Lying by telling the truth?

« previous post | next post »

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.

The whole issue of "whole truth" is semantically, pragmatically, and legally complicated  — see "Political semantics quiz", 8/28/2007, and "Types of truth", 9/8/2007, for some earlier LL discussion.

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.]


  1. Brian Weatherson said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 8:44 am

    I think IL is being somewhat uncharitable to John Major here, in saying that they assume Major assumed Blair was 'lying by omission'. All Major is assuming, it seems to me, is (a) that Blair was saying what was certainly true, and (b) there's always a bunch of information the gov't has that is well supported, but not absolutely certain. Major was assuming that the information in (b) was a part of the gov't case for war, but not a part that Blair could say because Blair was only saying what he was sure was true.

    It seems Major is assuming Blair was following what some philosophers call the 'certainty norm' of assertion: say only what you are certain of. (Jason Stanley, for instance, has defended such a view.) On that view, it's not a *lie* of any kind to not say what you suspect – but are not certain – is true. Indeed, if you aren't certain something is true, you shouldn't say it. But if you are, perfectly reasonably, confident that thing is true, it isn't crazy to rely on it (or at least rely on its probability) in decision making. Indeed, if you know it (but aren't certain of it) you can use that very proposition in decision making.

    That's what Major says he did himself. There were things he wasn't certain of, but had good evidence for. (Indeed, he may have even known some of those things.) And like some philosophers would recommend, he didn't assert those things, but did rely on them inin decision making. He assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that Blair did the same thing. Blair, as it turned out, had the same standards for asserting something as using it in decision, so there was no extra evidence, of the kind someone following Major's rules will usually have.

    Personally, I don't like the picture of assertion that Major, and these philosophers, endorse. But it's very uncharitable I think to call it a form of lying. It's just a matter of being extremely, I would say excessively, cautious about which propositions you'll endorse.

  2. Mark P said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 9:07 am

    The mention of grade inflation reminds me of a case in my department at Georgia Tech. An undergrad from a northern school lacked one credit to graduate but had a job offer in Atlanta. He arranged to start his job, but to take a course in our department and get credit at his school. The atmospheric dynamics course he took was what I consider the hardest in the department. He got a C, which was perfectly acceptable to his school. Of course at the graduate level, a C was a stern warning to take the class over, and to do better the next time or to pack up and leave.

  3. Robert said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    As I read it, Major isn't claiming that he lied by omission, but that he deliberately understated the strength of the evidence supporting his statements, presumably for security reasons. Deliberate understatement has many uses, but if one party falsely assumes the other is employing it, they're going to draw false conclusions, the situation here.

  4. Rachael said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 9:23 am

    Another linguistically interesting point is Major's "I supported reluctantly the second Iraq war". To me that sounds completely unnatural. I'm guessing it's a result of the kind of rabid split-infinitive hyperavoidance which ends up avoiding any adjectives in front of verbs, whether infinitive or not.

  5. Ginger Yellow said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    This may be getting too far into the political, but I find it hard to believe that by 2002/3 Major still believed that Blair would only say what he was certain was true. The Bernie Ecclestone "I'm an honest kind of guy" scandal happened just months into his first term.

  6. Mark Anderson said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    I think this is partly a question of how people communicate information in a summary form, and how they take responsibility for what they say. If I say "X is true", am I saying:
    1. It is 100% certain, without qualification, that X is true.
    2. It is a fair and objective summary of a complex picture, that X is true.
    3. I believe that X is true, but this is only my opinion, and I am not claiming that all fair-minded people with agree with me. However, I have looked into the available evidence for the statement that X is true and I am an intelligent person who does not believe or say things without having a good reason for doing so ("I'm a pretty straight kind of guy"), and on a matter as important as this I would be extra-cautious about jumping to conclusions or over-simplifying matters, and therefore you should trust me when I say that X is true.
    4. 3 above without the final sentence.
    5. I am an advocate for a client, and I am acting in my client's best interests [whilst remaining within the rules and protocols of my Bar Association and court rules?] by asserting loudly and clearly that X is true.

    I think John Major was, in effect, tackling the final sentence of point 3 above with his comment.

  7. Plegmund said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    In these circumstances it is often assumed that there is additional information which cannot be revealed in Parliament because it would prejudice the military operation or whatever. But before trusting Blair they should have tested whether this was the case. It would have been quite appropriate within the Parliamentary game as I understand it to have asked for the additional evidence to be shared in confidence; as it was, they didn't even ask whether there was any. I thought at the time that Michael Howard was at fault for not asking this question.

