The absence of disproof is not proof

The Philosopher Developer

October 11, 2013

Here’s a mistake people often make: thinking that the absence of any obvious disproof is the same thing as proof.

I took a class in college called Gender and Language. It was sort of a sociology-meets-linguistics course. One of the first points our professor made was a theory about the concept of feminism and why it is, compared to what you might expect, a relatively controversial issue. (I think most of us have met people with a negative reaction to the word “feminist”; or anyway, I certainly have.)

The professor asserted that this perception issue could be explained by the word feminist itself: “All other -ist and -ism words are negative in their connotations,” she told us. “Racist, sexist, anarchist, fascism, communism, nihilism, antisemitism”—and she went on for a bit. Then she briefly challenged us to think of any exceptions; and when none sprang to anyone’s mind right away, we moved on.

Of course, later that day some very obvious exceptions starting popping into my head: idealist, philanthropist, pragmatist, patriotism, humanism, egalitarianism. And so our professor’s hypothesis couldn’t be correct. Or anyway, if there were some truth to it (i.e., if -ist words do tend to be negative on average and so this does play into our perception of the ideas those words represent), it was certainly not the whole truth. At best it was only a small sliver of an explanation.

While my wife and I were living in Namibia in 2008, we observed an interesting quirk in the Namibian dialect of English: many people use the present participle tense of the verb to have in cases where American speakers would use the simple present tense.

Are you having a pen? (As opposed to “Do you have”)
I am having many books. (As opposed to “I have”)

We were there to teach English through a program called WorldTeach. Early in the year, I remember one of the other volunteers in the program pointed this out: “There’s only one situation when it’s correct to say I am having. Do you know what it is? It’s I am having a baby. That’s the only time!”

I seem to remember hearing this point and sort of absently nodding my head along with everyone else. At such times, I think what most of us do is perform a quick, shallow scan of our knowledge banks; and if no obvious contradictions jump out, and the claim seems relatively plausible, we basically just accept it.

Of course, again, I later thought up a whole bunch of counterexamples.

And so on. Funny that at first, it seemed so believable that there would be only one example. Then at some point it’s as if a faucet is turned on and the exceptions are suddenly quite plentiful!

The lesson here1 is, of course, that being unable to disprove something right away hardly means that it’s right. Keep this in mind the next time you’re so sure of something and think that because no one can disprove you, it must be true.

  1. OK, one last example. This one is a bit of a slap on the wrist to myself—since it involves me forgetting the very lesson I just stated—but it’s also a fun little challenge for anyone reading who cares to try and disprove the claim I’m about to (sort of) make.

    A long time ago my friends and I were talking about words, and we were trying to think of the longest one-syllable word and the shortest N-syllable words. For shortest four-syllable word, I came up with aviary. I was quite pleased with myself over this because it seems to me it would be very hard to beat; the letter-to-syllable ratio is only 1.5! So I actually started telling people that aviary is the shorted four-syllable word there is.

    Of course, now that I am older and wiser I see that I was wrong to be so sure, just because I couldn’t think of any counterexamples. But I would be very interested to find out if anyone out there can think of an even shorter four-syllable word. (Of course this would be extremely easy to do with a computer, given the right database. I’m guessing I could even look it up right now. But I haven’t bothered, because it’s a pleasant little delusion for me to think that aviary is so special, as a word.)

    Incidentally, the longest single-syllable words I recall coming up with were all along the lines of stretched, scratched—words like that.