In a recent edition of 60 Minutes, about America’s crumbling bridges, Steve Croft summarized what he thought he heard former U. S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood to be saying about the structures in question. “They’re dangerous,” prompted Croft, to see if Lahood would agree with him. “I don’t wanna say they’re unsafe,” responded Lahood. “But they’re dangerous. . . . I would agree with that.”
What did we miss? How can these bridges be “dangerous,” but not “unsafe”? When did those two words come to mean something even slightly different? Was Steve Croft listening? (I won’t ask, though as a Davidson College faculty member I’d like to, why Lahood was interviewed instead of Davidson alumnus and current Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.)
At the risk of seeming to blow this matter out of proportion, I’m going to make the claim that Croft’s failure to question Lahood’s absurd statement is a lapse in professional judgment, a seemingly small blunder that signals such profound inattention to words as to court meaninglessness. That specific interchange between Lahood and Croft was also run repeatedly as a commercial for that edition of 60 Minutes, a news program with traditionally higher standards than most and with a reputation for calling out bureaucrats on all manner of idiocy and obfuscation. If reporters don’t challenge such vacuity as Lahood’s, however, and if listeners and readers don’t balk at such ridiculousness, then we deserve the verbal hocus pocus that all too often passes as substance.
An especially troublesome category of verbal nonsense is the illogical claim about cause and effect. Such claims are everywhere; they pervade television shows, even news broadcasts, and most especially commercials. The logical connection between cause and effect is substantial, requiring some thought. And that, to use my own cause / effect construction, is one reason that the logic between cause and effect so easily breaks down: not everyone is willing to think.
Apparently, Bill Cosby didn’t want to think much—or, more likely, didn’t want his audience to think—when he was interviewed by a reporter for the Associated Press (discussed in a post on my other blog on December 16, 2014). When the reporter asked Cosby for commentary about the accusations of sexual assault flying around him like so many arrows, Cosby said, “There is no response. . . . There is no comment about that.” After a little dithering, he added, “I’ll tell you why. I don’t talk about it.” That, to quote Hamlet, would be scanned. Cosby is saying, “I don’t have a response to that question because I don’t respond to that question.” This sort of illogic is commonly referred to as a tautology—as in “a rose is a rose.”
Cosby is no doubt grasping at whatever control he has a hope of clinging to while the archers keep the arrows coming. But to think about what he’s tried to pass off as cause and effect is to find the language, not to mention the speaker, disgraced.