Three types of ambiguity - jokes with footnotes [1]

A trio of jokes from psychology, philosophy, and linguistics

Some jokes benefit from footnotes.

That may not be true of these, but I’m going to provide them anyway.

When I found in quick-ish succession a good psychology joke and a good philosophy joke, I thought of looking for a physiology joke to complete the PPP hat trick - but found that PPP has been replaced by PPL, so here we go…


In his book on the evolution of minds, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C. Dennett describes a debate he had with an “ardent champion of Skinnerian behaviorism [2], Jack Michael”, in 1974.

I had presented my paper “Skinner Skinned” (in Brainstorms 1978), and Michael, in his rebuttal, delibered a particularly bold bit of behaviorist ideology, to which I responded, “But why do you say that, Jack?” to which his instant reply was “Because I have been rewarded for saying that in the past.”

Dennett introduces this by considering the different meanings of the word “reason” (contrasting “Do you know the reason why planets are spherical?” and “Do you know the reason why ball bearings are spherical?"), and remarks - “I was demanding a a reason - a what for - and getting a process narrative - a how come - in reply.”

But that aside, I thought it was a good joke for a behaviorist too…


I can’t remember where I first saw this, but found it most recently on Reddit (presented with minor tweaks):

A professor in a Logic class says “All right class, if you know what ‘affirming the consequent’ [3] means, then raise your hand.”

A student raises her hand.

The Professor says “Ah, yes. You know what it is?”

The student says “No, why would you think so?”

I want to add a second punchline (well, “punchline” might be overstating it, but I can hope at least for a “nudgeline”)

The professor looks back at his notes, and clarifies - “Sorry, I should have said ‘iff’ [4] instead of ‘if’.”

But I’m not convinced it’s an improvement. (It might work better as spoken dialogue, but I think writing the whole dialogue in the International Phonetic Alphabet, something like “[ ɔːl ˈɹaɪt klɑːs , ɪf juː nəʊ ]…”, might obscure the intended humour.)


From Reddit

I like ambiguity more than most people.



Wikipedia on Seven Types of Ambiguity

Seven Types of Ambiguity is a work of literary criticism by William Empson which was first published in 1930. It was one of the most influential critical works of the 20th century and was a key foundation work in the formation of the New Criticism school.

This post, featuring only three, is less likely to be quite so influential.


Wikipedia on behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner:

Considering free will to be an illusion, Skinner saw human action as dependent on consequences of previous actions, a theory he would articulate as the principle of reinforcement: If the consequences to an action are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger.”

He is also noted for inventing the operant conditioning chamber (also known as a “Skinner box”):

a laboratory apparatus used in the experimental analysis of animal behavior… As used by Skinner, the box had a lever (for rats), or a disk in one wall (for pigeons). A press on this “manipulandum” could deliver food to the animal through an opening in the wall, and responses reinforced in this way increased in frequency.


Wikipedia on logical fallacy affirming the consequent:

“…Affirming the consequent, sometimes called converse error, fallacy of the converse, or confusion of necessity and sufficiency, is a formal fallacy of taking a true conditional statement (e.g., “if the lamp were broken, then the room would be dark”) under certain assumptions (there are no other lights in the room, it is nighttime and the windows are closed), and invalidly inferring its converse (“the room is dark, so the lamp must be broken”), even though that statement may not be true under the same assumptions. This arises when the consequent (“the room would be dark”) has other possible antecedents (for example, “the lamp is in working order, but is switched off” or “there is no lamp in the room”).


Wikipedia on the logical connective “If and only if”:

In logic and related fields such as mathematics and philosophy, “if and only if” (often shortened as “iff”) …

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