Once in a while, I suppose, even lies are necessary. If a person in your surroundings is insane and behaving dangerously it may occasionally make sense to play into their delusion. In my opinion, such cases are extremely rare, although it appears to me that lying to young children about Santa Claus is somehow considered charming. Sorry, Virgina…
In the public sphere, is it ever justifiable to lie? I would say no, never, (not that there aren’t slippery slopes about).
Idiocy, Dissembling, Lying Through Your Teeth
I note in passing that if we accept the above spectrum, it is “idiocy”, which is less malign in intent, that has no adaptive value in any situation. But detecting idiots is not so hard. Our problem is to detect who is lying, and especially who is lying well.
In the extensive discussions about Lomborg, the question is unavoidable. Indeed, it is hard to think of another person so difficult to place on the spectrum! Is he telling the truth as he understands it, or is he dissembling so vigorously that he is not above ignoring evidence, or is he even consciously willing to skew the evidence when it suits him?
This comes up because the latest skeptic to join our crew disagrees with me (surprise!) about the value of the new or at least new -to-me blog Things Break, which hosted a very interesting rebuttal to Lomborg, to which John Mashey chimed in with some very interesting thoughts as usual.
For myself I am definitely a believer in immediate action to minimize the risk of “CAGW” and unsurprisingly I find Lomborg intrinsically implausible. On reflection, as I have tried to explain on this blog on occasion, this is for the same reason that I find Stern implausible, that is, its basis on a theoretical platform (conventional growth-oriented economics) whose axiomatic beliefs are not plausible. Therefore I have little interest in the details of his peculiar arguments.
It’s not that I don’t believe in prioritization. It’s that I don’t believe anything that begins by deprioritizing the stability of the biosphere is based on useful principles.
But does Lomborg believe his argument himself? Is he being impartial and honest? I think it’s hard to say that he’s being entirely scientific, in Feynman’s sense, that is, I doubt he is treating his own opinions with the greatest doubt. But he may yet aspire to impartial honesty. Certainly he is trying very hard to present such an impression.
In other words, it is of legitimate interest to examine not only whether we think Lomborg’s ideas are worthy of consideration, but ultimately when they come up wanting, to consider whether Lomborg himself believes them.
And that is where the question of stridency comes up in “Leebert”‘s comments to Things’ Lomborg article:
“Really, this is nothing but shrill polemics that can only serve to galvanize the faithful on either side of the debate.”
Bernie sees things similarly.
It’s a puzzle, knowing how much weight to give scientific balance in such an obviously ill-balanced debate. Science can’t function without neutrality as well as self-doubt and openness to criticism. But most nonscientists nowadays are used to such crass self-promotion that any expression of even the slightest sliver of doubt is greeted with derision. The moral obligation to steer the planet in a sane direction now that we are driving certainly can compete with the scientific priority.
In the end, I think Eli is right. Different people will react in different ways, and it’s inevitable that a gamut of responses will be displayed. You have to break through the fog however you can. One man’s truth is another man’s stridency.
Of course, we should not go beyond stridency into idiocy or lies. But I think a great deal of our problem comes from the difficulty in distinguishing between them. If you attack an opinion that is merely misguided as if it were malicious, you come off as arrogant, while if you try to cope with an opinion that is malicious as if it were misguided, you can fall prey to all sorts of polemical gamesmanship. These are rocky waters, but it would certainly help to know who is genuinely if misguidedly trying to be helpful and who is just pissing in the pool.
So as a puzzle, have a look at this, the denialist drivel of the month and decide for yourself: idiocy or lies? Let’s play Idiocy Or Lies?
But what does it mean to lie as opposed to spin?
I’m not an unalloyed Obama fan, but he pretty much nails it in this video. “They know it’s not true.” Look at what the tire guage ploy tried to accomplish. It tried to create a false public perception based on misrepresentation of the nature of a true incident. This went so far as to make it pretty clear that whoever promulgating it must have know it to be false.
People do these things. People are paid to do these things. They lie. They brazenly lie. They try to build their lies on actual facts but they deliberately are trying to present untruths. This is what lying looks like. They say things even though they know those things aren’t true.
Fortunately they fell flat on their faces on this particular one, but don’t forget that they will try again and again and again.
If you think someone is lying (or stupid, or some combination) in a way that has consequences for the safety of the world, it’s hard to see what the problem is with stridency or what the alternative to that might be. Those who have bet so much on the wrong horse that they can’t be reached will be angered, but maybe others will notice that there actually is a lot of misinformation about. You just have to say “if this isn’t lying it’s stupidity”. What else could you say? I respectfully disagree? No. At some point the opposition leaves the bounds of the respectable. In such cases it’s necessary to say so.
Perhaps we can make a sport of it. Again, try this site for the first round of “Idiocy or Lies?”. Do you spot the obvious fallacy? If these are not lies, if the author does not understand that the reasoning is invalid, how did the author spend so much time on the article without noticing?
Update: A related entry appears on Deltoid. It, with its associated comments, contains some of the best and most useful conversation I have ever seen on a blog. I’m honored to have gotten a link-back from it.