A plea to philosophers: will more of you please learn to read texts with due care

I’ve been undertaking the dismal task of looking again at online comments made about me in the wake of my almost entirely futile attempt to clarify the status of reports of Charlotte Coursier’s inquest. Futile, because many people seem unable to think clearly. My conclusion:

Please will everybody who has made misinformed comments take note of a few things.

Number one. Inquests in the UK are held in public. Do you want to  live in a society where they are held in secret? No. Then sorry to all concerned, especially of course family and friends, but there you are. That is reality.

Number two. In this country, we still have a (reasonably) free press. Do you want to change this? No, of course you don’t.

Number three. Drawing on one and two: Therefore, the press are free to report on inquests.

Number four. At inquests, various evidence is heard, according to the decision of the coroner. Some of this is presented under oath. Some of it is taken from signed statements to the police. Some of it is taken from other sources such as medical records and other statements including of course any autopsy report. The purpose of an inquest in UK law is limited to ascertaining the identity of the deceased and the place, time and cause of death. That is it. In the case of an inquest where it is thought that the deceased may have taken their own life, then their state of mind will be relevant to any verdict. Therefore, at the coroner’s discretion, any information which is thought relevant to ascertaining the state of mind of the deceased may be presented. Moreover, the coroner will also present their own accounts of events, based upon their reading of the various pieces of evidence before them. For instance, a coroner may reconstruct a timeline of events drawing on evidence from various sources.

Number five. So, when a newspaper or other media outlet reports on an inquest, what they are doing is this. They are giving a report of what evidence has been presented at the inquest, and they are presenting the final verdict. You will be able to determine this by reading these reports with the due care and attention that anybody who has sat in one or two lessons at school about how to read a newspaper article should have. You can determine this by the use of such devices as directly reported speech, indicated by the use of quotation marks, and by devices such as starting or ending paragraphs with phrases such as ‘the inquest heard’. This indicates that what is being reported is not any direct claims as to what happened, but reports of what was in evidence heard at the inquest. And remember, that evidence heard at an inquest is evidence which the coroner has deemed relevant to reaching a verdict; some of this will be taken from official documents and reports, some from sworn testimony, or signed police statements, but much of it will be the opinion of individuals.

Number six. Cast your minds back to the first lessons you had on logic. In these lessons, you will have been taught how to translate sentences of natural language into formalised sentences of logic. A major aim of doing this is to be able to determine in a rigorous manner the truth value of sentences including various complex sentences, and so the validity of arguments. In these lessons, you will have learned about various sentences which cannot be so translated in their entirety, because they contain intensional contexts. Here’s an example. Take sentence A: ‘Snow is white’. This is true if snow is white. Take sentence B: ‘Snow is white and rain is wet’. This is true if it is true both that snow is white and that rain is wet. Take sentence C: ‘Tarski said “snow is white”‘. This is true in different circumstances. It’s true if Tarski said that snow is white. Whether or not snow is white is completely irrelevant to the truth of sentence C, entirely relevant to the truth of sentence A and to the truth of sentence B.

If you didn’t do logic, you can cast your mind back further to the school room, where you learned the difference about direct or indirectly reported speech, and to days when you will have been able to work out that you might possibly be able to get out of trouble by saying ‘I didn’t say Mr Clarke was a fat git, Sir, I was just saying that Sammy Jones said that Mr Clarke was a fat git. Honest, Sir, it weren’t me.’ Although this particular school child may be being disingenuous, the principle referred to is entirely valid.

I am labouring this point because for some reason which completely escapes me, many people simply do not seem to get this. At least, not in any context where their emotions are involved. This all leads to my next point

Number seven. When I stated in the Leiter reports that, as someone who had attended the inquest, I could confirm that the Daily Mail gave the most accurate report of the inquest, the reason why I said this was because it gave the fullest report of all the evidence presented at the inquest covering a variety of aspects of the stresses that Charlotte had most unfortunately suffered. It should be blindingly obvious by now that what I meant was that the Daily Mail was giving a report of what was said at the inquest, an intensional context; directly or indirectly reported speech. Like all the newspapers. None of the papers reporting the inquest was doing anything other than reporting what evidence was presented there. None of them was giving their own views or opinions, or investigative research, into what had actually happened in Charlotte’s life. They were ALL simply reporting what evidence the coroner thought appropriate to present publicly at the inquest. Moreover, another reason for thinking that some newspaper reports were likely to be  more reliable in their details is that they were by named reporters present at the inquest, rather than created from agency reports.

Got it? So, like all the media reports, as someone who attended the inquest, I only know what was said at the inquest. I have no special insight into what inquest evidence was or was not true. I also do not have a photographic memory, and cannot now recall in minute detail every single thing that was said. Got it?

Number nine. Although there is a free press in this country, individual citizens do not yet have any duty to enter into the free-for-all of online comments in erratically managed blogs. Just saying. Especially when those blogs are populated by philosophers who, from their training, ought to have been fully able to work out a priori the fallacies that were being peddled or reproduced by certain others.

And PS – to those who think I am a member of the patriarchy, thanks for the laugh! I nearly wet myself at that  joke.

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