What exactly is a “strong denial?”

Photo: Evan Vucci, AP

I was puzzled when Donald Trump indicated that he doubted that the Saudi government had been involved in the disappearance, and likely murder, of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi. But he said he was sure, because of the Saudis’ “strong denial.”

Here’s a quote:

“All I can do is report what he told me. He told me in a very firm way that they had no knowledge of it. He said it very strongly,” Trump said. “His denial to me could not have been stronger, that he had no knowledge. It sounded like he and also the crown prince [Mohammed bin Salman] had no knowledge.”

There you go. That’s a very strong denial. So you have to believe it.

There are lots of strong denials these days. Consider these:

United States Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein issued a strong denial on Friday night in response to a New York Times report that alleged he suggested wearing a wire to secretly record the president in a plot to remove the president from office.

Earlier today, Apple issued an incredibly strong denial in response to a report from Bloomberg, which alleged that Apple and a handful of other tech companies had some data compromised due to Chinese surveillance chips being found in a Super Micro server. The report noted that these chips were found on Apple’s servers sometime around 2015.

Google today strongly denied US President Donald Trump’s claim that its news search results were skewed to suppress conservative voices and positive stories about his administration. “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology,” a Google spokesperson said in an email after Trump’s attack on the internet giant.

Mark Judge, a writer in Washington, DC, has reiterated his strong denial of allegations that he watched as Brett M. Kavanaugh allegedly sexually assaulted a girl when he and Kavanaugh attended a party while they were in high school more than three decades ago.

The trade rumors involving Rob Gronkowski that captivated social media last Friday were nothing but “a bunch of hogwash,” according to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. . . . Kraft’s statement came after Patriots PR chief Stacey James issued a similarly vehement denial, telling Kurkjian: “I would say with the utmost confidence that none of that is true. None of it.”

So, have these statements convinced you that they are accurate?

If you are inclined to believe the speakers, sure. If you think they are untrustworthy, not a chance.

Strong is a weasel word

In these statements, “strong” has no meaning whatsoever — it’s a weasel word. A denial is a denial. Adding “strong” to it makes no difference.

Consider the following two statements:

I deny that I am a plagiarist.

I strongly deny that I am a plagiarist.

Which is more believable? Either they’re the same or the first one is. Adding “strongly” makes little difference.

“Strong” is so meaningless that now people feel the need to add adverbs to it, as in Apple’s “incredibly strong” denial of the Bloomberg report. But unfortunately, “incredibly strong” is no more believable than “strong.” (If it is, perhaps in the future we should not believe any denials or strong denials, only those that are “incredibly” strong.)

If you believe something just because it was shouted or stated firmly, you are a credulous idiot.

Want us to believe your denials? Do this.

Here are some (hypothetical) examples of credible denials:

We deny killing Kashoggi, and we have proof that someone unconnected to our government is responsible.

I deny sleeping with that porn star, and I have proof — her description of my private parts is inaccurate.

Here are four reasons why it makes no sense that we would trade Rob Gronskowksi.

Here are statements from four people who were present at the meeting in question, and will attest that I never said I would try to record President Trump.

This is a copy of our security audit of the hardware that was purported to be bugged — and it shows we checked for and found no evidence of the type of security problem cited in the article.

These would-be denials based on facts. They don’t need to be “strong” — they’re credible because of evidence, rather than tone of voice.

A denial is a denial. The stronger it is, the less believable it is. As Queen Gertrude says in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

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  1. “Strong” adds no further meaning to “deny,” but signals the emotional tone of the denier–not just “I deny it,” but “I deny it and it makes me angry to even think that someone could make such a baseless accusation. Why, I oughta…” That tone can be persuasive or not, depending, as you say, on how much confidence one has in the denier, and also on surrounding circumstances.

    “Did you go in the cookie jar when I told you not to?” The accused child could calmly say “No,” or he could say, with an expression of outraged indignation, “NO! I NEVER went anywhere NEAR that cookie jar!” (A strong denial.) And is more likely to take the second option when there are cookie crumbs all around his mouth and a sibling claiming to be an eyewitness.