The ethics of lying are easy; you’re off the hook. You just make up whatever suits you and see what sticks.
The ethics of telling the truth are more complicated, especially if the purpose of your speech is to affect the opinions of the public.
Here’s an interesting article on the Times of London that goes to this point.
Consider on the other hand this piece by Karl Wunsch from a couple of years back. I would consider the piece strictly speaking true but strikingly ineffective. He probably wanted to conclude with “you can never be 100% sure of anything” but noted that was a self-contradictory statement (What’s the opposite of a tautology?) in that “never” expresses 100% certainty. So he backed off to “we have not as yet achieved 100% certainty about attribution”, even though, well, you really can never get to 100% certainty in statistical attribution, can you? What he’s left us with is a pile of doubt that Wunsch seems to have intended as a call to action!
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
So there are two managers who are balloonists for a hobby, and they get blown off track and a bit lost. So one of them yells at someone he sees down on the ground:
“Heyyy! Yes youuu! Wherre arre weeee?”
to which the reply comes back
“You’re in a balloooooon!”
The balloonist shrugs and says ruefully to his companion “That must be an engineer. He responded exactly to my question, everything he said was precisely correct, and yet I am no better off than I was before.”
Getting the right balance is not easy. Stephen Schneider got into terrible trouble (which has never entirely abated) with a sound bite that tried to make that point.
In the end, like an old person who is always too cold when the temperature is below 75 F and always too warm when it’s above 70 F, the best you can do seems to be when both tendencies, toward precision and toward influence, are a little bit stressed.
All of which brings us back to Mamet’s Law, the insight that started this blog in the first place.
“Law, politics and commerce are based on lies. That is, the premises giving rise to opposition are real, but the debate occurs not between these premises but between their proxy, substitute positions. The two parties to a legal dispute (as the opponents in an election) each select an essentially absurd position. “I did not kill my wife and Ron Goldman,” “A rising tide raises all boats,” “Tobacco does not cause cancer.” Should one be able to support this position, such that it prevails over the nonsense of his opponent, he is awarded the decision. …
“In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge.”
David Mamet in “Bambi vs Godzilla: Why art loses in Hollywood”, Harper’s, June 2005.
So the good news is that we are much smarter than the opposition. But the bad news is that we’d better be.