< humor > If we don't think your post said what its title self-evidently means (to us), does that give us a license to accuse you of lying? < / humor >
At what stage of going over the comments do you develop your list of categories?
I guess my issue with this series of posts is that the headline initially sounds like an interesting, debatable topic, but then the word "lie" is used in such a narrow sense the conclusion is meaningless. A post titled "The Media Very Rarely Completely Invents Facts Out Of a Whole Cloth With Zero Relationship Whatsoever With the Truth" would be a pretty boring and pointless post, and that seems to be the argument being made here. By this definition of "lie", even people like Trump or Andrew Tate or whoever are not lying, because they can point to some underlying shred of fact or say it's technically an opinion or they are passing on something they heard. That might be true, but who cares? If you define any term that narrowly it won't cover much.
The Dominion vs Fox case is getting some quotes in depositions that get pretty close to 7. The issue is booking a guest who you believe is advancing a false theory, and then giving her a pretty uncritical slot to make her case.
>Two years later, [Hannity] was asked about Powell’s theory in a seven-hour deposition that was reportedly shared during a court hearing earlier this week as part of the Dominion lawsuit: “I did not believe it for one second,” he said under oath. Powell also walked back her theorizing in 2021, with her lawyers stating “no reasonable person would conclude that the statements [Powell made] were truly statements of fact.”
I think the motive here is that Fox is worried about losing market share to programs like OAN, and needs to put some stories they believe to be false on air in order to keep credibility with their audience, who believes them to be true.
I would count that as lying. At a more polished, fact-checking place like the NYT, I think the behavior would less often be a lie of commission, and more often killing a story that the paper thinks holds up, but they think their readers won't believe. (This is the claim made by Nellie Bowles about her experience at the Times).
In your list, you clearly forgot 4.5: Not reasoning about the truth/falsity of the question at all, but instead answering with some mix of:
- what you believe you are supposed to answer
- what you believe people like you are supposed to believe
- what some higher status than you person said about the question, or someone whose reasoning ability and data sources you respect
- what you expect will make the person asking the question happiest
- what you think the person answering the question expects (i.e. how can you avoid seeming "weird" to them)
Arguably some of this counts as reasoning, but except perhaps for the strategy of "I don't understand this, so I'll trust an expert", none of it is reasoning about the topic at hand.
Something like this issue came up back in the bad old days, when good upstanding anglo protestants were sure there were Jesuits around every corner, and each one had an imprimatur from the Pope itself to lie their heretical little heads off.
John Henry Newman actually reminds me of you in that he is sometimes possessed of such moral rectitude that it can be painful to observe him from the outside... pearls before swine is a phrase which comes to mind. Anyway, he discusses a similar issue (lying vs. deception—that is, what exactly constitutes a lie, & the exact limits of the morality of lying) here:
To me this all seems quite simple. You're absolutely right. *Lying* (presenting false propositions) is not *deception* (presenting true propositions in a such a way that, taken at face value, they seem to imply false ones). Whether intentionally or not (whether culpably or not), the media is very deceptive (1-6)—yet very rarely do they go so far as to outright lie (rarely do they get all the way to 7).
The problem is that, as you note, people sloppily equivocate between lying, mere falsehood, deception, and a mere disregard for the truth.
The only way to get out of this, in my opinion, will be to return to moral realism—and ultimately, to natural law. People only began to lie because they did not observe the 9th commandment, which obviously proscribes both lying and deception (which latter thing all ought to agree is wrong, excepting the edge cases Newman discusses above).
To this you might reply that, even without the ten commandments, all men agree that deception is wrong. But in fact, on consequentalist ethical systems, it simply isn't.
You can't distinguish between someone who tells false claims and doesn't care if it's true or not (4) and someone who tells false claims intentionally (7) you just incentivize people like Trump who always fall back on a type of "insanity" defense. Trump tells false claims all the time but he (and apparently you) defends himself by saying that he didn't know it was false, even though anyone reasonable presented with the same facts as he was would know that it was false.
At that point, it is impossible to identify anyone as lying according to your definition. Even though Trump is a clear liar, who has lead fraudulent enterprises on multiple occasions, one could never criticize him for it. And that is a loss, because his reckless disregard for the truth greatly harmed our societal ability to have any conversations. In addition to the immediate effect of many people believing the false claims that he made (even though you won't allow me to use the word "lie" to describe it).
All that stuff about how paranoid your readers are speaks to me, I’m also often shocked by the paranoia of my comments section, often relating to the exact same issues and in the exact same ways. Do comments sections just draw paranoid people or are we naive dopes?
By the time you get to "Reasoning badly, because you are biased, and on some more-or-less subconscious level not even trying to reason well.", you're full blown trying to deceive people in ways which you would not if you felt accountable for what you were saying. This is the *central thing* that accusations of lying are for, and so the term "Lying!" absolutely fits when someone makes real sure to not reason carefully because they anticipate that reasoning carefully would cause them to know that the things they are saying aren't true. After all, there's conservation of expected evidence, and if they know to avoid reasoning carefully they damn well know enough to conclude that what they're saying isn't likely to be true.
I think most journalists are consistently ignorant about pretty much every technical subject. This is part of the point of "Gell-Mann Amnesia" - every time I read an article in a field where I have technical knowledge, it's either wrong or so garbled that it's not even wrong.
Garrett complained about the media's problems with reporting on firearms, but the problems there are not particularly distinctive. I've just come to mostly accept that articles in the general press will make egregious errors on everything other than easily-available, easily-understood public information. This isn't primarily because of bias, and it's certainly not lying. It's just people being dumb.
In Sunday school I was taught about lying being divided into "sins of commission" (category 7) and "sins of omission" (category 5 & 6). The point being that leaving out key points to deceive someone is still lying, just another kind.
"Commission" and "omission" may be a useful start on your names for every category.
