Economy


Another principle you should adhere to when translating real-world language into statements that can be included in a structured argument is economy.


While accuracy and charity describe how human prose should be translated into clear, unambiguous premises and conclusions, the principle of economy focuses on the number of statements that will be included in your argument.


As the name implies, economy favors arguments that include the fewest number of premises needed to support an argument’s conclusion. Give what you now know about validity and soundness, this should make sense since one bad premise in a deductive argument is all it takes to bring the entire argument down due to unsoundness. Even inductive arguments that don’t crash and burn if one or more premises turn out to be false are weakened when those bad premises are exposed.


You have already seen examples, like this one regarding whether or not we should be worried about Bernie Sanders’ age, where we had to add premises to complete a coherent argument. But even if adding new or exposing hidden premises is necessary, the goal should still be arguments containing no more premises than are necessary to make a point.


You’re probably ready for some newsworthy examples, so here’s a statement Congressman Adam Schiff made after he was introduced as one of the Impeachment Managers by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:


We have always felt a certain urgency about this impeachment, given that the president was trying to get foreign help in cheating in the next election. But as soon as we did take up and pass the Articles, Mitch McConnell made it clear that he did not want a trial in the Senate, that he did not want to hear from witnesses, that he did not want documents.

If I were to reduce that paragraph to a set of premises, they would include:


  • The House of Representatives had to impeach Donald Trump quickly to avoid him cheating in the November Presidential election with the help of foreign powers.

  • The Republican leadership of the Senate does not want a real trial in the Senate.

  • A real trial in the Senate would involve hearing from witnesses and introducing new documents not included in the Articles of Impeachment.


While I don’t think I can get Representative Schiff on the phone right now, I’m going to propose that he and any reasonable person looking at Schiff’s original quote would agree that I have accurately translated what he said and that my translation is charitable, presenting the strongest version the points he was trying to make.


Regarding economy, I could have generated two separate premises from his last sentence: one having to do with witnesses, another for documents. But Schiff’s key point was that Senate President McConnell did not want to introduce any new evidence (which includes both witnesses and documents) during a Senate hearing, which makes it safe to include both potential sources of new evidence in a single premise.


Now that Schiff’s original prose has been translated into lucid premises, you can probably think of ways to challenge one or more of them. For example, November is a long way off, but the Iowa Caucuses are not, so the House’s haste in passing Articles of Impeachment may have more do with Democratic primary politics than an imminent threat of Republican cheating. But remember that, at this point, we are still just focused on how to perform accurate, charitable, economic translation, not passing judgement on premises that have yet to be included in a structured argument.


Turning to the target of impeachment, President Donald Trump had this to say at a political rally in Ohio while the House was still negotiating with the Senate over rules that body would follow when trying the House’s case:


By the way, did you see, I did nothing wrong. They don’t even know what in the hell is going on. In fact, it’s so weak, she doesn’t want to put in the articles, it’s so weak. They’re so pathetic. They’re so pathetic.

At this point, I should highlight that Trump’s prose is considerably less structured and polished than what Schiff had to say. Partly, this is because Trump was speaking off-the-cuff at a political rally while Schiff was reading from a prepared statement. But it’s also fair to point out that Trump’s speaking style in general does not follow conventional rules for communicating in formal settings.


I don’t think I’m being outrageously partisan by pointing out that the current President does not speak in crisp, unambiguous prose. In fact, his statement above is more concise and understandable than many things he routinely says. We’ll save discussion of the virtues of different forms of political rhetoric for another time, but in the context of translation it’s fair to say that the Trump style creates unique translation challenges.


Still, principles of accuracy, charity and economy are bipartisan, so here’s my shot at boiling his campaign taunt into a coherent set of premises:


  • Nancy Pelosi did not transmit the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate because they are weak.

  • The Articles of Impeachment are weak because they do not demonstrate that President Trump did anything wrong.


Again, “The Donald” is not likely to answer my e-mail inquiring if I got this translation right, but for purposes of illustrating the principle of economy, note that these two premises capture the essence of what he was trying to say, shorn from unnecessary provocative rhetoric designed to please a crowd.


You might be surprised to find out that the logical rules and principles for translation you have read about so far on this site are enough to put you on the road to being a skilled logic checker. But given the range and complexity of human communication (reflecting the complexity of human existence), knowing the rules is one thing, mastering them another.


So practice, practice, practice…

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