Arnold Kling  

In which Max discovers a tic

Redistribution: Blocking the R... In Which Ezra Shows Why He is ...

Max Sawicky noticed that I use the phrase "my guess" a lot. A few weeks ago, Julian Sanchez wrote,

But it occurs to me that in addition to the phrases at large in the written culture of the society, there are individual prose-crutches particular writers tend to fall back on again and again. One has to be careful here, because you don't want to lump ordinary elements of someones personal style and authorial voice into this category—those are good things to have—but rather focus on those little tics that breed laziness by substituting for words or constructions that might be fresher or more apt for the particular piece.

Of course, one's own tics are usually more obvious to others, so I thought I'd impose on you guys: What are the words, phrases, and constructions any of you who've been reading for a while notice recurring?

It had not occurred to me before seeing Max's post, but my guess is that "my guess" is indeed one of my verbal tics. It does fit in with my rhetorical style. I would rather err on the side of understating the evidence I have to support a claim. I want to avoid making a firm pronouncement that turns out to be false. If I am going to have to retract something, I would rather have prefaced the claim with "my guess."

A more courageous and useful approach might be to give my subjective truth probabilities whenever I make a claim. Let me revise that: I believe that there is a 70 percent chance that if I replaced "my guess" with numerical probabilities, then my writing would be fresher and more apt.

In the original "Sicko" post to which Max refers, I actually would have assigned a fairly high probability (about .90) to the accuracy of my assessment of a medical case used in Michael Moore's film. I was suggesting that rather than illustrating the racism and life-destroying nature of America's health care system, it was illustrating a case of a doctor proposing desperate, expensive, unproven treatment in a hopeless case. I was about 90 percent sure that my assessment would be supported by a careful review of the medical knowledge available.

Since then, a blogger who calls himself "the independent urologist" posted this comment on another medical web log.

I am unaware of any non-investigational bone marrow therapies for advanced renal cell or transitional cell kidney cancer.

Based on that, and other comments on my original post, I would revise my probability upward, to at least .99.

By the way, one of my favorite writers of all time has "in which" as a tic. Can you name that writer? It should be easy.

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Paul Zrimsek writes:

At the risk of revealing myself as a Commenter of Very Little Brain, my guess is that "in which" was a conscious choice rather than a tic.

Andy P writes:

Some years ago I developed a habit of responding to questions such as "will you be at the meeting" with "it is my intention." Unfortunately not everyone appreciates the subjective (accepting of randomness) view, and my attempts to spell out a laundry list of scenarios which would lead to me not appearing did little to comfort my friends. Apparently we humans prefer assurances over truth.

My favorite would be Milne

bobbyp writes:

Ayn Rand? Milton Friedman? Margaret Thatcher? Prince Metternich?

just 'my guess'

Ashley writes:

Who is "Alexis de Tocqueville?"

Pretinieks writes:

Henry Fielding?
(my first thought was "Milne!" :)

Ashley writes:

Hmm, all the comments seem to have been deleted. Anyway, my guess to your question is "Alexis de Tocqueville."

ticks fleas writes:

I had noticed the tick and and ascribed it to your intellectual honesty. It never occured to me that you haven't noticed it yourself.

My guess would be that this is a sign that your using "my guess" is a symptom of something deeper.

Arnold Kling writes:

Paul, the first commenter, seems to have nailed the author.

Floccina writes:

Better to make a concrete statement of fact like:

"I did a quick search on Google and Wikipedia for the treatments of kidney cancer, and I could not find bone marrow treatment"

and leave it at that no percentage which is a guess. Signaling the readers that they must verify.

M. Durand writes:

This reminds me of a particular episode of the great Canadian sketch comedy program the Kids in the Hall, 'in which' one dude uses the word 'ascertain' like his mind were stuck on rails.

Link to transcript of 'Ascertain'

Marc Resnick writes:

Choice of tic also depends on the type of publication. In a high quality academic journal, we are supposed to indicate when the conclusion is based on the data and when it is speculation. But in blog posts, we have more flexibility to leave out the "I guess."

Michael Keenan writes:

I think "my guess" is a good habit. Ben Franklin seems to have had a similar habit. He thought it important enough that he advocated "the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion."

If you don't like saying "my guess so much, Franklin went on to list some alternatives:
"but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag'd in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention."

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