Re. this comment by Tytonidaen:
"I think a more likely explanation is that many people are choosing to attribute deaths to the vaccine that are not actually from the vaccine. For example, let's say Person A gets vaccinated and dies shortly after of some completely unrelated cause. And let's say Person B, the loved one being polled, has priors about vaccines or the medical establishment or whatever that cause them to be convinced it was actually the vaccine that killed Person A.
"In hypothetical reality, Person A lived a rather unhealthy lifestyle, had lots of risk factors for a heart attack, and would have died from a heart attack, regardless of whether they'd gotten the vaccine. Then, when Person A does, indeed, die of a heart attack, and by sheer coincidence had recently gotten vaccinated, Person B blames the COVID vaccine when polled, but it wasn't really the vaccine that killed their loved one."
This seems fair, since this is how Covid deaths were counted. Once enough tests were available, anyone who died, was tested for covid; if they tested positive, they were reported as a "covid-related death". News outlets reported covid-related deaths as Covid deaths (which was, BTW, a very common media lie).
For one example, an employee of my brother-in-law was supposed to get a liver transplant. He was tested for Covid before being admitted, tested positive, and so was taken off the list of eligible liver recipients, and died soon after of liver failure. This was counted as a Covid-related death. Which it was, in a sense.
What's confusing is the fact that, in the face of unreality, people claiming to propagate The Truth actually propagate untruths, hence fascist 'anti-fascists', racist 'anti-racists', the proposal for a national Office of Disinformation -- presumably to identify which disinformation the government approves of.
Regressives declare that norms are obsolete and oppressive, then strain credulity to 'normalize' the bizarre. It all makes perfect sense if one accepts chaos. But if you're building your regressive paradise around chaos, you can't turn about and fault others for not recognizing your new, improved 'norms'. You just told us norms are obsolete. Oh! Wait, I get it. Our norms are obsolete. Yours, on the other hand, are golden. It's a pretty juvenile style of rebellion.
Brilliant, best piece I've read in awhile that exposes the sinews of the fundamental disagreements that hover over and stalk almost every expression on social media. And REALLY depressing. Thanks anyway.
This is a really straightforward case of "Taboo Your Words". It literally does not matter whether the media is "lying" or not. Scott's original claim was that the media rarely does number 7, and that this is important /specifically because/ that means it is very, very difficult to gain consensus that a given media outlet has done something worthy of censorship. Scott's point is that "reasonable people can disagree" about almost anything, which is proven in how many reasonable people are disagreeing about every one of these issues in the comments.
Given this wide swath of reasonable disagreement, what kinds of statements can be responsibly prohibited or punished? A vanishingly small number. Almost none.
That is the point. That is Scott's claim. That is what you have to engage with. To say "No, I think this behavior should be called lying" is to change the subject. To say "Actually the New York Times is better than/just as bad as/worse than" InfoWars is to change the subject. Your task is to find an article so egregiously false that almost no one in the world would take issue with you trying to get it banned. Until you can do that, Scott's point stands as almost trivially true and impossible to deny.
The American legal system has built out a robust framework for classifying and evaluating different levels of “being misleading” (ranging from intentional, unambiguous, damaging misrepresentation to unintentional, slight, inconsequential carelessness with respect to accuracy). Securities fraud case law is one example of a large body of reference material. Just noting that in case helpful to anybody doing a deep dive into this sort of discussion, no need to reinvent the wheel.
Other legal systems have done so too, I’m sure, but I’m unfamiliar.
How about "Reasoning well, and just having an interest in pretty (ostensibly, to most of us!) interesting things". The laptop, sure, but we've run over that ground enough. Compare it with Amy Carter, whose habit of reading during state dinners was grounds for a dozen stories. Or the Bush twins, whose famous underage margaritas will follow them to the grave.
The incuriosity of the media, even when it seems like they could "sell papers", has amazed me most. (Crime no longer automatically interests them - when they must know that their readers, or at least their female readers, will never tire of the agony column.) Reporters used to like to dig up ... weird stuff. Maybe that was a job best done away from a keyboard. Maybe it was not very edifying. Are we edifying now?
Because it was mentioned, I thought of the Zimmermann/Trayvon story. Now, I have no opinion one way or another about whether the "white frat boy" Zimmermann should or should not have been convicted. Actually, I don't even know what happened with that. But I one time listened to Loury and McWhorter on the former's podcast; and they presented some really strange info about the prosecution. Like, strong evidence that the star witness was not even who the prosecution claimed she was. The two of them had already smoked this, based on their shared and immediate suspicion about the incongruity of a "cute" boy like Trayvon, and the girl put forth as his girlfriend, whose testimony involved what he said to her on the phone that night, as best I recall.
This seemed pretty crazy!
Well, the world moved on from this case, so maybe it's not so strange that none of these discrepancies pointing to a rather shady prosecution, made any news. Still, I rather expected that when two well-respected academics made these claims and inferences on their podcast, that some news organization or other would take an interest.
As an attorney I can’t lie to a court. But I absolutely CAN selectively choose which facts to highlight, in service of the position I’m advocating. I would have been ethically allowed, had someone hired me to do so, to advance InfoWars birth certificate theory in court (standing problems aside). There are a few things considered lies of omission, but they’re much more black/white than this, e.g. if a case I’m citing was later overturned and I know that.
So the bar association agrees with Scott.
It all goes back to people’s desire that newspapers, at least the ones on the righteous enlightened side of issues where their readers surely reside, be thought of as motivated by a purer motive than lawyers. But lawyers and journalists are the same on this: we’re all just saying the best version of what our customers want us to say. Scott’s definition of lie is fine for both.
Here's another corner case: What about when someone does something 2-5, then is made aware of their error and chooses not to correct their statement and issue a retraction, because doing so would make them look bad or go against their desired narrative. Is it reasonable to say that their statement is now, retroactively, lying?
