The art of the hedge: A linguistic dissection of Marco Rubio's comments on Earth's age

The Week's Editorial Staff
The Week
Marco Rubio's primary hedging strategy when discussing the Earth's age? The plausibility shield.

The Tea Party star cast doubt on whether Earth is really 4.5 billion years old, largely through a hedging strategy known as "the plausibility shield"

In a GQ interview published yesterday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was asked how old he thinks the Earth is. His answer, the gist of which was basically "nobody knows," was prefaced by a good deal of hedging:

I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries. 

Rubio's hedging belongs mainly to a single category: The plausibility shield. This type of hedge indicates uncertainty on the part of the speaker. It's a way to reduce responsibility for what you say. "I am not a scientist," he begins, mitigating his commitment to the scientific standing of what he is about to say. Instead of saying, "there are multiple theories out there," he says, "I think there are multiple theories out there." Instead of "we'll never be able to answer that," he says, "I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that."

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Hedging can be used as a tool of accuracy, politeness, evasion, or defense. But at its core, it is an attempt to control the possible effects of words on an audience. And the plausibility shield is not the only hedging strategy our language offers. Here are five other hedging devices that Rubio could have used:

1. Attribution shield
You use this hedge to distance yourself from the reliability of what you say by attributing certainty to someone else. "The scientists I know agree that this question has no answer."

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2. Rounders
These are words and phrases that emphasize a lack of precision with a certain range. Instead of the very specific reference to seven in "Whether the earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras," Rubio could have said, "Whether the earth was created in about a week or a number of eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that."

3. Fuzzy categorization
This is used to show that the thing you mention isn't a typical example of its category. "I think there are multiple — what you might call — theories out there."

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4. Downtoners
You hedge with these adverbs or adverbials to downplay the force of a statement. "I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has almost nothing to do with the gross domestic product." 

5. Reversal tags
When you add a reversal tag to the end of a sentence, it throws doubt on the assertion in the sentence and whether you think that assertion is really true. "This question can't be answered, can it?"

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Of course, these five strategies wouldn't have really suited Rubio's purpose. It seems that he wanted the content of his statements to come through unhedged, with the full force of certainty. The effect of "multiple theories," "7 days or 7 eras," and "it's one of the great mysteries" is left unmuddled for one audience. What he hedges is his own relationship to those statements, for a different audience. "Here's what I think, but what do I know? I'm no scientist."

—Arika Okrent

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