Evangelical over/under

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Ross Douthat, "Is There an Evangelical Crisis?", NYT 11/25/2017 (emphasis added):

But it’s also possible that evangelical intellectuals and writers, and their friends in other Christian traditions, have overestimated how much a serious theology has ever mattered to evangelicalism’s sociological success. It could be that the Trump-era crisis of the evangelical mind is a parochial phenomenon, confined to theologians and academics and pundits and a few outlier congregations — and that it is this group, not the cultural Christians who voted enthusiastically for Trump, who represent the real evangelical penumbra, which could float away and leave evangelicalism less intellectual, more partisan, more racially segregated … but as a cultural phenomenon, not all that greatly changed. […]

Correction: November 26, 2017
An earlier version of this column misstated a possible belief among some Christians about how much a serious theology matters to evangelicalism’s sociological success. They may have overestimated it, not underestimated it.

For discussion of the general point, see "The Estimation Game", 4/3/2014, or

"We cannot/must not understate/overstate", 5/6/2004
"Overstating understatement", 6/22/2004
"Multiplex negatio ferblondiat", 7/14/2007
"Weird logic and Bayesian semantics", 7/15/2007
"'Cannot underestimate' = 'must not underestimate'?", 11/6/2008
"Misunderestimation", 4/4/2009
"Underestimate, overestimate, whatever", 3/23/2011
"'…not understating the threat", 6/5/2012
"Overestimating, underestimating, whatever", 1/11/2013
"'Impossible to understate' again", 3/1/2014

…and many more

But note that this one is "possible to underestimate", not "cannot underestimate" or "impossible to underestimate" — just a modal and a scalar predicate, no explicit negation (though the "ever" is a polarity item).




  1. Bill Benzon said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 9:22 am

    And "misunderestimate"?

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

    I don't see what is being corrected if the original has "overestimate", which makes sense if I get Douthat's meaning, namely, that theology doesn't matter as much as the theologians thought.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

    Coby Lubliner: The original had "underestimate". What appears above is the corrected version.

    If this were Metaphorical Purity Log, I'd mention that "parochial" doesn't work well for me with "penumbra".

  4. Brett said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 7:04 pm

    I think the author just changed his mind while writing the sentence (I know, an eminently provable conjecture), i.e., he was going to write "underestimated the sociological [component, vis-a-vis the theological]", wrote "underestimated the theological" and then forgot to reverse the order of the rest of the sentence.

  5. John Swindle said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 3:42 am

    Jerry Friedman: But if it were Alliteration Log …

  6. Jonathan said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

    @Jerry Friedman – You could also mention that "floating away" isn't something that penumbras tend to do. Sometimes I start to doubt that Ross Douthat is as clear or as deep a thinker as he is certain he is.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 1:59 pm

    Jonathan: That brings up an interesting question: Are things such as mixed metaphors and writing "underestimate" for "overestimate" (however it happened) really correlated with unclear or shallow thought? Applied to this article, do our criticisms of the writing provide reason for increased skepticism toward Douthat's statement that theology may not have mattered much to evangelism's social (not "sociological") success?

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 9:58 am

    To Jerry Friedman's question, consider also that we don't know what some anonymous editor may or may not have done with Douthat's original draft, so we don't know whose brain and/or fingers may have introduced a particular infelicity (possibly has part of an incomplete attempt to rephrase a sentence whose original-draft version was more felicitous) and/or whose set of eyes was supposed to be the last line of defense against any such infelicities remaining in the version that went to press.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 10:02 am

    Although since one of the classic LL examples of misnegation is "no head injury is too trivial to ignore," allegedly posted in hospitals w/o any problem being noticed by lots of folks with good MCAT scores and suchlike credentials, I think the broader theme is that people who are clearly very bright by any metric you might choose to name are still (due to the inherent limitations of our poor monkey brains) prone to errors of this sort. So whether or not there may be *some* genres of error from which it would be plausible to draw a negative inference about the general analytical capacities of the person who made the error, it's not this particular genre.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 10:32 am

    J. W. Brewer: That's a good point about editing.

    Also about the frequency of misnegation, although the one here is unusual in not having another negative around. Now I'm wondering whether there are writers who never misnegate or do so much less than others, and what if anything that would say about them.

  11. Jonathan said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 10:41 am

    I agree with J.W. Brewer that errors like "being off by one negation more or less" don't make for good proof that the underlying thoughts are invalid. There are languages where multiple negations in a sentence accumulate (e.g. Russian) instead of cancelling (as we are supposing happens in English). Also, both writer and reader of these sentences know which meaning is intended. "I thought this text was exhorting me to be good, but now that I notice this one particular word I see that it was telling me to be bad." – that's not how our minds usually work, and it takes extra effort to interpret sentences this way.

    As for essays that throw up a cloud of inconsistent metaphors around their central ideas, I don't think you can use the bad writing to indict the ideas, but it's also hard to ignore it. It's like (and here's my entry in the bad simile derby) being served a slice of pie with a very dirty fork. The pie itself could be good, or even excellent, but you still have to deal with the fork, and it's going to cloud the experience. And if you keep getting dirty forks, unless the pie is absolutely amazing you're going to stop going to that restaurant.

  12. Paul Mulshine said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

    As a former newspaper editor, I would have sent this back to the writer and instructed him to use shorter sentences and less jargon. I doubt if more than one in a hundred readers made it to the end.

  13. mg said,

    December 1, 2017 @ 4:33 am

    @Jonathan – Thank you for so perfectly phrasing my general feelings about Douthat: Sometimes I start to doubt that Ross Douthat is as clear or as deep a thinker as he is certain he is.

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