If you would like to do a better job than the media does when they "don't" "lie", you can pick up some tips at Notes on Honesty (https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/9iMMNtz3nNJ8idduF/notes-on-honesty) and Notes on Straightforwardness, Frankness, Sincerity, Earnestness, Candor, and Parrhêsia (https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/haikNyAWze9SdBpb6/notes-on-sincerity-and-such).
Being misleading is not the same thing as lying. But it is bad. Lawyers, for example, are not supposed to mislead the court. That includes more than just not lying to the court.
People being misleading little sneaks is something that's perfectly valid to call out. They're just not technically liars.
I understand your point that there is legitimately no way to draw a bright golden line between awful Infowars style reporting and honest, excellent reporting that uses true facts to erroneously report a false conclusion.
There's also no bright golden line between negligence and failed due diligence, or reckless disregard for life and acceptable risk, or good actions and bad actions.
Using similar criteria we'd struggle to ever punish wrongdoing in any field. I agree that speech demands considerable more care than other things and would warn folks off of government control of speech for this reason. But to suggest that we avoid any line we can't draw in gold marker is to suggest no lines at all.
With regard to the word "Uncritically":
1. You may not be able to fact check a scientist yourself, but you can talk to other experts in the field. As Beowulf notes, an actual epidemiologist could likely have told the LA times that ocean aerosols weren't an area of concern. But they didn't ask, either out of laziness or because they were concerned their sensational headline would be endangered.
2. Usually when I criticize someone in media for acting uncritically, it's because they're citing a source with a known poor track record. Repeating something a white house press secretary says without comment is flatly irresponsible. Same with anything involving "anonymous officials within the intelligence community".
>they did not show a consistent tendencies to make things up or say outrageous things (except for one who listed their religion as “Satanist”).
Hey, at least one of the branches of Satanism seems like a pretty decent group, and it's not like they're worshipping the literal theistic Satan.
One really good example of 6 is a technique used by certain (tabloid) newspapers in England. They will report that "a source close to Downing Street" said something or other. Normally, that sentence would refer to someone who works in Number Ten, ie a politician or a senior political staffer.
But sometimes, they just guess what is going on (a smart journalist with good background sources usually has a pretty good idea even if no-one will actually tell them), so they send a junior staffer to go and stand in the street outside the building, call into the office on their mobile phone, and repeat whatever quote they decided they wanted to print. The person was close to Downing Street - he was standing right outside! - so it isn't a literally false fact.
Most of the time, the good political journalist has correctly assessed the situation and the result is that everyone is convinced that they have incredibly good sources and no-one can work out who those sources are. Occasionally, they guess wrong and they would look like idiots ... except everyone just thinks they were misled by a source who wasn't in the loop on that occasion.
I think this highlights a problem with the categorisation: if your distortion of the facts is in aid of a substantively correct conclusion, then that is a much less problematic situation than distorting the facts in aid of a substantively incorrect conclusion. That's not particularly correlated with the question of whether you are lying though.
I think there's lots of "mood affiliation" here: if someone is saying something they believe and which the reader doesn't believe, then they will think that they are distorting the facts to prove something that is wrong, and that's much more like lying than distorting the facts to prove something that is correct. But the definition of "wrong" and "correct" is, all too often, "what the reader agrees with".
Your categories of things-which-might-be-lying is missing "reasoning poorly because you don't care about the truth".
It sounds like you want number 4 to encompass that, but it really is a different thing than being biased. And it's different from number 7 unless you include "A implies B" implications as "facts" which can be made up.
And I think we should call this thing lying, even if we wouldn't call number 4 lying, and that this is what InfoWars does at least some of the time when it makes physical-world claims which are false.
But regardless of whether you call this lying, I think that it is worth at least noting that InfoWars is doing a _different thing_ than the rest of the media here. The NYT mostly manages to hedge its physical-world claims enough to avoid them being outright false. InfoWars does not. So defending InfoWars against a charge of lying requires us to give them the benefit of the doubt in their motivations in saying false things, whereas we can defend the NYT on the basis that they didn't say false things in the first place. This really is a difference of _kind_, not merely of degree.
Kind of a sidebar, but - I'm fine with giving people the benefit of the doubt, but that means we don't say "they are lying", not that we say "they're not lying". To say "when [establishment papers] do err, it’s by committing a more venial version of the same sin Infowars commits", that requires us to actively claim that InfoWars is not lying, which is different from just giving them the benefit of the doubt. The most we can say is that, lacking access to their motivations, they _might_ be committing the same sins.
On the Jeremy Goldberg Inflation comment: In high school I took AP Economics. The teach was a history teacher assigned to the class despite no economics background, but he'd been teaching it for many years, so I'd expect him to at least be able to parrot the textbook. In any case, he told us he could not understand what the difference was between deflation and disinflation. Note that I'm not saying he glossed over it or explained it badly, I'm saying he literally told the class he didn't see how there was a difference between these two things. I only talked to a few of the other students about this, and most of them didn't think his confusion was problematic, even though they were taking calculus at the time and so were definitely taught about the difference between functions and their first and second derivatives. So personally I find it *very* easy to believe that the entire newsroom at the Washington Post didn't notice any problem with what was being published.
Were there any takes on your core conclusion (that stopping "lying" is an invalid argument for censorship enthusiasts) worth highlighting? I found myself frustrated that the comments I read were all focused on the nitpicky definition that was clearly highlighted as nitpicky, and not on what you were actually arguing *for*. If your nitpicky argument is invalid, does this mean that censorship standards can be invoked as long as journalists are avoiding points 6&7? All 7 points? What regulations would be put in place to address these?
