Evidence and Conversation

 My best friend at school, the nearest I ever came to having a brother, could have had a brilliant Oxbridge career, but chose instead to join the Army.  He was posted to some unlikely duties in strange places, but continued sending lively and amusing letters until the letters abruptly stopped.  The break was very complete; usual means of contact failed and his name in records apparently disappeared after his short and incomplete career.  This was in the early 1960s.  It was at least a decade after that when I realised that three or four apparently unconnected scraps of information that had come my way at different times could fit together to provide an unpleasant conclusion.  While there is no certainty about it, it seems very likely that he was one of a small group that was challenged when exploring – using the term judiciously – in a remote region of Arabia, and killed, with unnecessary brutality.  It goes without saying that there was no possible practical or political  reaction at the time, even if it had seemed wise to attempt such a thing, which is not always the case, bearing in mind the interests of all concerned.  But in any case the urge to investigate seems quite independent of both the strength of ties, and the chance of informative results.  What happened to our cousin who sailed for New York in 1919?  We don’t know, except that after World War II two very welcome food parcels arrived.  Recently reliance on physical, ‘measurable’ factors has been tending to crowd out other evidence altogether.  ‘Scientific’ factors are often valuable; dna evidence, reliably obtained and honestly reported, should certainly outbid the opinions of local dignitaries or those who judge guilt by skin colour.  But this does not mean social factors can be casually discarded.  Tests on materials, and records of physical movements may seem satisfyingly scientific, but a vast extent of human interaction depends on relationships of many kinds  and behaviour normally associated, on states of mind, language used and misused, group membership, and on beliefs justified or not; investigators who disregard all evidence of that kind risk short-changing their investigations and the potential beneficiaries.  Moreover there are occasions when absence of evidence may itself be evidence.  See the item below.


Learning what they’re not telling you (Part II).  Part I was embodied in the item about MH 17 (31st July).  Regrettably some readers were so overworked, sleepy or drunk that they failed to take the last question of that piece as a challenge.  (Did they really think it was a naïve confession of bafflement?)  The exploratory technique of Part I can be described as ‘Leaving out the awkward bits’ (an ancient tradition in British political reporting, but wonderfully expanded, especially when slanted – usually the right word – to deal with Middle East issues ever since the assassination of Bernadotte).  Some experts in exegesis (i.e. making a guess at what’s really happening behind the news reports) try to impress by using Latin technical terms and they call the technique of Part I ‘Omissio factorum’.  However that may be, it’s high time the much rarer but hard-to-handle Suppressio falsi was given an airing.

            (Suppressio veri is of course the better known counterpart, where non-mention of some aspect or element may be taken to imply non-occurrence of that aspect or element.  “I saw two girls come out of the building” may be a true report, but gives a wrong impression, since a fuller version would also mention the emergence of the man in a yellow high-vis jacket and carrying a 2 metre long hand-held rocket launcher.  Criminals and malefactors asked about their socially challenging activities are often willing to talk about them, but nearly always with a large helping of careful suppressio veri (often crafted for the more successful ones by their agents).  Strictly speaking there is a large helping of suppressio veri almost every time we speak, with billionsn of details – date, time, age, height, gps co-ordinates, dna, political illusions, twitter account, and indefinitely many more, all of which really exist (Editor’s note: except, in my case, the twitter account), but which are fundamentally irrelevant, as e.g. when you remark to a fellow bus passenger that you’ve never found Kafka very readable.  What matters is whether suppressing your glimpse of the man with the rocket launcher was done to deceive, or at least could deceive, with important consequences.  But except for those with an overactive drive to find out ‘what really happened’ suppressio veri mainly provides hours of often harmless fun for lawyers, academics, and assorted political activists.)

            Many investigators trying to find out what’s really been going on out of public view seem reluctant to turn their hand to suppression falsi.  “Nah, stick with suppressio veri mate!  Tried and tested.  No call to go messing about with new techniques.”   This is deplorably defeatist.  Suppressio falsi only too seldom gets the chance to shine on the screens of the world’s smartphones.  It involves failure to mention explicitly some element or factor, which does not exist, but which may nonetheless, when combined with other factors, help us to unearth useful lines of enquiry into what has been going on behind the backs of the public.  Some pessimists will argue that suppressio falsi cannot be claimed as a useful concept, not even in academia, since the number of non-existing factors and elements available for not-mentioning must immediately sweep any supposed suppressor away into a multiverse of infinities.  But this calls the game lost before it has started.  Actually suppressio falsi, by comparing what citizens would have done in a non-actual situation, can offer clues to how behaviour that is observed should be understood.  Consider for instance a man with a rocket-launcher who does not exist and a fortiori does not emerge from that building wearing a yellow high-vis jacket.  We can still ask those idling in the area what their reaction would have been if he had.  They will very likely agree that they would have talked about him, mentioned him to friends, and perhaps decided to write a joint letter to the Daily Telegraph deploring the increase in immigration figures.  Such  circumstantial non-facts give a conscientious investigator a much fuller picture of the environment within which actual events have taken place (as for example with reports of what western politicians might have got up to on visits to Russia).

