Sunday, January 27, 2008

Nascent Popularity of Term ‘Going Forward’ Not Due to Any Discernable Semantic Content

The most overused phrase in the 2008 election contest is the enigmatic “Going Forward.” Ostensibly used to begin consideration of the future consequences of an action, (e.g., stating that, with respect to Obama’s direct appeals to black voters in the SC primary, he will “continue that strategy going forward”(1)) the term seems to have no non-redundant semantic content – i.e. meaning.

This is made clear if we simply eliminate the phrase from any sentence in which it appears and then ask if the truth-value of the sentence has changed. With respect to the sentence above describing Obama’s strategy, we see that the use of the verb ‘continue’ already implies the temporal direction that is supposedly contributed by the term ‘going forward’ (it wouldn’t be germane to ‘continue backwards’). Similar results obtain if we examine other instances of the phrase’s usage. (E.g., Obama’s “prescription going forward” in Iraq (2); a commentator’s suggestion of a “few lines Obama might use going forward” (3); and the Chair of the DCCC’s decision not to endorse a candidate in “the interest of making sure that our members are in a strong position going forward.”(4)) This (admittedly unscientific) survey uncovers only a redundant semantic contribution from our new phrase; in these instances it might as well not have been used.

To be charitable, that a phrase does not have any semantic – or locutionary—content does not mean that it cannot serve some other purpose. Like Wolf Blitzer’s painfully slow enunciation of “United States... of... America,” or the unconscious utterance of ‘um’ or ‘ah,’ perhaps our new phrase serves some phatic usage. This may allow the speaker to maintain control of the speech time or to fill what would otherwise be an unpolished pause between on-air thoughts.

Less charitably, we can consider what J.L. Austin called the ‘perlocutionary’ effect intended by the speaker (5). This is the effect that the utterance of a statement is intended to have upon the listener, and is distinct from the simple literal meaning of a phrase. In the case of ‘going forward,’ the intended effect could be anywhere from emphasizing the importance of the so-called ‘Change’ agenda in the election to the use of buzzwords to impress upon the listener one’s appropriate place in the pundit community (perhaps as I have also done in this piece with respect to the community obsessed with abstruse philosophical terminology). At best, in the former the term is obscuring the real issue; at worst, in the latter it is used as an exclusive shibboleth.

We are thus led to conclude that the term is either semantically redundant or just another example of pundit posturing. In any event, at whatever level of charity one is comfortable with, one should probably be far less comfortable with the usage of this new buzzword than many seem to be.


(1) Fouhy, Beth. “S.C. Primary Marked by Talk of Race.” Associated Press. January 26, 2008.

(2) Zelleke, Andy. “Chill, Bill.” Christian Science Monitor. January 25, 2008.

(3) de Zengotita, Thomas. “A Few Lines Obama Might Use Going Forward.” The Huffington Post. January 7, 2008.

(4) Brown, Matthew Hay. “Having a ‘Super’ Impact.” Baltimore Sun. January 27, 2008.

(5) Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words, 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Incorrect Pundit Predictions Underscore Hypothetical Nature of Empirical Statements

The dramatic difference between the results of the New Hampshire primary (1) and the projections made by pundits before the voting commenced (2, 3) underscores the hypothetical nature of all empirical statements. Empirical statements, including those made by pre-vote polling, cannot express necessary truths, only probabilistic truths. Ayer notes that “no proposition, other than a tautology, can possibly be anything more than a probable hypothesis.”(4) This is because, for any situation, there will always be some possible experience that will lead us to believe that our original conclusion was mistaken. Put more simply: we can never be sure that an empirical assertion is one-hundred percent accurate as the truth of such an assertion depends on facts that could be otherwise. Anywhere short of expressing necessary truths, empirical statements can be highly probable but may never be certain.

Such was the case with the NH polling data. Regardless of how many polls corroborated the prevailing belief that Hillary Clinton would lose by double-digits, the evidence bore no necessary relation to the eventual, quite opposite outcome of events (strictly speaking, this is a problem with the inference from the evidence, and not the veracity of the evidence).

While it is unlikely that the contrary to this principle was being employed before the NH primary (i.e., a belief that empirical statements expressed a necessary truth), acknowledgment of the probabilistic nature of empirical statements may have implications for, among other things, the decisions on which candidates to include in debates. The exclusion from a debate of such candidates whose polling support does not meet the arbitrary standards for inclusion -- such as Fox News’ decision to exclude Ron Paul (5) and NBC’s decision to exclude Dennis Kucinich (6, 7)—is less justified if the network’s sole criterion for inclusion is the candidate’s popularity in the polls.


(1) Healy, Patrick and Michael Cooper. “Clinton Stuns Obama; McCain Wins.” New York Times. Janurary 8, 2008.

(2) Frankovich, Kathy. “N.H. Polls: What Went Wrong?” CBS News. January 14, 2008.

(3) Howell, Deborah. “Pollsters in the Primary Storms.” Washington Post. January 20, 2008.

(4) Ayer, A.J. Language, Truth, and Logic. New York: Dover. 1952. P. 38.

(5) Catchpole, Dan. “Paul left out in the cold in NH.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer Blog. January 4, 2008.

(6) Hasselback, Benjamin. “NBC Tries to Pick the Next President.” Associated Content. January 15, 2008.

(7) Harris, Paul. “Let Them be Heard.” The Guardian. January 17, 2008.

 
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