Okay, so now that we've discussed the problem for three posts, is it finally time to propose solutions? Because I'd *really* like to be able to trust at least some sources of media to not outright mislead me to false conclusions, and I'd like the ones doing that to be disincentivized from continuing.
> you can fill your articles with sentences about how you’re not claiming X, and people will still find ways to accuse you of lying because you said X.
I think this is because if an article spends 5,000 words seeming to say one thing, and 50 words saying the opposite, people figure the 5,000 words outweigh the 50.
It's like the disclaimers on car commercials - the whole commercial is designed to say emphatically "drive fast! drive offroad! drift! buying this car will make people want to have sex with you! you will be cool if you own this car!" and then tiny text says that's not true. The ad is leaving people with a pretty clear impression, and it's not what's in the fine print.
Super dumb question, but what does the word "prior" mean when you use it in a sentence like this:
My prior on “a randomly selected egregiously wrong person is lying” is much lower than the sort of people who make these accusations.
I did some searching, but wasn't clear on which meaning applied.
I'm not saying this piece is exactly as bad as infowars...
But that's a sentence just begging for a 'but' now isn't it?
Most journalism is hearsay (reporters telling readers what somebody else told them), but people still want it be admissible as evidence in the court of public opinion. I think that's behind people's dissatisfaction with the argument "this article didn't say X was true, it just said that so-and-so said X was true, therefore it's not lying".
Side note: I help fund a YouTube channel whose mission is producing documentaries about historical firearms. The main guy behind it is really, really serious about getting things right, but obviously he wasn't alive or there when e.g. Sam Colt was developing his first revolver designs, so he has to rely on books. To his horror, he's come to find that most books that claim to be authoritative on the subject, and that people treat as authoritative on the subject, don't cite any sources, have inconsistencies, etc. People have been repeating the same "facts" for decades as one book cites another book that cites another book going back decades upon decades and when he finally traces it all back, finds that the original source just said things without any kind of primary source documentation and presented them as fact. Or that the primary sources themselves are contradicted by physical evidence. It's got to be exhausting. The idea that anybody can really know what happened hundreds of years ago honestly seems ludicrous. (Edit: link to a video summarizing some of these woes here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whYgOjAkC2g)
I long ago gave up on the idea of ever being able to actually know what happened about any remotely controversial event, e.g. Rittenhouse or whether COVID was a lab leak, because by the time it's become controversial enough for me to care what the truth is about it, there's already a zillion articles out there written by people with their own biases and agendas. Frankly, the world might be a better place if more people simply accepted that if they weren't there, they can't know what really happened. All they can really know is what people say happened. And even if you know what the people who were actually *there* say happened...I mean, would you trust anybody who was inside the Capitol on January 6th, 2021 to give a completely unbiased and factual account of what happened there? Do you even trust their memory of what happened, given that memory is imperfect? And yet whether the events of that day was an Trump-organized attempt at a coup d'etat against the very foundations of our democracy, or a just a bunch of idiotic protesters larping as revolutionary war heroes, seems really, really important to a lot of people. And so they want to be able to point to stories in the the news and say "see, this NYT article says X, so I'm right!"
Your view of media outlet truthiness:
UTTER BOLLOCKS ...................X (INFO WARS)........X(NYT)............................TOTALLY TRUE
Readers who complained you were too easy on INFO WARS/hard on the NYT:
UTTER BOLLOCKS ..X (INFO WARS)................................................X(NYT).....TOTALLY TRUE
Readers who complained about you being too easy on the NYT:
UTTER BOLLOCKS...........X(NYT).......................................................................TOTALLY TRUE
[INFO WARS not shown, off the left hand side of the page in the abyss]
You aren't going to be able to reconcile those three models even if you're upfront about expected disagreements and load your article with caveats and very precise subtitles. I wonder how much of the technical points about the finer details of the denotative interpretation of the word "lying" is rationalization over a gestalt model of where the players fall on the truthiness spectrum.
>I almost always see people erring in the direction of accusing people too quickly, rather than too slowly.
On this note the devil is called “the accuser of our brethren” in Revelation 12:10. There’s definitely a Christian notion that eagerness to accuse is a major human evil.
Something that I was surprised to not see addressed is the distinction between media and written articles. Written articles are the easiest to analyze, but "the media" includes other, well, media. InfoWars is most famous not for the website but for the radio show. Fox News is most famous not for the website but for the TV channel. It may well be that the same analysis holds equally across all forms of media, or roughly equally across most forms of media, or it may vary widely. But I don't recall seeing this addressed anywhere in the various pieces by Scott or the comment sections, and I found the omission worth noting.
I’m in camp “This is a really important point, but framing it as a semantic question about lying is distracting people from the real argument being made.”
You aren’t actually making a nitpicky technical point, you’re saying that *for the purposes of censorship* any objective measure of truth would either be over-broad (and thus inconsistent in practice), or else so narrow to be useless. I think people are just getting distracted because it’s been framed as something much more pedantic.
I'm not particularly relieved to know after decades of reading that the NYT excels at "ethically" misrepresenting the world on certain subjects. For most things that don't touch the culture wars the NYT can write some exceptional articles where fact checkers do their job in a professional unbiased manner.
Otherwise ... they paint a not representative picture of the world primarily through selection bias and framing bias. Selection bias is rather obvious, excessive highlighting of the right's culture war flaws and the near dismissal of the left's culture war flaws. One is forced to read multiple news sources, you just can't know what is missing.
Framing bias is another art form that any skilled reader can easily spot lately. Which subjects are given the news analysis treatment and which subjects are allowed to have opinions from biased experts quoted liberally throughout the piece virtually unopposed. Expert laundering has become pervasive across the news industry partially leading to the decline of trust in experts. Some subjects are heavily investigated and others are ignored.
