January 14, 2004

Attributional abduction

This passage is from an article about the "No Child Left Behind Act", in the Daily Northwestern's 1/09/2004 edition (emphasis added):

"There are serious problems in the legislation, and that was recognized when Congress passed the bill," said Education Prof. Fred Hess, director of NU's Center for Urban School Policy.
Hess said some of the act's problems go beyond funding. The tests being used are formulated so that 50 percent of the test-takers will fall below the median score -- in effect setting school districts up for failure no matter how much preparation students receive, he said.

That last sentence is lucidly expressed, but it is so spectacularly stupid that it imposes an unavoidable problem of interpretation. In the chain from Prof. Hess to us, someone is ignorant, malicious or careless. But who? and which?


  • the source actually said this, and the reporter didn't see any problem with it; or maybe
  • the source said something sensible, and the reporter garbled it out of ignorance; or maybe
  • the source said something sensible, and the reporter garbled it on purpose, in order to make the source look stupid; or maybe
  • the source actually said this, and the reporter saw the stupidity but included it without comment or correction as ironic subversion; or maybe
  • the source said something sensible, and the reporter wrote something sensible, but an editor garbled it, whether out of ignorance or malice ...

Or maybe the paper's production facilities were infiltrated by a squad from The Onion. You get the idea -- something is happening here, but we don't know what it is. We know exactly what the sentence means, but we're completely puzzled about how to interpret it. We're reduced to doing a kind of attributional abduction: reasoning to the most likely explanation for the publication of this bone-headed remark.

Has anyone worked on formal models of this kind of reasoning? It has something in common with liar's paradoxes and the logic of communication. However, here we're not trying to determine the truth of a statement, but rather the responsibility for a stupidity; we're not unraveling who knew what when, but rather who garbled what when (and why!). And the influences on the decision are mostly gradient evaluations of how likely it is for a certain person, or a certain kind of person, to know or think or say or do something wrong or questionable, or to be influenced by a certain kind of external agenda.

It's amazing how often respected media leave informed readers in this interpretive bind. Over the last couple of months, Language Log has stumbled over a number of cases that require attributional abduction in this sense. Guy Bailey in the NYT says strange things about the sources of Texas dialect features; a Korean clinician asserts via Reuters that bilingualism causes autism; an Egyptian manuscripts scholar promotes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; an Australian writer claims that English adds 20,000 new words a year; and now Prof. Hess complains that a test has been designed so that half the scores fall below the median. It sometimes seems that the only boggle-free articles are the ones where you start out completely ignorant of the relevant facts and principles.

Of course, it's unfair to the news media to single them out for this sort of examination. Sources, reporters and editors are not the only people who are sometimes stupid or malicious, and honest misunderstandings among well-intentioned members of the human race are more the rule than the exception. It's surprising, in the end, that anyone ever learns the truth about anything.

[Update: in case anyone is still wondering what Prof. Hess actually said, I should add that my rule of thumb in such cases is "blame the journalist." However, I've written to the parties involved and will let you know if I learn anything further.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 14, 2004 06:49 AM