Monday, May 25, 2015


Many uses of the word obvious are in fact not obvious. I don't think this a mere rhetorical device to shame the listener into agreement, though I believe that is also present. Something subtler about cognition is happening here. Perhaps I should write to Steven Pinker, or John McWhorter, or Jonathan Haidt about this.

The expected meaning, that the speaker intends, is that something is so clear that it requires no further comment or evidence. He was wearing an obviously-fake disguise. That is, if you saw it, you would instantly agree that it is not a convincing disguise. I came to the obvious conclusion that Stella had not come home that evening. The information I have presented, that there were no footprints in the snow or tire-tracks in the driveway is enough evidence by itself. It was obvious my arrival was unexpected. There was no place set for me, and everyone looked surprised as I came in. In all cases a painstaking case might be made, but the instantaneous apprehension of the truth is a central piece.

But consider some recent usages about public figures:

Roger Goodell obviously doesn't wan't this to go to court.
Obviously, Hillary Clinton doesn't want us to see what's in those emails.
It's obvious we should never have invaded Iraq in 2003 (or obvious we should never have left in 2011, depending).

People make pronouncements like this all the time.  They may even be the majority of our everyday uses.

Any of these statements might be true, but what they emphatically are not is obvious. People disagree with them. Different people see different things. This is not, or not always, a mere ruse, either. In both the legitimate and illegitimate cases the speaker "just sees," all in a moment. The experience of understanding immediately is what seems to prompt the use of the word "obviously," not its unassailability in logic. Something fits our narrative or expectations so neatly that nothing more need be said.

Sometimes we're wrong.

In the first years of this blog one of my most common themes was to reflexively question what everyone "just knows," because those are almost by definition the areas that no one is actually thinking about very much.

Added:  Gay marriage is a particularly good example of people saying "obviously," and sometimes quite unable to see any other side.  One group presumably says it's obviously okay because they know some nice gay people, and it seems similar to prejudice against blacks.  The other (I guess, but with some evidence) believes it's obviously wrong because it is historically almost unheard-of, and has no possibility of resulting in reproduction, which is the natural function of all creatures. When these sort of standoffs occur, I have deep suspicions of anyone who still says "Well, obviously..."


Earl Wajenberg said...

I am reminded of a joke my physics professor told the class years ago:
A professor such as himself was working through a long mathematical problem on the board. Reaching a crucial point, he turned to the class and said, "Now, it is obvious that--" but then broke off. He thought for some time, sat at the desk and calculated on paper for some minutes, then resumed, "Yes, it is obvious that..." and continued.

Unknown said...

Re gay marriage, I'd like to read a post by someone smart like you or Sailer on the question of -- what is sufficient evidence on which to base a conclusion about the actual motivation for any particular political movement? I refer to a hot pink poster I saw in 1991 outside an office at U.C Berkeley's law school. The poster was titled The Gay Agenda, and the tenth item read, "to turn western civilization inside out!"

Assistant Village Idiot said...

My first thought is that motivations are always mixed and various. The best of us have some self-serving motives. There are perhaps a few folks who have absolutely no good intentions, or as in the case that you mention, an intention so warped that the original good is no longer recognisable. But I am not quick to leap to such conclusions, partly because I know my own weaknesses.

There are indeed some gay people with bitter, retributive motives, directed at their parents or their churches, or someone. I have met them. I just don't know that there are more of them there than anywhere else. I know anti-gays who give me the same vibe.

I wonder if there is data whether sexual orientation is also a predictor of other opinions and values that are not related in any obvious way - such as turning Western Civilisation inside out (which would likely not be a net plus for gays.)

bs king said...

The close sibling of the "obviously" issue is the "you would be crazy to believe"....

Amanda Marcotte wrote a column this week comparing anyone who doubted the Columbia "mattress girls" story with a conspiracy theorist on par with those believing 9/11 was an inside job.

Now I don't care if you believe Emma Sulkowicz or not....but the disciplinary board found him "not responsible". Agreeing that they made the right decision is hardly crazy. You can be as pro Emma as you want and you should still be able to see that.

It's that bad poster child issue again, isn't it?

Sam L. said...

"I wonder if there is data whether sexual orientation is also a predictor of other opinions and values that are not related in any obvious way - such as turning Western Civilisation inside out (which would likely not be a net plus for gays.)" Yes. One wonders how they manage to be so obtuse and unobservant, and how big a shock it would take to wake them up.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ bsking Yeah, and I don't think any response to it is effective. My instinct is to say something like "Hmm. So mere assertion in That Tone of Voice, so that those who want to be in the know get the drift, is sufficient to establish a witness's credibility, in the absence of hard evidence. I'll make a note of it." Fun for me, but I don't recall it having the slightest effect. I don't know what does have the slightest effect. I have some suspicion that you get one exit line after having belonged to a group, that might convince a few. But otherwise, nothing seems to penetrate.

I remain, more emphatically than ever, postliberal. They're just petty and closed-minded and evil, as they were 30 years ago. But I have yet to find much of a home with conservatives either. Too much of the same problem. I vote with them by default, but keep scanning the horizon for a better alternative.

@ Sam L - or it could be a one-off issue with many of them, who believe only unremarkable and even conservative things otherwise. There are interesting sites by gay conservatives out there. I don't know of conservative lesbian sites, but those may exist as well.

douglas said...

There is at least one- Tammy Bruce.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Right. Thanks.

Texan99 said...

Every bit of instruction I ever got in legal writing emphasized the need to root out expressions like "it's obvious." It never convinces anyone. It wastes space you might have been using to make the point appear incontrovertible to your audience. It's a red flag that you don't really know why you believe the point, or why anyone else should agree. Ditto for all similar locutions like "clearly," "it defies contradiction that," and other pup-lawyer tics.