Subjects that don't fit a preferred narrative that cannot be ignored are usually given a "just the facts" treatment with a strict line on what are facts and what are not, as well as zero curiosity to ponder obvious questions out loud. No opining experts for context here. These storylines typically last no longer than a day or two.
Random example of common framing bias today, subhead on front page:
"The revelation is sure to intensify Republican attacks on President Biden, who has called former President Trump irresponsible for hoarding sensitive files.
It is not clear where or when they were recovered. But aides have been scouring various places since November, when a handful of classified files was found."
The story is apparently Republicans Pounce and the Biden team earnestly working hard to find all the missing files. Reverse the identity groups and these headlines will change. It has become very tiresome.
Sometimes group identity information is reported, sometimes it is not. When it is included in the headline or first paragraph it tends to be a preferred identity narrative, otherwise it is relegated to the end or simply not reported. For most news sources you can simply look at which anecdotal stories they choose to cover and that will highlight the preferred narratives with near certainty.
Knowing exactly where the industry's current ethical lines are and adhering to those slavishly doesn't stop one from being able to cleverly misrepresent the facts.
I guess people like accusing others of lying because there's a universal(?) human norm against lying so it's a quick and clear way to discredit someone. Saying someone “is grossly negligent in their reasoning and is happy to not investigate beliefs any further that are emotionally satisfying” isn't quite as pithy and there's not as strong a norm against this behavior. But it would be good if we had words for this.
Should we have a contest to propose words for these concepts?
If the target audience gets just as convinced by 2/3/4/5/6, they don’t have to attempt 7 very often (or at all).
If most journalists in a given newsroom would top out at 4, I think all you need is one editor or even a colleague who does 6 to start seeing effects in the writing. I think it’s slightly contagious, higher IQ is often (not always) more resistant to it, and the more it happens, the more the higher IQ people leave the profession. But I appreciate this taxonomy of dishonesty, it’s a helpful scale.
Damning with faint praise is the whole point, guys.
One important point is that unless you are smart and good at acting, delusion is much easier and cognitively more efficient than lying.
I'm sympathetic to your views on this overall, but I do think I'd categorically consider 6 to be "lying". At the end of the day, when we talk about why lying is bad, what matters is really the intent to deceive. "Lying by omission" is a standard phrase, after all.
On the other hand, intent is nearly impossible to discern with certainty, so I largely avoid trying to make any judgement calls on it. Accuracy rates and targeted bias are measurable enough that I can assume no one is actively trying to lie without it affecting my opinion on how I should respond to any given statement.
I disagree with the line-drawings on the Infowars claim in section 2. Infowars saying "the document is a shoddily contrived hoax" (if that's a direct quote from Infowars) is doing something different than what most media outlets do.
Most media outlets generally try to avoid explicitly saying false things. They are willing to do various other things that are misleading, like presenting information in distorted ways which suggest a false conclusion, or abridging a quotation and altering its context, or citing a false claim that someone else made in a way that suggests that it's true. And they sometimes make mistakes and accidentally say false things, e.g. when they're confused (often in an ideologically convenient direction) or when they get sloppy and fail to find artful phrasings that avoid making explicit claims. But they'd try pretty hard to avoid calling an accurate document a "hoax".
If this discussion is trying to offer models of how the media does and doesn't distort the truth, then IMO there is a joint here where things should be carved, putting this Infowars stuff on one side and most of what you'd see in the Washington Post or whatever on the other. And that seems more relevant than line-drawing around the word "lie", and separate from trying to weigh in on how much we're bothered by different sorts of distortions.
I’m not convinced that the 9%/7% inflation thing is actually false. Reported inflation rates are usually not point-in-time estimates of the current annualized rate of change of prices, but are usually instead reports of the year-over-year change from 12 months ago. If the yoy change in one month is 9% and the yoy change in the next month is 7%, it seems quite likely that prices actually *did* come down in the intervening month. But it would take a bit more digging to be sure.
I think some of the confusion might be between "not lying" and "we don't know if they're lying or not, because we don't know what they really believe." We begin in ignorance of other people's beliefs and often don't learn enough to be sure either way. But if you say "not lying" then it sounds like you're making a claim about their state of mind, when often we don't know that.
Maybe it would be clearer to say that proving strangers to be lying is hard.
The story about Jones and the radioactivity to me isn't all that clear-cut, maybe actually supporting Scott's point.
If Jones just wanted to push some false claims about radioactivity levels, why go through all the effort? Why send a team to California, why use real Geiger counters (somebody must make fake ones for movies, right?), why not use some legal, naturally radioactive substance to deliberately create a fake measuring spike (in relative terms, even if not harmful), why take the risk of live reporting? Given that they were absolutely not set up to produce fake reporting, Jones screaming at their lack of finding something suggests that he seriously expected another result and irrationally didn't want to update, resisting it quite ferociously. Otherwise, why not accept that there's nothing to then instruct them to just make something false up, rather than screaming and telling them to merely *not* say that they didn't find anything (which, for all he knows, might well be because of $other_conspiracy_theory).
Did the reporters eventually report something which they knew to be a lie? The quoted excerpt actually sounds like they *didn't* because they "couldn't stop [saying they weren't finding anything]", but I'm not familiar with the original story. Either way, it sounds like a reporter not being willing to claim evidence they didn't find, and his boss being furious at him for not finding evidence he is certain should be discoverable.
Jones has certainly deliberately pushed lies in other contexts like Sandy Hook, but if the above story really is the best known example, I remain unconvinced of the prevalence of that being exorbitantly high.
On the “fake news” thing - I do recall seeing a few “articles” on sites like weather737.com, claiming “meteorologists forecast largest blizzard in history to hit North Carolina in 12 days”. Totally outrageous, beyond any reasonable forecast, but coming soon enough after a polar vortex event and about a date far enough in the future that it will have lost social media currency by the time it is checked. I don’t exactly know why these briefly proliferated (probably some time in the 2014-2016 era?) but then disappeared, but it was a fascinating phenomenon, and not only about political news.
