The Criteria of Embarrassment

A few weeks ago, Mark Goodacre posted over at the NT Blog on the problem of the Criteria of Embarrassment.

It is interesting, and one thing that came out of the comments was that the criteria is perhaps a little bit of a misnomer. Taken at face vale it is an oxymoron: if an author really is embarrassed about some detail, they’d just omit it.

The point of the criteria of embarrassment is that “embarrassed” sections are those that seem to be written to say why the obvious interpretation of a set of events are wrong. The events, we infer, are common knowledge.

For example, if as a school teacher, a student was late. You said “why were you late?” and she said “I didn’t meant to be late, and I only went into McDonalds to ask the time, but then I had to queue, so it took me a long time.”

What can you infer about the truth? Well I think almost everyone would infer that the student was in McDonalds when they should have been in school. If you are cynical you might decide they went it for a burger, if you believe them, you might believe them. But either way, mentioning McDonalds is conspicuous. Would the student rather you didn’t know she was in McDonalds? Possibly. I think we can probably also infer that she figured it was possible you knew independently, or could find out independently that she was there. So adding that embarrassing concession helps make her story more robust to challenge.

I think of something like that when I think of the criteria of embarrassment. When the justification for something is trying to pull you away from the obvious interpretation.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Criteria of Embarrassment

  1. Hi Ian,

    This comment isn’t directly about your post above. I’m trying to reach you but I don’t have your email and didn’t want to interrupt other conversations. After reading this you can delete the comment or whatever.

    On your last site,, you had something about how you were looking at a new emerging religion. Or, you were examining atheism as an ‘formalized’ religion. I forget how you put it, but the project did intrigue me.

    Due to some ideas I’ve been playing with recently, I’ve started thinking about this too. Would you mind looking over one of my posts?

    I’m curious to know if my rough beginning matches any of your past musings, or what might be the next thing I should at.

    Thanks for any attention with this.

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