Blargh Blog

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Lies and the sometimes liars who tell them

You know those logic puzzles where some people always lie and some people always tell the truth? They're a lot of fun, and educational, too, but they are not a good way of thinking about what lying is and why we care about it. Any attempt to link them to the political conversation on lying, as John Allen Paulos tried in an article last year, is bound to distort how we think about lies and liars.

In his article, Paulos even extends the logic puzzles to include ones where a liar is someone who lies with some high probability, rather than lying all the time. But that doesn't help matters. The moral of the puzzle, he says, is still "Confirmation of a very dishonest person's unreliable statement by another very dishonest person makes the statement even less reliable." Good reasoning in a logic puzzle, horrible reasoning in real life. If you had argued in early 2003 that Saddam Hussein must have had banned weapons, since he denied having them and he is a liar, then you would have been laughed out of any reasonable discussion of the coming war*.

In logic puzzles, people make false statements for the sake of making false statements. In real life, people lie with purpose. They want to manipulate others' beliefs for their advantage. And if we care about the political process, we ought to speak out against attempts to manipulate people into having false beliefs. Democracy doesn't work so well if what people take away from their politicians' statements is demonstrably false.

The more important the issue on which politicians make statements designed to spread falsehood, the more important it is to call them on it.**

If an ordinary English-speaker understands the statement to mean something that is actually false, then it is a threat, whether or not its propositional content could be true on some literal, word-for-word parsing.**

One of the biggest problems with a democracy is voters who are not well-informed. Listening to political discussion should ameliorate this problem. It should not do the opposite.**

*I actually saw this argument.

**Partisan links are here limited to a footnote.


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