Today’s headline is true. True means that which is certain, without the possibility of error; that which is not false; that which accords with reality. It means that which is so even if you don’t want it to be; even, that is, if you have attended a sacred Raising Awareness ceremony about the evils of tobacco.
Yes: it is true that the next tobacco ad you see could lead to a cure for cancer. How?
I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t have to know how, either. The headline is still true as long as somebody, sometime, somewhere could describe how, even if the description is only “in theory.”
My powers of imagination are weak, so I’ll rely on you to divine the path from tobacco ad to cancer cure. What I’ll do instead is distract you from thinking about this difficulty and talk about the glories of a cancer-free world.
Hey! No more cancer! Now that would be a fine thing. Right? No more pain, no suffering, no tears, grief, misery. No more mothers burying their blighted-by-disease daughters.
Like Sally Q. Evalston, 42, a Pinewood, Illinois elementary school teacher, beloved three-time winner of Teacher of the Year, who was carried away before her time with capital-C Cancer (which she “battled” with). Just you think about her. Look at her picture, feel for her mother, weep with her students.
This is the sort of tragedy that could be avoided thanks to our truthful headline. Admit it: you feel good thinking about this, don’t you? Isn’t it nice to be part of the cure for cancer, albeit in small proportion? Maybe you can email your Congressman (or woman!) and let him know you’re on his side, that you’d support him if he voted to increase funding for tobacco advertising. You could at least frown with severe disapproval at the next person you meet who suggests he’d rather not see more tobacco ads.
Assimilated all that? Then here is another true headline, “Tobacco Ads Could Lead to Daily Teen Smoking for Kids 14 and Under“.
Wait. Didn’t we just say that tobacco ads could cure cancer and now a rival claim says these same ads could cause kiddies to smoke? We did: both headlines are true. And so is is true that “Tobacco Ads Could Lead To More Cancer”. Just as it is true as true that “Tobacco Ads Could Lead To Mars Mission” or “Tobacco Ads Could Cause Nancy Pelosi To Stop Speaking Gibberish.”
The magic happens in could. Adding it—or might, may, possibly or the like—turns any proposition about the contingent into a truth. (Contingent = not logically necessary.) Anything contingent could or might be true; that is the nature of contingency. So adding a word like could in a contingent proposition merely makes the proposition tautological, and all tautologies are true.
Headlines like today’s are cheap journalist tricks; one of the most common, too. “Could Lead To” headlines and ledes betray the reporter’s prejudices and desires and make at best weak claims about reality. And the following articles usually fall prey to the standard human failing of searching only for supportive evidence, assuming that contradictory theories are the first refuge of scoundrels and “deniers.” No idea of the uncertainty in the claim of the headline ever appears.
Just for fun, I did a search on “Could Lead To” (surrounded by quotes; try this yourself). “Repetitive soccer ball ‘heading’ could lead to brain injury”, “10 nail deformities that could lead to bigger health problems”, “Heavy rain could lead to explosion in mosquito population”, “NYCHA Budget Cuts Could Lead To 500 Jobs Lost”, “Crowdfunding help could lead to a sandwich named after you”, “NHS changes could lead to hospital being sponsored by junk food firms.” An endless, ever-increasing stream.
And isn’t it curious that all of these, tacitly or directly, argue for government intervention?