  8. Paul O'Brien said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 10:24 am

    I don't see anything in John Major's comments to suggest that he thought at the time that Blair was lying (by omission or otherwise). All he seems to be saying is that he assumed the case for war would be stronger than it appeared, because there would be further evidence that couldn't be disclosed publicly for security reasons – and, because he gave Blair the benefit of the doubt on this, he accepted an argument which would not otherwise have persuaded him.

    In fairness, as I recall matters, the British government was more or less explicitly saying that their arguments were limited by what they could say publicly, and the very nature of intelligence information is that much of it is likely to be confidential, so it's not as if Major would have been making an enormous leap of faith by making that assumption.

  9. Chris said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    I recall being quite impressed with Eve Sweetser's paper "The definition of 'lie'" though it's been awhile since I read it and I can't find a copy online.

    Sweetser, Eve E. (1987): "The definition of 'lie': An examination of the folk models underlying a semantic prototype," in: Dorothy Holland & Naomi Quinn (eds.): Cultural models in language and thought, 43-66. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

    [(myl) You can read some of it here.]

  10. Michael Gallagher said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    This conversation underlines how much of understanding or misunderstanding depends on just "being on the same page" in a conversation. How many of us have had an innocent comment taken the wrong way.

    I especially share the frustration in the teaching world when considering fairness in grading. The inflation exists, but one cannot set things straight by unilateral action. I was in a situation with multiple sections of a course in which one teacher decided to end grade inflation by spreading out the grades. This result was punitive to a group of students.

    I heard an interesting anecdote about language "coding" in recommendations. I was warned once that if you ask a server in a restaurant if a selection is good and receive the answer "It is very popular." you are getting the message to choose another entree.

  11. Peter Taylor said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    @Plegmund, according to an old BBC article Blair did meet with IDS and Kennedy to discuss the evidence under Privy Council rules. I'm not sure whether convention would have permitted Major to demand more evidence as a Privy Counsellor, but I suspect he would have chosen not to, as he was focussing on being a backbencher.

  12. Brian Campbell said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    A good example of calibrating expectations to account for understatement is when programmers talk about the feasibility of a project. Two phrases that mean something fairly different to a programmer than you might expect are “trivial” and “non-trivial”. “Trivial”, to a programmer, means “I know how to solve this problem”. It might be something that would take a team of 20 programmers 3 years to complete, but there's a clear path from start to finish, without any significant unknowns.

    “Non-trivial” means the opposite of this. It means that the problem has unknowns. It might be something that has an easy solution (though generally there will be a good deal of work to determine that), but it might be something that would take a few PhD theses to demonstrate that the problem is actually unfeasible to solve. While “non-trivial” might not sound like much, it means that attempting to do that project could lead into a complete and utter failure with millions of dollars poured into something that turns out to be theoretically impossible.

    There's a good discussion of these terms, and a few others, in the blog post Understanding Engineers: Feasibility.

  13. Picky said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    @Peter Taylor: I don't think there is any convention which would have entitled Major to "demand more evidence" as a Privy Councillor.

  14. Terry Collmann said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    Rachel: to me it seems clear Major intended "reluctantly" to be in parentheses, and there's a clear difference in emphasis between "I supported (reluctantly) the second Iraq war" and "I supported the second Iraq war reluctantly." Major's word order implies, to me, the support was clear, the reluctance more hidden, the second version implies the support and the reluctance were both on equal view.

  15. Ginger Yellow said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    Brian: that doesn't sound too dissimilar to the P/NP-complete distinction in maths. At least, if I understand that distinction correctly, which I may not.

  16. Picky said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    @Terry Collmann: also, there is a clear pause or hesitation after "reluctantly" as though he was considering just how to describe the war. And, Rachel, for heaven's sake, his word order was perfectly correct and logical, and his meaning clear – why shouldn't the poor sap put his adverb there if he wants to?

  17. Hershele Ostropoler said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    This can be a problem for those who grow up among the passive-aggressive by nature and attempt to form romantic relationships with the more direct. Or so I understand.