            At this point our thoughts naturally turn to oil tankers. Not long ago a British oil tanker, the Stena Impero, was required by Iran’s maritime forces to divert from its route, and remain in the Iranian port Bandar Abbas, until further notice.  According to Iranian sources the tanker had been in collision with an Iranian fishing vessel, with damage and casualties, but had ignored the fishing vessel’s distress signals and tried to continue on its route (contrary to international maritime law).  According to the British account, there was no collision, and the order to remain in Bandar Abbas was therefore a simple act of piracy.

            Now, there may be real damage to the fishing vessel held in Bandar Abbas.  This, either because it was in collision with the tanker or because, if the Iranians were devious – the misguided default assumption warmly embraced by many western officials – they will have taken the chance of holding the fishing vessel under their control to arrange damage to support the allegation of collision.  Yet until now, there continues to be a surprisingly acute shortage of mentions of the incident from both western and Iranian sources.  We can ask why.  Investigative journalists, if any are interested in data with such low facebook potential, may head off in various directions, in particular these:

(a) If there really is damage to the vessel, then western sources may remain silent because such a report would support the Iranian account.  On a broad view, this might be claimed as good old suppressio veri ; in practice it may simply amount to keeping quiet and hoping it’ll blow over

(b) If there really is damage to the vessel then Iran may nonetheless continue suppressing news of it because  Iran wants to play that card later and until then is content to let the West go out on a limb, hoping Western interests will later be seen to have made fools of themselves

(c)  If there is no damage then the West may still wish to suppress the corresponding report, because it deprives them of a fierce complaint – a casus belli, even, if that seems a good idea to those who play with deadly weapons of war via video screens at a safe distance – about the diversion of their tanker.

(d) If there is no damage to the fishing vessel; Iran will have an interest in suppressing the report (that the damage does not exist) because it would falsify the Iranian account of events.  In other words, a proper interpretation of events is blocked by the failure to mention a factor that does not exist.   That looks like a very satisfactory example of suppressio falsi in action (or in this case in inaction.)

            (Of course in principle yet other conclusions are possible; for instance  absence of reports in western mainstream media may reflect dark interests of whoever controls the media in which the reports have failed to appear, or even just a run-of-the-mill nosedive in journalistic standards, but these are not necessarily mutually exclusive with those already cited.)


We have been asked yet again to set out the rules and system of scoring for Competitive Conversation.  The rules are widely available in Irish reference books and websites, but following protests from British would-be competitors (and a petition signed by more than 800,000 people) a simple version, omitting all allusions to deceased Irish politicians, has been devised, for which we here set out the main currently recognised ‘touches’ and their values, with one or two examples:

Note: Physical violence before the agreed end of a conversation incurs instant disqualification

Positive scoring:

1 point for either detecting a factual error, provided it is recognised as such by a majority of those currently in play, or for a ‘polish’; that is for a purely formal improvement of an opponent’s remark, e.g. by expressing it with alliteration, (for instance ‘Ten Tory trouble-makers for Theresa’) or an encapsulating compression (Eunity prevails, just about).

2 points for demonstrating (not merely asserting) an inconsistency between two remarks of an opponent or between the opponent’s strategy and practice.  (Often referred to as the Catch 22 flaw, but strictly speaking that inconsistency was between official policy and the rules on how to implement it.)

3 points for a remark which may appear to be an encouragement, but which, when correctly interpreted, will be seen by the other players as an insult. For instance, ‘You must be glad to be going somewhere where you’ll be appreciated.’

[Personal note from Editor: this particular remark was favoured by a former mother-in-law of mine, a Bristol magistrate, for use with young male visitors]

4 points for issuing words which will appear to careless or overworked recipients to celebrate a success with proper recognition, but which in fact serve to divert attention from undesirable aspects of the circumstance (as when a Minister of Health bullies or manoeuvres the nursing profession into accepting a three-year pay ‘deal’ which, with inflation taken into account is going to leave most of them actually worse off in the next three years.)  (“An incredibly well deserved pay award” Jeremy Hunt)

5 points for pointing to a serious flaw overlooked by an opponent.  (After World War II Britain was virtually wrecked economically.  America pumped investment into Europe, Germany included, in order to keep Stalin’s armies out.  A year or two later a prominent British politician talking to Winston Churchill said it might be a good idea for Britain, still nearly destitute, to declare war on America so as to get a massive inflow of investment on the same lines.  Churchill: “The problem with that is that after a protracted and devastating struggle, we might win.”)

Negative scoring

3 points lost  for use of any bromide, platitude, cliché, or cant phrase (unless on appeal all present agree that there was a proper reason for its appearance)

honor honestis