This series has really reinforced my acceptance of 'Politics is the Mind-Killer'.
I worry this definition of a lie is so narrow and so unprovable that it's a bit of motte and bailey when taken back to the original justification (that censorship attempts are ill-advised since the media rarely lies) and weakens that argument. The call is to censor misinformation or disinformation or 'fake news' and that is not equivalent to censoring lying if you're going to use a such narrow definition and is likely much more straightforward (if imho still ill-advised).
In particular, your definition of lying leans heavily on intent which is obviously pretty hard to conclusively determine. Short of leaked chat logs saying 'ha, ha I'm totally making this up' from the 'We Are Lying Liars' chat room it's going to be difficult to prove they are lying even if they are (though if you follow Matt Levine this seems to totally be a regular thing in finance so perhaps the absence of regular leaks of this nature should say something on earnestness / self-delusion of the journalist cast). I think the a better title for the first piece is 'The Media Can Vary Rarely Be Proved To Be Lying' rather than 'The Media Vary Rarely Lies' which is in some sense is unknowable for many cases using this very narrow definition of lying and probably works just as well for your argument.
But back to the censorship point, the steel man case probably doesn't take intent into consideration at all. But rather seeks to ban factually incorrect statements (whether by malice, incompetence, bias or otherwise) or mandate the presence of certain context on particular issues. And that seems potentially possible and orthogonal to whether the media lies to you in some very strict sense of lies. We have (flawed) social mechanisms to determine is something is proven to various degrees of certainty and use them in critical places, courts for one example.
So, there's been a huge amount of discussion, what the word "lie" means, which is very hard to resolve because it's a fairly vague term and even more to the point, it's an emotionally loaded word with accusation and anger as part of its meaning. Not only that the discussion was focused around some material that's already very emotionally charged, like Alex Jones vile attacks on families whose children were murdered. I think it's kind of impressive that the discussion has been relatively sensible given this context.
With regard to your conclusion, Scott, I think it's still a bit superficial. You seem to assume that finding some other source for what you're saying makes it a different issue than outright making things up. Tell that to an AI that turns racist reflecting its input. And we humans often make up our minds about things for non-rational reasons then construct rational sounding arguments to support what we're saying, especially when talking politics, especially the sort that's basically an emotional minefield.
You seem to dismiss the idea that Jones decided it would popularize him to come up with an attack on the Sandy Hook victims, then looked around to find some flimsy stuff that could be used as his "source", so he couldn't be accused of making up what he was saying. How is that different than making it up, except to give him a way to claim he didn't make it up. It's very easy to "support" pretty much anything you want to say this way It didn't take Musk long to find a specious source of really nasty stuff to retweet about Paul Pelosi, and was that different in any meaningful way than his made-up "pedo boy" crap?
I don't see how making distinctions between between misleading statements supported by the flimsiest of sources and making up facts is especially meaningful, in a context where you can find a tweet or a posting to support most any position you want to take.
But also, a story composed of made up facts can contain truths that can't be told as effectively any other way. (I guess that's why you make up your allegories.) A factual account is always going to be subject to bias and error. It's how humans communicate. People communicate to help each other understand or to mislead each other, among other reasons. To me, distinctions between made-up facts and misleading interpretations ultimately don't really make anything much clearer, especially when we're talking about communications with content that's basically emotional rather than factual.
I've agreed with all your posts on these topics. I find myself not motivated to post when I agree.
7 is lying
5 and 6 are being deceptive
3 and 4 are being incompetent
2 is forgiveable
I find 3 and above bad enough, that once we get to 7 I just don't care very much. My starting point is that the news media I want to consume should be trying to convey the truth, and anything past 3 is a failure to even *pursue* that mission.
I think some of the frustration in comments is that it seems like your standard for the media is "they aren't doing a really bad thing", but many people's standard is "are they doing a a good thing".
Media : Lying :: Doctors : murdering :: Teacher : losing kids
Media : Conveying Truth :: Doctors : Getting you healthier :: Teacher : Teaching things
Why should we care if the media doesn't lie under your definition of lie? How does that relate to the original argument claiming to discredit the facile argument for blocking misinformation?
I thought you wanted to argue that you can't say that such bans only bar clearly valueless content because they would inevitably have to ban content that isn't lying.
But with this narrow definition of lying why should we assume that you can't only ban clearly valueless content (say the weekly world news) just because it's not lying under your definition?
I ultimately agree there are problems with such bans but I feel like the debate has gotten a bit too focused on whether the media lies to the point of losing sight of the original reason this claim mattered.
> I’m kind of sensitive to this because for almost every article I write, people in the comments accuse me of lying, or “pretending” I don’t know why the statements I made are wrong, or some other offense which I plead innocent to.
You asked for that treatment. Once you've made statements like this:
(A) When there's an official orthodoxy, why can't scientists just pretend to believe it in public while privately knowing it's false? ( https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/10/23/kolmogorov-complicity-and-the-parable-of-lightning/ )
(B) Huh, it sure is weird that all the research on racial differences in intelligence says one thing while the official orthodoxy says something completely different. Oh well, what are you going to do? (Early ACX; not sure how to find it)
(C) I know about Steve Sailer, and I think he's right about this, but I'm deliberately avoiding citing him. ( https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/what-caused-the-2020-homicide-spike )
...people are going to conclude that when you say something, you probably mean something else.
> I asked “Why? A woman said she had been raped, and Rolling Stone believed her. The woman was making it up, but Rolling Stone wasn't” and Deepa commented “Isn't it the job of a reporter to investigate? And be good at it?” I don’t want to pick on Deepa, but this is what happens when you have an overly expansive definition of “lie”!
