Concealed caveats and qualifications

"Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us."

in the Observer
, 22 February 2004

In Britain at least, we expect newspaper headlines to overstate their case
a little. What seems dramatic when printed in 72 point bold across the page
often turns out to be much more mundane once the actual article is read.

But in this particular example, the story is just as dramatic as the headline
suggests. Apparently, a Pentagon report "warns that major European cities
will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate
by 2020."

In a box accompanying the article in the print edition, headed "The key
findings", we also discover that "by 2007 violent storms smash coastal
barriers rendering large parts of the Netherlands uninhabitable. Cities like The
Hague are abandoned."

Pretty unbelievable stuff. The problem is that these are not firm predictions
at all. Rather, they are just some of the more extreme scenarios that could
happen as a result of global warning. The problem is that the caveats which
would make this clear are suppressed so as to be virtually invisible.

The article should have predominantly used a variety of conditional forms –
such as "may", "could" and "might" – along with
some indication of how probable these outcomes are considered to be. But instead,
it is largely written in the future tense – "Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts,
famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world" – or in the
present simple – "riots and internal conflict tear apart India an Indonesia".
Phrased in this way, the events described seem to be firm predictions, not merely
possibilities among many.

There are a few "coulds" scattered about, but definite indicative
verb forms vastly outnumber these. Indeed, you need to look carefully to be
sure that the report in question is only dealing with possibilities and not
firm predictions. The clearest evidence that this is indeed the case comes in
the comment that, according to the report, "an imminent scenario of catastrophic
climate change is ‘plausible’." To say these outcomes are plausible is
very different to saying they are predicted – a word used elsewhere in the article
– or even probable. And it is certainly misleading to describe as "findings"
scenarios that are no more than plausible.

So few are the expected qualifications that it is actually possible that I
have misinterpreted the report entirely and that the Pentagon really is predicting
these outcomes are overwhelmingly probable. The failure of the story to make
the front page, rather than its actual content, is perhaps the strongest indicator
that this is not in fact the case.

This article is an extreme example. But subtler failures to include the caveats
and qualifications that are required to make what is said accurate are all too

Sometimes, it is arguable whether or not the lack of a qualification is a failure
or merely a case of acceptable stylistic economy, since the caveat can be safely
assumed. For example, an
article in the Guardian
included the sentence, "Mynak Tulku, the reincarnation
of a powerful lama, is the Dragon King’s unofficial ambassador for new technology."
It seems too much to say he was the reincarnation of a powerful lama. It would
be more accurate to say something like "said to be the reincarnation of
a powerful lama". But arguably such caveats can be assumed: we all know
that whether he is in fact reincarnated is a matter of opinion. In the context
of this particular article, I think the lack of caveat contributes to a general
unquestioning acceptance of the beliefs of Bhutan’s Buddhists, but I accept
that this could be seen as quibbling.

Between the borderline case of the reincarnated lama and the extreme case of
global catastrophe starting next year lie many instances where caveats are either
missing entirely or played down. As writers, we need to make sure we include
all the caveats that are necessary to make what we say true and which we cannot
assume the reader will take for granted. And as readers, we need to be aware
that many writers as not as vigilant as this, and look out for the signs of
concealed or absent qualifications.

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