Surely, I can’t believe that I would have thought…

Anyone with students has become used to what I shall (extremely loosely) refer to as the argument of lazy denial, where a student uses one of the following in a sentence, when discussing a technical issue:

  • Surely…
  • I can’t believe…
  • I would have thought…

Now, used rhetorically, where you place a deliberately short-term doubt in someone’s mind and then follow it up with the facts, there is no real problem with most of these. My problem is when a student uses this in order to dismiss an idea, based on an isolated opinion or a very limited understanding of the issues. As I joked recently on someone’s Facebook, I’ve told my students that starting any technical discussion question with “Surely…” is an indication that further research has to take place.

Yes, yes, I’m making a point and enough of my students know about it to occasionally rib me with its deliberate usage but this just emphasises that they’re thinking about things. It’s very easy to infer a comfortable denial to a situation based on limited experience. This could be covered as being a hasty generalisation, jumping to conclusions, appeal to incredulity or wishful thinking, but it’s really an excuse to express disbelief without having to provide any evidence other than “Nahhhh.” And, ultimately, because very little work is being done here, I’m just going to call it lazy denial.

My intention is not, of course, to stop people speaking naturally but it’s to help my students think about framing an argument, which requires knowing enough about the area to be able to construct, and respond to, an argument. Research usually consists of knowing enough to know what you don’t know, which can usually be explained far more succinctly than saying “Surely, someone would have carried out action <x>”. There are legitimate ways to express this sentiment, after you’ve done the reading. “I’ve looked through all of the literature I can find and it appears that no-one appears to have tried <x>.”

(Regrettably, as in all things scientific, not finding something doesn’t prove its non-existence. As exhaustive literature searches are becoming harder and harder with the growth of the data corpus, we have to be very circumspect about how we make statements such as “no-one has done this” because it is more than a little embarrassing when someone stands up at the end of your talk and says “Urm, we did”.)

Once we’ve gone looking and discussed the area, we’re all looking at the same problem in the same way. Rather than making sweeping statements that are, to be honest, often a little condescending because you’re speaking as if your opinion is so blindingly obvious that it must have been tried, we can really appreciate the discovery of  a hole in the recorded knowledge: a place where we can make a contribution.

This is not to say that everything is this formal and there have been many fine semi-research discussions carried out that have used these terms but, when we’re sitting around trying to work towards a solution or my students are trying to work out their research direction, this starts to become important.

I suppose this reveals more about me than it does about my students…

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