During this time, however, many other Americans struggled and lived in poverty. Because you did not see much of this firsthand, you might not have realized how the other section of the population lived, or at least it might be able to forget that while being retrospective. Maybe you even blamed and continue to blame these groups for their own failures, particularly those after key legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. 

Coming back to today, it is much harder for you and your friends to survive economically. Many other Americans have rights, which you may find an improvement over your childhood, but you see that their lives have improved some, while yours or your friends seem to have worsened. It also seems many in the “other” have simply survived on government support or have caused other issues such as inner-city crime or the perceived scarcity of jobs. Regardless of the details, it seems as though you and those close to you are worse off now than before. It is not racist, sexist, or wrong to want that to change. 

Obviously, most Americans enjoy a higher standard of living than at any time in the past. Even those in the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder enjoy mobile communication, the Internet, and so forth, all of which were no more than science fiction in the past. But, many have seen their theoretical ranking lower relative to others over the years, and they naturally want to take back their place. Some see it as their rightful place, perhaps because of their skin color or some other factor, and some may feel they were drug down by others, but I suspect most simply wish to enjoy the same level of success they once did, or even reach new highs. 

Even in this local interpretation, a voter can wish to “Make America Great Again” without having any kind of malice in his or her heart and without being woefully ignorant of the facts. There is another meaning to the phrase “Make America Great Again.” Amusingly enough, this is one many conservative and liberals are won over by.  

The HBO television show The Newsroom opened its pilot with a now famous scene of news anchor and protagonist Will McAvoy speaking on a political panel at a college. When asked what makes America the greatest country in the world, he responds with a litany of reasons why he believes the premise of the question is wrong: America is not the greatest country on Earth, at least not anymore. Watch for yourself. 

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1zqOYBabXmA

(Note that when Will expresses his opinion that America was once the greatest country in the world, it seems he means with respect to this global perspective. The character has an appreciation for the issues of inequality and inequity.) 

Will cites statistics demonstrating that America lags behind other nations in literacy, mathematics and science scores, life expectancy, household income, infant mortality, exports, and labor force. He says

[W]e lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending where spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. 

The specifics of the last point are no longer true, but the idea that the U.S. is not clearly the greatest nation in the world on many levels absolutely is. America never has been the clear winner in all categories, not under Roosevelt, not under Eisenhower, not under Reagan, and not under Obama. It would be nice for all nations to prosper, but for America to always edge out the competition, but that amounts to a fairy tale. There is some truth that we may have been more formidable in the past when compared to other nations, but I do not see anyone advocating for another world war and a reduction in quality of life for all other nations to prop America back up again. 

America, indeed the world, could be a lot better, but it is the humble opinion of this man that we are doing alright, and that the past is not always as it seems. 

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The Difference Between Clinton & Trump’s Lies

Let us begin by getting a simple fact out of the way: both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump frequently lie publicly. The Donald’s hubris leads him to pathologically lie about his own greatness, but he has also lied about such matters as the supposed celebration of 9/11 in the streets of New Jersey, the claims of his not having lied in the past, even about matters as important as the Trump University scandal, and of course a litany of miscellaneous facts relating to history, policy, and more. While PolitiFact may have a selection bias against Republicans, simply looking at Donald Trump’s file on the site should suffice to convince one that he lies a lot, probably more than his rival in this presidential race, Hillary Clinton. Now, Clinton is no Honest Abe, either. In her attacks of Republicans and especially her opponent — something which, to be clear, both parties are guilty of — she has stretched the truth or outright lied to make the opposition seem bigoted or otherwise horrible, she too has occasionally played hard and fast with the truth of matters policy and history related, and she has lied about matters related to her own scandals, that is when she decides to comment at all (her modus operandi is evasion in this case). It is not too difficult to come to the conclusion that the presidential candidates of both major parties are not shy to lie; feel free to disagree, but we will take this as a given, a premise to the main argument of this piece.