  18. Mark P said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    @Brian Campbell: I sometimes say that solving a certain extremely important problem faced in the work I am involved with is "just engineering." To me that means that the physical principles are well-known, and that similar problems have been solved and the solutions implemented: the solution is known to be possible both theoretically and practically. But it says nothing about how hard it would be to do the engineering in this case. The answer to that part of the question boils down to how much time you have and how much money you are willing to spend. And, usually, how many failures are you willing to accept before the implementation works (to whatever level you can accept).

  19. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    Terry Collmann: It is not at all "clear" that "Major intended 'reluctantly' to be in parentheses." Listening to the BBC recording, one hears a pause after but not before reluctantly. "Supported reluctantly" is said without a break. Perhaps someone more familiar with Major's speaking style can clarify.

  20. Forrest said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    On the subject of calibrating one's expectations based on a recommendation … I was struck by this quote "so that nearly all recommendees turn out to be well above average." Knowing that NPR is a popular subject around here, the quote reminded me of the Lake Wobegon effect:

    "… where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average …"

    Of course, it's impossible for all the children to be above average.

    [(myl) Indeed. But you might not be aware of the shocking fact that, according to a professor of Education at Northwestern University, tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act "are formulated so that 50 percent of the test-takers will fall below the median score — in effect setting school districts up for failure no matter how much preparation students receive".

    Or maybe he was misquoted — that's the tragic dilemma of "Attributional abduction".]

  21. Cirret said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

    @Forrest: that's the joke, but it's possible for "all" the children to be above some average, such as a national average of height, intelligence, etc. – just not an average for a population that consists of the same children.

  22. peter said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    @Forrest and @Cirret: It is also possible for all-but-one of the children to be above the average of that group of children.

  23. Acilius said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    @peter: Possible for all but one to be above the mean, but not above the median. And the example of the No Child Left Behind Act is precisely about median test scores.

    @Peter Taylor: I didn't know anyone still called Iain Duncan Smith "IDS." Come to that I haven't heard anyone mention him at all in several years. Thank you for the trip down Memory Lane.

  24. Mark Anderson said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    On "reluctantly", I think it is a question of rhetoric. Major is keen to say "I supported" – primary point, without wishy-washy qualification, "I reluctantly supported" sounds weak – but then wants to get his qualification in as early as possible thereafter. I would transcribe it as "I supported – reluctantly – …"

    On his use of English generally, it may be worth mentioning that his favourite author is Anthony Trollope.

  25. Picky said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    Not sure whether that's a doubt about Major's English or Trollope's … anyway, although I am a great fan of Trollope's I have to admit that his prose can be prosaic. And the same applies to Major – rhetoric is not his strong point. Tony Blair did a better line in rhetoric. And that may not be totally off topic.

  26. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 7:43 pm



    Moreover I personally possess not only a greater than average number of eyes but also a greater than average number of feet.

  27. John Cowan said,

    January 6, 2010 @ 12:01 am

    Feynman said that to a mathematician a theorem was trivial if it had been proved.

  28. Paul Power said,

    January 6, 2010 @ 4:40 am

    There is an old Jewish Minsk/Pinsk joke that goes something like this:

    Two men meet, one asks the other where he is going and is told "Minsk". He thinks "aha, he wants me to think he is going to Pinsk but I see through his dishonesty and know he is really going to Minsk", so he says "you liar, you say you are going to Minsk but I know you are really going to Minsk".

    Apologies for my poor joke-telling skills.

  29. army1987 said,

    January 6, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    I once read a piece claiming that in a waiting room, you could bet that among the next ten people who'll enter there'll be at least one with a greater-than-average number of arms, and since the average number of arms is less than 2, you'd very likely win.

    But I would accept such a bet, and if the ten people all happened to have two arms, I'd claim I have won the bet, because the average number of arms is 2. "I meant the average number of arms in the *population*, not among those ten people!" "But you didn't specify that, so…"

  30. Plegmund said,

    January 7, 2010 @ 6:41 am

    @Peter Taylor – Thanks, that's interesting. It suggests to me that Major's complaint should properly be against IDS or someone else in his own party who had had further discussions on Privy Council terms and passed on an assurance that Blair had a watertight case (perhaps a sort of Gricean assurance delivered by not actually saying anything).

  31. Erik Piper said,

    January 7, 2010 @ 12:33 pm


    This proves that retardation is an evolutionary advantage – it ensures everyone else's mental capacities are above average.

    (Corny, I know. Sorry.)

RSS feed for comments on this post