On a psychological level, it's plausible this is an "honest mistake" on Rolling Stone's part.
On a practical level, 1. it led to them writing a widely-disseminated article that made very many people believe a straight-up falsehood, and 2. it is pretty obvious that this failure of due diligence was in service to advancing their ideological agenda. (Compare how Rolling Stone would treat e.g. a story about a trans woman assaulting someone in a women's bathroom. In this counterfactual, despite being very similar on the object level, it's obvious they would do their very best to either debunk the story or bury it; there is no world where they credulously run a story like the Jackie one.)
> When someone says “Joe is a liar”, I don’t want to have to ask every time “Do you mean you have some actual evidence for this, or that they said something you disagree with and you instantly leapt to ‘this is reckless disregard for the truth because nobody could ever be so dumb as to honestly disagree with me’?” I think if we let people use the word “lie” this way, then the overwhelming majority of accusations of lying would be false. Why would we want to define a word in a way that dooms it to constantly be used incorrectly to mislead people?
But this is fundamentally missing the point. The main inference people are usually trying to convey by saying "X is a liar" is something like "X is an utterly unreliable source of information and should not be given any credence". This is a statement solely about X's claims and their relationship to the truth; it need not rely on any inference about X's state of mind.
It may be psychologically interesting to dive into the question of whether X is knowingly making false statements, or knowingly deceiving, or merely speaking with reckless disregard for the truth. But from the point of view of the information consumer, these distinctions don't matter. All the reader needs to know is that X is grievously unreliable.
In practice, almost all media outlets pass the bar of being grievously unreliable as information sources. If you're the priest or the therapist of an NYT reporter, you should make the careful distinctions about the exact psychological impetus behind their deceptions. But if you're merely a reader, the important thing to take away is the fact of their unreliability.
When I took an intro semantics linguistics class in collage, I was told, bluntly, that there is not and cannot be a single satisfying all encompassing definition of either "a lie" or "lying," and that the best we can do is jargon that covers restricted cases (e.g. perjury, defamation). Otherwise, we're stuck with the unsatisfying conclusion that the concept of lies and lying is a broad category with a clear center, but fuzzy boundaries similar to the concept of a heap or flatness. This dogma also came with a whole host of interesting edge cases, for example:
A man lives in a home on a suburban cul-de-sac, his neighbor asks to borrow his snow blower. The man, knowing that his neighbor had destroyed his possessions in the past and not wanting to loan out his snow blower replies "I no longer own a snow blower." This has everything you could want in a case of lying: 1) a statement that is false, 2) intent to deceive, and 3) creative genesis of a narrative (the "making" part of "making stuff up"). You can change the story to remove each element: what if he thinks he has a snowblower, but his wife sold it earlier in the week without telling him? What if he just hallucinated that he didn't have a snow blower? What if he transferred ownership of his snowblower to his daughter? Any of these would be enough to definitively make it "not perjury," at least one of them would not be enough to avoid "defamation," but the charge of "lying" isn't so easily or cleanly evaded.
I'm not familiar enough with the state of the field to know whether this is indeed the dogma of the field, let alone to know if it's justified. But I do know enough to know that a lot of good work has been done on this project and you don't need to re-invent all of it yourselves if you don't want to.
Check the math here.
"8% of Americans said they had a relative who died from the COVID vaccine."
What percent of Americans have a relative die each year of any cause?
According to this... ~4%!
So if we stretch out the time frame to be the past two years we get 8% implying that every single person who died died of the vaccine! We could have stoppered death forever!
People very often believe false things after they read news stories. This is by design. Naive readers think that news stories are credible without having a good understanding of what it means to be credible, and willfully ignorant readers don't care if they believe false things. The act of "staying informed" has positive emotional valence for these people, but they would believe fewer false things if they stopped reading the news.
Many people are angry about the status quo, and they're trying to convince everyone that the news is not credible, whatever that means. They want "staying informed" to have negative emotional valence. They interpret this series of blog posts as a defense of the status quo, which should not be defended. They don't believe that careful caveats about nitpicky technical linguistic questions can change the directionally incorrect impact the blog posts will have on emotional valence.
This is a bravery debate. Scott is technically correct about everything, but nobody cares about that. They care about emotional valence and downstream consequences. They care about how common it is to believe false things.
(This is just one perspective, and it's oversimplified, but I think people need to be more aware of this dynamic.)
I think one of the problems with this discussion-- which I'm sure came up in the comments, but I haven't looked through those-- is that the title used the word 'rarely', which means that by definition Scott and the people in the comments are going to be talking past each other when people in the comments bring up examples of what they think are 'lies'.
> In a perfect world, we would have separate words for all of these.
Let it never be said I didn't make the world a bit more perfect. ;) Let's give 'em names:
(Multiple commenters also pointed out the variation commonly called bullshitting.)
Yeah, I think most of your readers have agreed with you all along. Your critics are what make you stronger. Anyway, I want to carve out a category:
2.5) Reasons well but is dumb. Dumb in this use means uninformed. I don't know the true facts. That would be my category. Oh and after dumb, whatever bias I have takes over.
I've stopped consuming the news. People at work will tell me if something important happens. And I just focus on local stuff, work, my kids, the house, cars, neighbors, friends...Oh and the neighborhood here online at ACX. It's great, thanks. (Oh I follow weather and local sports on the news, and getting politics into sports (and weather) is something I hate.)
I have found the reactions to this series of posts bewildering. You're stating an extremely simple premise, and for some reason you have comments full of people attacking...something else. I would expect readers of this blog to share a level of clarity of thinking and basic literacy, and yet you have numerous comments throwing out counterexamples that are unrelated to your central point.
