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Don’t Be a Modal Weasel

Summary:
I often hear academics say things like: “It is not necessarily the case that the evidence would support that.” Is this sentence meaningless or just trivial?  I don’t know, but I am still surprised by how many otherwise reasonable people hide behind such verbiage.  Other common examples of the defensive use of modal diction: 1. “It could be impossible.” 2. “It’s certainly possible.” 3. “It mustn’t be inherently so.” 4. “It must indeed be admitted both that it would require powerful arguments to counter the strong presumption in favor of such a conclusion and that these arguments have not yet been adequately stated.” (Hayek) What’s the alternative? Plain, simple, clear, clean, bog-standard, unadorned probabilities. Instead of “It could be impossible,” say “The

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I often hear academics say things like: “It is not necessarily the case that the evidence would support that.”

Is this sentence meaningless or just trivial?  I don’t know, but I am still surprised by how many otherwise reasonable people hide behind such verbiage.  Other common examples of the defensive use of modal diction:

1. “It could be impossible.”

2. “It’s certainly possible.”

3. “It mustn’t be inherently so.”

4. “It must indeed be admitted both that it would require powerful arguments to counter the strong presumption in favor of such a conclusion and that these arguments have not yet been adequately stated.” (Hayek)

What’s the alternative? Plain, simple, clear, clean, bog-standard, unadorned probabilities.

Instead of “It could be impossible,” say “The probability is 3%” or “The probability is 17%” or whatever.  Instead of saying, “It’s certainly possible,” say “The probability is greater than zero,” or “The probability is roughly 10%.”  Instead of “It mustn’t be inherently so,” say “The probability is only 86%.”  Do specific numbers seem overly precise?  Then switch to “highly unlikely,” “even odds,” “almost certain,” and such.

Above all, instead of talking like Hayek, talk like Orwell.

You could reply, “We’re in a Prisoners’ Dilemma.  Academia crushes anyone who doesn’t quality their assertions with a pile of modal terms.”  But frankly, this seems paranoid to me.  Outside of Grievance Studies, academics will crush you for unwarranted certainty.  Otherwise, though, you can qualify your assertions like an eagle – or like a weasel.  So why be a weasel?

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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