An uncertain mess

In one short sentence, Tory MP David Davis goes woefully wrong:

If and when elections do happen in north Africa, few can predict the results.

 There are several problems here:

  1. While “as and when” is a harmless bit of redundancy, “if and when” equivocates – and does it badly. Is he saying that elections will happen? Then “when” does the job. Is he saying that they may happen? Then “if” is good. Is he adopting some meta-epistemic position from which the knowability of their being held is itself unknown? Then “if or when” will just about manage it. Not “and”.
  2. Who are these happy “few” who can predict election results? If we know, we can just ask them and the uncertainty will dissolve. But if we don’t know, how do we know that there are few of them and not many? And I assume here that Davis means reliably predict, because any idiot can make predictions if quality isn’t a concern.
  3. Then there’s the problem of following the opening clause, positing a future condition, with the present-tense “can”. A current state of affairs can’t be conditional on a future one. It would work, grammatically, as “few will be able to predict”, but that would confine the predictive scarcity to the future.
  4. And finally, there’s the oddity of mixing (ineptly) the claim of the results’ unpredictability with the half-statement of uncertainty about whether the elections will happen at all.

A better way to put it would be:

We do not know what will happen in north Africa.

Is such a statement even worth making?

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