Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts on disclaimers

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With the extensive writing that I have behind me this month, I have also had much cause to reflect on some aspects of writing—including disclaimers* of various kinds.

*And, yes, I probably am using the word in a too wide sense.

As the recurring reader might have noticed, I am often insert such in my texts, be it as something explicitly labelled “Disclaimer:” or as just a few appropriate disclaiming words, like with the above footnote.

The quantity of disclaimers is partially a special case of wanting to “establish the whole truth” (cf. [1]), partially the result of a long exposure to a mixture of idiots (be it on the Internet or elsewhere) and those who are keen to maliciously misinterpret. The sad truth is that, at least on the Internet, there is no such thing as a “fool-proof sentence”—there is always someone foolish enough to turn it into something different from what a reasonable reader would.

However, if I am too focused on the worst-of-the-worst, the more reasonable reader might think that I “over-disclaim”—that it is a given that X, that there is no need to spell X out, and, even, that I waste my readers’ time by doing so. Then there is the issue of my own time and how much of it I am willing to spend on disclaimers…

Correspondingly, I try (not necessarily successfully) to hold back and to find a balance. In a next step, however, there is a real potential problem—that I have created an expectation of disclaimers in certain situations and that the absence of a disclaimer is seen as more important than it actually is. Consider the relaying of a personal anecdote of relevance to a certain text: I might then add a disclaimer of “with reservations for memory errors” or “anecdotes should be taken with a grain of salt”. How should it be interpreted when I do not? Am I then claiming that my memory is perfect and that anecdotes are conclusive proof? No, but the recurring reader might misinterpret the absence in this manner. (With the twist that my own use of disclaimer might have unnecessarily created a need for disclaimers that would not have been there, had I not used disclaimers. More generally, our behavior is often measured against an individual baseline and the deviation of e.g. a certain act from a known baseline can be more important than the act as such.)

A potential way out might be to write some type of “general purpose” disclaimer, going through various points once and for all, where I state, e.g., that my memory is fallible, that I do not vouch for the claims of others being correct, and that this-or-that is a one-sided perspective. This maybe with an added pointer to agnostic scepticism or to this text, which can be seen as a meta-disclaimer. However, if I do, I would either have to include this “general purpose” disclaimer in every single text or count on most readers missing it. (Have you visited the existing pages with e.g. an advertising disclaimer and an evil sabotage disclaimer? I doubt it.) Even a link, in every single text, to a page with the disclaimer would likely remain unvisited by most. Then there is the issue of what to do with all the old texts that would not automatically contain this link.

Excursion on paranoia:
Am I a little paranoid when it comes to disclaimers and/or the absence of disclaimers? Maybe, but this is the Internet and considering what trifles can lead even to public condemnation, cancellation, or a firing (not just to a misinterpretation in, say, a short comment debate), it might be perfectly sane and rational to err on the side of caution. Even as is, your typical Leftist hater/idiot/propagandist might find as much to complain about in my writings as in those of, say, Heather Mac Donald. From another angle, I seem to be much better at spotting holes, faulty arguments, unstated assumption, and similar than most others, which makes the use of disclaimers, and the general completeness drive mentioned in [1], a result of seeing flaws that most others do not.*

*And/or of prioritizing various types of flaws differently than most others, e.g. in that I might prefer to add a footnote for greater completeness where someone else might prefer to cut footnotes down to a minimum—and completeness be damned. (In this specific text, the two footnotes serve a different purpose, namely to give a practical illustration on a more “meta” level.)


Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2022 at 2:04 pm

One Response

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  1. […] interesting complication, in a generalization (!) of an older text ([1]), is that adding a generalization to some ideas could conceivably raise an expectation in the reader […]

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