True Statements

A lie is an assertion, believed to be false, made with the intention to deceive.

That’s essentially Bernard William’s definition of a lie on p. 96 of “Truth and Truthfulness.” It probably fits with how most of us think about a lie. But what about statements that use true facts to deceive?

August 31, Juan Cole was shrill about administration and media statements that GI deaths in Iraq were down for the year. His point was that temperatures get to 120 degrees, so summer means low combat. He produced a table contrasting 2006 with 2007 by month: deaths are higher in 2007 than 2006. He asked for a visual display and many responded. I’m posting mine here.

But this is just part of a pattern of communicating, where true facts are presented within a limited context, so that the resulting asymmetry of information creates a false impression. Most of us don’t know that Iraq temperatures reach 120 degrees in July so that physical activity like combat is down. On the other hand, if an official announced that lowland US snow fall in July was the lowest it’s been all year — duh. The difference is that here in the US we all know about July snow fall, so there’s no asymmetry.

Since there’s some dispute about the August combat casualties, for the following I will shift back to July. That doesn’t change the substance of the argument.

What do you think? The three-star general who reported July deaths are down for the year — did he know that was because it was July, like we know about snow fall? Of course he did. The military needs to forecast its supply requirements. His staff forecasters incorporated the cycle, July is a low activity month. Surely that information reached the general. That’s like the Administration’s PhD economists had to know job creation was better in the US than in the EU and Japan because our population was growing at four times the rate as theirs. Nevertheless, they write, We’ve added more jobs “than all the jobs added in the European Union and Japan combined,” which suggested to most, because of asymmetric information, that the comparatively better job growth was the result of policy rather than the reality that it was because of an intrinsic phenomenon. There are many such examples.

So maybe, technically, these are not lies, because they assert true facts. But that doesn’t make them true statements. Paraphrasing Robert Lewis Stevenson, a true statement does not just present true facts; a true statement is one that conveys a true impression. “July GI fatalities are the lowest for the year” is a true fact. On the other hand, “GI fatalities are higher every month so far this year compared with last”, is also a true fact. It’s the latter, however, not the former, that conveys a true impression.