Double-False Conditionals

One of my pet peeves in academic prose of the more pretentious kind is the double-false conditional statement. Here’s one that I’ve made up.

“If the adoption of bronze casting can be seen as a sign of increasing preoccupation with eschatology, then it follows that we must be continually vigilant against any appropriation of the era’s heritage by the extreme right.”

What I’m doing here is first putting forward a probably false or untestable statement as a condition, and then asserting baldly that one can infer something else from it, which is in fact completely unrelated. This is quite common in some quarters. Apparently, what these writers do is take opinion A and the unrelated opinion B, and just slot them blindly into an IF A THEN B statement.

The double-false conditional. Watch for it when you read academic prose in the humanities and social sciences. Do share your findings with us here! And don’t let them fool you.

Update 29 October: Here’s one from David Wengrow’s new book, What Makes Civilization?, p. xvi:

If the effect of such displays and substitutions [the display of Egyptian mummies in the Louvre, which had been a royal palace during the ancien regime] is to reassure us that we have passed beyond the threshold of ‘early civilization’ into some more ‘modern’ condition, then it becomes all the more important to go beneath the surface, and examine the true nature of those societies we have come to regard as so distant from our own.”

What Wengrow really says here is:

1. I think that when mummies replaced kings in the Louvre, the [intended?] effect was to reassure us that we have passed beyond the threshold of ‘early civilization’ into some more ‘modern’ condition.
2. I also think that it is important to examine the true nature [!] of ancient societies.


  1. #1 Greg Laden
    October 28, 2010

    If what you are saying is printed on a billboard in Bogner Regis, then small electric clarinets will go on sale next week.

  2. #2 Phillip IV
    October 28, 2010

    If you are correct in your assumptions regarding the double-false conditional, then it would be crucial to identify which climatic factors have the greatest net negative impact on rice production in Venezuela.

    As I’ve always said, I might add!

  3. #3 dean
    October 28, 2010

    If you don’t accept the patriot act and related laws without question then the terrorists win.

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    October 28, 2010

    This double-false conditional, as you call it, sounds especially pernicious because, according to the rules of logic, it is technically true. “If A, then B” is true whenever A is false; it is only false when A is true and B is false.

    For example: If the moon is made of green cheese, then there are wild tigers in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

  5. #5 Richard D
    October 28, 2010

    Well when you put it like that it seems pretty obvious.

    I would really hope I have never just glossed over something like that in my mind.

  6. #6 KateL
    October 28, 2010

    I imagine you’ve seen the BBC spoof history programme, We Are History, before but I’ve always liked David Oxley’s conditional sentence at 8.22 (you need to watch the whole thing for the whole context and because it’s funny) in the King Arthur episode:

  7. #7 ArchAsa
    October 28, 2010

    Brilliant! Even better than the oft used practice of starting a paper with the glib pronounciation that “if A then B” and then proceeding with building a huge argument and conclusion around B without ever even trying to prove that A was a correct statement to begin with. The single-false conditional if you will.

    I will certainly start using the double-false 😉

  8. #8 Ingvar M
    October 29, 2010

    dean @ #3:

    For a while now, I have been saying “If you care where your wine’s grapes grew, the terroirists have already won”.

    I suspect there’s a canine pun involving “terrierists” as well.

  9. #9 Nigel
    October 29, 2010

    If this example of fallacious reasoning that I just totally made up is typical of academic prose, then this academically prosey argument (with which I disagree) is clearly fallacious.”

    Ah! I see what you are doing now.

  10. #10 Martin R
    October 29, 2010

    Nigel, I’m confused and don’t know how to respond. You disagree with me. But are you saying that the double-false conditional does not exist (commonly) in the literature? Or that it is fine and nothing to complain about? Or that I personally have no right to complain about it because I’m just the same?

  11. #11 Sandgroper
    October 30, 2010

    #6 – Kate, they should have used a D8. These hand tools will get people nowhere fast.

    No, I hadn’t seen the programme before, and thanks for posting that, I enjoyed it immensely.

    I read “because I’m just the same?” as “because I’m just insane?” I think it’s time I went to bed.

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