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Monday, 10 March 2014

Lying by omission


A man does not sin by commission only, but often by omission.
Marcus Aurelius - Meditations

Incomplete accounts are a fundamental aspect of human communication. We can’t say everything so we only ever give a partial view of things.

We aren’t necessarily lying of course, but if we don’t make it clear that our account is incomplete, what else should we call it? Well we often don't need to call it anything if the incompleteness is explicit, or at least not covert. Even so, it's a strange and inherently misleading backdrop to much of what we say.

This convenient problem is vitally important for political life, PR, advertising, propaganda, selling junk, selling dreams, selling culture, selling journalism - and important for bloggers. We can’t say everything so we have to choose what to say and what to leave out.

If our opponent does it we call it cherry-picking. If we do it we call it something else, but everyone has to pick and chose. Even the most noble, high-minded and disinterested bloggers have to select quotes, choose sources, present one argument rather than another.

Even this post has to be a partial view of partial views. How could it be otherwise?

So there is not clear dividing line between a truthful account and lying or misleading by omission. It’s a huge, diffuse and dodgy swamp. Children seem to learn this quite early in their social development. Bigger children see the unlimited potential and build their careers on it.

To my way of thinking, this is why complex subjects are so problematic. Complexity lets in the liars, charlatans and idiots and always will. Look at economics, climate science, politics. As complexity increases the problem will become worse.

Have I missed anything such as the games played by the BBC and the media? Well yes I have, I've left out a vast amount, but that’s it – a partial view of lying by omission.

5 comments:

Sackerson said...

A spin doctor lies by mission.

Roger said...

Read 'Lawyer101' for a guide. Same text applies to Politics101.

'A different interpretation of the facts'.

'A careful editing of the facts'.

'Get evidence excluded as inadmissible'.

'Hide evidence - plenty of ways'.

Interpret by your own rules - 'Oh, that. Well that is not sex'.

Exploit procedure, very recently 'the report is not ready yet'.

All summed up by a good old English expression - 'to lie like a lawyer'.

Bright sunshine is a good disinfectant.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - and we should remember - permission.

Roger - bright sunshine is a good disinfectant. Trouble is the wide boys know it well.

Demetrius said...

Look for what isn't there.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - yes, it's good advice.