Lying without being technically wrong – an example from the headlines

Quoted material is from Ezra Klein:

On Sunday, Paul Krugman noticed Niall Ferguson writing something apparently false about the Affordable Care Act. Today, Ferguson responded to Krugman’s critique by saying, in effect, that he wasn’t wrong so much as he was very carefully trying to mislead his readers.

Ferguson wrote, in a cover story in Newsweek:

The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit. But the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation now estimate that the insurance-coverage provisions of the ACA will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012–22 period.

Klein observes:

The intended meaning is pretty clear. Ferguson is saying Obama “pledged” that the Affordable Care Act would reduce the deficit, “but” the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Tax Committee now say otherwise.  The problem, as Krugman pointed out, is that the CBO and the JCT do not now say otherwise. Ferguson is simply wrong.

Klein then goes on to suggest that the CBO reporting was rather confusing, so being wrong is possibly understandable.  This seems way too charitable toward someone who presumes to write paid commentaries in national forums.  But that turns out to be moot.

But Ferguson says he wasn’t confused. Rather, he phrased his original comments very carefully in order to deceive his readers. You see, Ferguson specified that he was only talking about the “insurance-coverage provisions,” and so, if you happen to be an employee of the Congressional Budget Office and you’re aware of the difference between these reports, you would’ve understood that when Ferguson wrote [the above quoted two sentences] that the first sentence and the second sentence had nothing to do with each other. Of course, most people are not employees of the CBO, and so they just got tricked. In the pages of Newsweek. Bummer for them.

 That is a nice summary of what happened.   Sadly, Klein then goes on to say:

But while the fact that Ferguson is trying to trick his readers about the facts of his case might be a reason to be skeptical of the rest of his piece, it’s not the main reason. After all, Ferguson’s careful misdirection is arguably evidence of a quick and agile mind. He might be cheating to strengthen his argument. But that doesn’t mean his argument is wrong.  Rather, the main reason to mistrust Ferguson is that, for years now, his argument has been wrong.

No no no no no.  No!  Bad, Ezra Klein, bad!  Most of the time when someone is trying to understand a technical analysis, they do not expertise like Klein or Krugman has here.  They will not necessarily be able to identify various other things that Ferguson gets wrong, and how the entire basis for his argument is faulty.  The same would be true if Klein or Krugman were trying to interpret a debate about, say, tobacco harm reduction.  The reaction should be “here is clear evidence this guy was trying to lie to me; in theory it is possible that everything else in the piece — all those bits that I just have to trust the author about — is true, but a safer bet is that the whole argument is not anchored in truth.” 

If someone is cheating that badly to “strengthen his argument”, then chances are his argument is wrong.  People who have good arguments to make do not tend to lie like that.  (Note this is different from saying that someone’s conclusion is wrong because he is lying or otherwise making bad arguments.  Clueless and/or dishonest people quite often write garbage in support of a conclusion that happens to be correct; but their arguments are not improved by the fact that they accidentally happen to believe the truth.)

Ferguson gleefully outed himself as a liar.  If he had really been confused, that would be a different sort of offense.  But trying to cause people to believe something that is not true is lying, whether it is done with a single false sentence or two true sentences that are juxtaposed in a way that is designed to create a false belief.  As Klein implies, careful misleading statements like this are evidence of intentional craftsmanship, and so there can be no excuse that it was an accident.  Indeed, Klein observes:

I actually can’t recall running into a piece in which the argument is so carefully written as to mislead the reader without, in most cases, being entirely untrue.

So he recognizes that when someone is carefully trying to mislead, their argument is almost certainly untrue.  But he still takes an attitude of “don’t leap to that conclusion; instead, look at all the other stuff that Ferguson got wrong, and furthermore, what is wrong with this entire political dogma”.  But as nice as it would be for everyone to understand enough about economic policy to see through the worst of the WSJ/Ryan faction’s absurd claims, it is not going to happen.  And while this was a major matter for Krugman and Klein, which they were certainly going to carefully review, most people — even most of their readers — need a more efficient strategy for figuring out when to stop believing someone.

I will conclude by taking exception to his “evidence of a quick and agile mind” observation.  I have observed a lot of really poor thinkers craft technically correct lies like this one.  Ferguson’s particular tactic for lying without writing a false sentence, along with many others, is really quite simple and is frequently employed by lesser minds.  It is really quite easy.  Consider:  “Krugman accused Ferguson of making a false claim and Klein suggested it was an easy mistake to make.  But Ferguson’s representation of the CBO report was correct.”  That is structurally quite similar to Ferguson’s lie, and I just made it up off the top of my head.  And since it is late at night and I am drinking beer, you can be sure that my mind is neither quick nor agile at the moment.

One response to “Lying without being technically wrong – an example from the headlines

  1. Excellent analysis Carl! In Brains I made the distinction, based upon a statement by Kessler, that there's an important difference between being “accurate” and being “true” in one's statements. Here's how I put it in Brains, and I think you'll see how it applies:

    Let us suppose that I earn $500,000 a year as a fast-talking lawyer. I then go on to run for public office, and to boost my image I proclaim that I believe in the importance of giving to those less fortunate. I adopt an earnest and heartfelt look and state that I give regularly to both organized charity and to the poor and homeless I encounter on the streets. I go on to emphasize that I maintain my giving year in and year out, no matter what my financial situation or pressures may be, and that I will carry similar dedication and selflessness to my career as an elected official.
    In truth, my “regular contributions” consist of my dropping a shiny new penny into a Salvation Army bucket each Christmas, and then tossing a somewhat grubbier one at a homeless guy who’s sleeping under a blanket (while being careful not to get too close).
    Did I tell a lie with my above proclamation? Technically, no… I do contribute regularly, and I said nothing about the amount. However anyone in their right minds and with a sense of fairness would certainly argue that I had not been truthful.
    A great number, perhaps even the vast majority, of the statements made by Crusaders in pursuit of smoking bans are of roughly the same quality when it comes to truthfulness as our lawyer’s statement above. David Kessler, past head of the Food and Drug Administration, in commenting on claims about drug effectiveness, drew the distinction between a statement being “Accurate” and being “True.” This distinction applies perfectly to our pseudo-philanthropic barrister, as well as to much of the material present in the ads and public statements of Crusaders: his statement would indeed be accurate, but in the wider sense of the real meaning of truth, it would not be true.


    In terms of such things as analyzing budget statements by politicians like President Obama, I've had people look at this:

    and tell me that it was NOT a lie because Obama hadn't raised the “income tax rate.” Sheesh!

    – MJM

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