If you ask one-hundred people from across the nation who the bigger liar is, I suspect you would find the issue splits pretty cleanly along party lines. Are both equally deceitful? Is the nature of their lies similar enough to be called basically the same? An articulate Republican might say the distinction is in intent and purpose: Clinton’s most egregious lies are to purposefully deceive in an attempt to hide her immoral or careless actions from the American people whereas Trump’s lies generally stem from his inexperience, his off-the-cuff style, and, from time to time, ego or dislike of his political enemies. In short, Clinton’s intent is far more malicious than Trump’s. A bright Democrat may respond to the same question by claiming that, on the contrary, Clinton’s worst lies are merely to protect herself from a bloodthirsty press whereas Trump’s worst lies stem from arrogance, ignorance, hatred, and selfishness. We could flesh out the details of the anticipated response, but that is beside the point. I argue that while both of these opinions have some validity, neither fully capture the essence of the matter, neither really get at the truth.

Whenever someone opines that they believe Clinton’s lies regarding, for instance, her email scandal are worse than Trump’s lies due to their intent to cover up the truth about the former senator’s incompetence or maybe even immorality, the typical retort is that Trump too has lied in order to cover up his malicious intent or lack of ability in the Trump University case, for instance. A rebuttal from Trump apologists might be that his case only affected those involved with the university, whereas Clinton’s deceit applied to an entire nation. This is fair enough, one might respond, but the impact Clinton’s actions on her fellow Americans had was relatively small, whereas Trump’s actions caused significant harm to many students and others involved in his pet project. Here there are two reasonable rebuttals that come to mind. First, one could argue that an ex ante perspective is appropriate in the matter – neither Clinton nor Trump could have known a priori what impact their actions would have on those involved – and so the mere number of individuals effected is the proper metric by which to judge relative wrongness, regardless of how significant an effect the actions of both individuals ultimately had. They only had forecasts to go on, after all. Second, one could argue that Trump was likely only trying to make money and perhaps help some young people along the way, as would any good businessman, and that he was careless but not actively working to harm those afflicted, but that Clinton purposefully hid emails to conceal wrongdoing.

The first argument seems like a cop-out in that it fails to really possess any substance. Of course, no individual can predict the future, but Trump should have had the intellect to realize, after a mere moment of consideration, that the practices he employed might not only hurt his clients but also break the law and leave them financially distraught with little to show for it. Similarly, Clinton should have known that her private email server was highly susceptible to security breaches and that her shrouding the content of the emails from the public might lead to distrust or worse. As much as you might hate one or both of the candidates, it is reasonable to assume that both were considerate enough to think about their respective situations, even if only briefly, and that both are of at least average intelligence and therefore able to realize the potential implications of each of theirs deceit. I say we leave this sort of argument to law and philosophy students with too much time on their hands. In that spirit, let us call this argumentum ad numerum. That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? (Yes, I am aware this has a distinct meaning as a logical fallacy; just let me have my fun for a moment.)

Now for the second argument, whose name we will decide on later, which seems more promising. So, Trump essentially made an honest mistake, even if a stupid or careless one, but Clinton lied to hide more, worse lies. Trump has been in the public eye for decades, but his place in popular culture is one of relatively few details. Before this election, you probably knew Donald Trump as an extravagantly rich reality star and real estate mogul who made occasional appearances on professional wrestling programs alongside his billionaire bud Vince McMahon. You may have known a few other details such as his having authored the best-selling book The Art of the Deal or his various love escapades, but few of us took a vested interest in analyzing his business ventures in detail, combing through his history with a fine comb, or perpetually scrutinizing the man’s character.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton served as New York’s U.S. Senator where she faced such scrutiny from her constituents. She was also First Lady of the United States, a post demanding scrutiny of her and her husband from most all Americans, especially in light of the administration’s various scandals or supposed scandals. After having been in this situation for decades, almost anyone accumulates skeptics as well as full-blown conspiracy theorists. While it is true there are a few who probably think Trump is part of the billionaire New World Order or found questionable affairs in his past, these are relatively few compared to those suspecting Clinton of perjury, treason, murder, and more. Some of this has some reasonable basis in reality (e.g., some of the Clinton Foundation’s dealings may seem questionable, especially at first glance as presented by some media outlets), but much of it is hanging from a thread at best. A friend once told me that Clinton had to overcome a huge obstacle in coming into the race being so well-known, and that Bernie Sanders was lucky to have been largely out of the public’s view, ripe for newfound support. At the time, I thought this to be true but only in the weakest sense of the word. Now, I am more sympathetic to the position.

