Reader IL writes:
A former Prime Minister here (John Major) has just criticised another one (Tony Blair) in the following terms:
"(Major) said: 'I had myself been prime minister in the first Gulf War, and I knew when I said something I was utterly certain that it was correct, and I said less than I knew. I assumed the same thing had happened and on that basis I supported reluctantly the second Iraq war.'"
Myself, I've always been sceptical of the popular point of view that Blair "lied" or was dishonest about the case for war (I tend to think he was guilty of bad judgement). I'm interested in Major's criticism because it suggests that he and other MPs were (quite reasonably) supposing that Blair was playing some kind of conventional language game in his public statements that he wasn't, in fact, playing, and that this led to a massive misunderstanding. That is, they were supposing that he was lying by omission (saying "less than he knew"). In fact, he was – you might say – misleading by telling them what he thought was the truth.
But IL's (implicit) question reminds me most strongly of the problem of interpreting letters of recommendation, grade point averages, and advice.
Some recommendation writers are routinely superlative. I was once on a search committee that got letters from the same professor for two applicants, each of whom was said to be the most promising student of the decade. (There were some implicit modifiers that a careful reader might interpret in such a way as to avoid strict logical inconsistency; but it was clear that the letters were not intended to be compared side-by-side.)
Other writers are excessively cautious and reserved. A famously cranky senior academic, now retired, once praised his best student by writing "It seems probable to me that this young man, if he continues in his present course, will some day become a competent scientist". In order to calibrate this evaluation, which did not help its subject's NSF application, you had to know that its author included in the category of "competent" no more than two or three researchers in his field at any level.
Those are extreme cases (though in fact it's now becoming normal for every student to be, in some respect, the best ever). But even middle-of-road recommendations are almost impossible to interpret without knowing how the writer is playing the game.
Some instructions try to fix the problem by specifying in detail what group the subject is to be compared to, and in what terms. But I'm fairly confident that a sort of percentile inflation is common here, so that nearly all recommendees turn out to be well above average, except perhaps for those whose recommenders are unusually scrupulous.
As in the case of grade inflation, none of this gets in the way of successful communication as long as everyone knows what the scale is. At one time, a student who performed adequately in an undergraduate class might have gotten a C; today, in many American college courses, the corresponding grade might be a B+ or an A-. There are still plenty of levels of evaluation — seven steps from A+ to C+, for example — but you need to know the calibration.
The same problem of calibration applies to advice and warnings. One person's "I'm not sure whether that's really the best idea" is another person's "OMG are you crazy? Don't even think about it!"
And it seems to me that something similar is implied in the case that IL cites.
[I'm leaving comments open for language-related discussion — let's avoid political and historical arguments about the veracity and morality of Mr. Blair's actions in 2003.]
[And leading in a different direction is the εἴρων, "one who says less than he thinks" in order to practice εἰρωνεία, "ignorance purposely affected to provoke or confound an antagonist", from which we ironically derive our word irony, now often taken to mean saying the opposite of what is meant.]