Seemingly the only reason an informed, rational individual might think the purpose of Clinton’s private email was to conceal criminal actions is that she has been news for long enough and made enough missteps to cause a significant proportion of the population to believe her capable of or even guilty of various crimes, or, at the very least, believe her to be untrustworthy. (Her outward appearance and the various psychological considerations thereof may make matters worse.) Combine this with the constant barrage of attacks on Clinton’s character and tenacious questioning of Clinton’s actions, both from media sources and from a large portion of Republicans, perchance most notably Trump himself, and you have a recipe for disaster in the Clinton campaign. In this view, it is no wonder that when the American people heard Clinton had a private email server so many of them jumped to the conclusion that she had made dirty deals with foreign governments rather than the more mundane conclusion of her being careless for convenience’s sake. To lighten the mood, let’s name this argument before finishing up. I think argumentum ad historiam is pretty good. (Also, this one has not already been used for a logical fallacy, even if argumentum ad historian has been.)

Of course, there are many more lies we could discuss. Both Clinton and Trump have told more lies than I care to count in this election alone. But, many of the lies are either of the sort politicians tell all the time, usually those relating to history or policy, of the rival attack variety, or somehow conforming to the argumentum ad historiam classification. Additional examples of opinions belonging to the category of argumentum ad historiam include that Donald Trump’s draft deferment story is in no way subject, that Trump’s dramatic shift in political allegiance is fine whereas Clinton’s is “flip-flopping,” and that Trump’s donations and business dealings with dubious entities are merely business as usual whereas the Clinton Foundation’s receiving donations from foreign nations is a deep betrayal at best.

I certainly believe Trump has some things (perhaps unfairly) working against him in this election as well such as accusations of him being racist, sexist, and xenophobic, but when it comes to lying, it’s clear that Trump is on the easy street. What else is clear is that party affiliation or general political philosophy (liberal or conservative) largely determine how susceptible one is to falling for one of these arguments, even if some of them do not do well when put under a magnifying glass.

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U.S. Courts Using Linguistic Corpora to Interpret Legal Language

The Harvard Law Review recently published an excellent statutory interpretation on the case State v. Rasabout.

In this case the Supreme Court of Utah considered corpus linguistics as a tool for interpreting the law. In this case there was a unanimous consensus that “unlawful discharge of a firearm” in the context of criminal statues refers to each individual shot fired. While the majority opinion used traditional methodology to arrive at this conclusion, a concurrent opinion found this to be the case based on corpus linguistics. To this the majority claimed the research was “inappropriate largely because corpus linguistics is an unfamiliar, scientific tool and its proper use requires an expertise judges lack.”

The use of such scientific tools could soon become commonplace, thus helping to shape the future of American jurisprudence. While traditional methodologies can be effective, I am of the opinion that a combination of traditional and specialized tools is almost certainly the most effective and pragmatic route. As such, we should look forward to future developments in such matters.

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Justice Scalia and the Art of Argument

Recently longtime Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. This has become quite political, because the Republican controlled Congress is threatening not to confirm any nominee given to them by President Obama, regardless of merit. This is so that the next POTUS, who they hope will be Republican, can do so and nominate a conservative. But, this is not what I wish to discuss today.

First, let me say that I rarely if ever agreed with Justice Scalia’s stances on the issues. But, it is difficult to deny that Scalia was in many ways a great judge. Scalia was a master of argumentation; any one who has read his case opinions critically will find that the logic is almost always sound. The premises are where people like myself generally find issue with his various conclusions. Also, Scalia often used some fantastically odd and perhaps somewhat charming language.

Few people know how to argue or debate. Lawyers and others in the legal field are trained to do so. Sometimes people dislike decisions in cases for personal reasons, but what they do not realize is that personal opinion is not the be-all and end-all of legal decisions. Sound, valid arguments are key, and if the premises can be judged to be true, then such an argument does very well in court. Of course, personal opinion directly affects a judge’s interpretation of the law, just like it affects people’s views of a decision, but this is unavoidable.

I do not want to write a long post here, but I encourage you to read some of Scalia’s opinions and try to do so objectively, looking at the merit of the argument. You may want to explore his career and his views further (e.g. how he was a textualist), so you can have a better idea of the premises from which he drew his conclusions. As is often the case, Scalia’s Wikipedia page is a good place to start for this sort of thing.

Scalia

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