I'm not trying to say people commenting are dumb and wrong, because that seems unlikely. But reading these comments I genuinely don't understand what is going on in the people's heads. (I'm thinking specifically of comments that are like "oh yeah but look the media once reported that person X said Y and this wasn't true so the media is lying". Or even "You're saying the NYT is as bad as info-wards.) Again, non-judgemental, I'm just clearly missing something about how people's brains work that is causing this behavior.
They say in rationalist culture there are 40 words for being wrong
Okay, but how do you get from the extremely narrow and pedantic point that deception rarely involves literally inventing facts whole-cloth to the point you were originally trying to make about censorship?
That was the original reason you argued that this distinction matters, at the start of this sequence - you said that "people" (unspecified) want to censor Infowars but there's no way to do that in a principled way without also censoring the NYT for doing the same sort of thing.
But the legal system *already* knows how to make these distinctions. Judges know and apply all sorts of nitpicky categories like "reckless disregard for the truth" or "matters of public concern" to identify exactly how much slack we want to cut someone for telling a lie that isn't an outright fabrication. And this system has demonstrably managed to punish Alex Jones for his most egregious type-6 lies while not punishing the more minor lies of the NYT.
People don't use these sorts of distinctions in everyday speech, sure, but when it comes to actual potential censorship by the government these distinctions are already well-known. So what exactly are you arguing should be different?
Doesn't this open you up to manipulation by bad actors? What if I tell you that I have a 100% guaranteed method to make you money. Many people are suckered in. I collect fees from them and become quite wealthy. And it turns out its all a scam. They call me a liar and I say "Well, my friend Bob told me about it. So I wasn't LYING technically." If lying is only saying something which the speaker knows to be untrue then the concept effectively does not exist.
Fwiw, in defamation cases and the like you have to prove you did sufficient investigation and all that. Which Rolling Stone did not. Which is why they settled. They were going to lose badly.
another post (or series of posts really) for the record books. thanks.
I agree with the central thesis, and should probably be a bit more careful about the use of the word "lie". That said, is the "(make|leaves) other people confused" in 5/6 not overly specific? Did you mean, rather, to say something like "intended to achieve a specific goal other than relaying useful information about the world" (implant an idea, attract readers, sabotage reasonable discussion, etc.)?
You keep ignoring the difference between "a lie" and "a liar".
I believe that the main reason your posts seem so off to many people is simply that: judging the sincerity and the integrity of any given report in isolation is indeed a tricky and delicate business, as you so articulately demonstrate. I agree with you completely on this. But judging the sincerity and the integrity of a given news-source is much more robust, and orders of magnitude simpler. And it's the later that is relevant to your original point, about fighting fake news.
For anyone who has published and has accused someone of lying, the consequences, if wrong, can be disastrous. Some people care about the consequences more than others. “They should have known” is not a proper defense most of the time. In general, both writing and research with the intent to publish are painstakingly tedious, so even the best of journalists can err in way that elicits others to call them a liar. The best of us should accustom ourselves, out of habit, to reserve this accusation in public as much as possible. Better to say it is misleading or deceptive whenever practicable? Or if we're in the accusatory mood, we can say someone is trying to mislead/deceive? Doing this can keep the focus on debate rather than defending why something is not a lie.
Furthermore, everyone believes things that are false, and for most of us, a magical revelation of some of those misbeliefs, if we magically accepted them, would be a shock. Many of us want to know if we’re wrong even if it will ruin our day/week/life, but many others don’t want to know, at least on a subconscious level. I wonder if any correlation can be made between people who want to avoid the truth, intentionally or instinctively, and those who want to “wirehead” themselves to a perpetual happiness device. I wouldn’t accuse anyone of fitting this mold, but it would be an interesting study.
> Looking at these people's other responses, they did not show a consistent tendencies to make things up or say outrageous things (except for one who listed their religion as “Satanist”).
This is a legitimate, if niche, thing. There's a Church of Satan which has real religious beliefs, and there's an unrelated Satanic Temple which is atheist, but for all I know some of its members call themselves Satanists.
Paul makes a good point about proving too much. If you define "lie" in such a way that "The National Enquirer Rarely Lies" is a true statement, then who the hell cares. Ultimately, people are interested in how often NYT or Infowars does "That Thing The National Enquirer Does" when writing a story, whether or not you want to call it lying.
Scott, I feel like the big issue here is that you're conflating two different things - both of which can be described as "technically true, but misleading/deceptive," but which are nonetheless very different in both degree and kind.
The first category includes your example of FOX News saying "more Whites are killed by police than Blacks" without mentioning that Blacks are killed at a proportionally higher rate. It also includes your example of the New York Times saying "Blacks are killed by police at a higher rate than Whites" without mentioning that police are called to Black neighborhoods much more often. In both cases, the fact is true, and arguably even genuinely useful to know, but there's some critical piece of context missing which leads people to draw flawed conclusions. This isn't quite lying, exactly, but it's not telling the whole truth either. And if the missing context was purposefully left out in a deliberate effort to make people draw false conclusions, then I'd consider it a lie of omission. On your 1-7 scale, these would be ranked 5 or 6.
The second category is when someone just tells a straight-up bald faced lie, but argues that it's "true" in some abstract sense through some opaque trick of semantics. On your 1-7 scale, these would still be ranked 7, or at least 6.9999999! But I think you're making the mistake of grouping them together with the 5's and 6's. Some examples of what I mean:
-Redefining words to mean something entirely different from the common usage without letting anyone know that you're a nonstandard definition
-Taking advantage of homonyms to substitute a word for a different but identical-sounding one (e.g. if your wife asks you to deposit a check for her, and you say "I promise I'll stop by the bank today," but then go fishing at the riverbank instead)
-Speaking in metaphorical terms, despite all context making your statement sound literal (one famous example is Obi-Wan saying "Darth Vader killed your father")
-The practice of mental reservation (i.e. saying "I don't have any money" out loud while mentally appending "in the Bank of Zimbabwe" to the statement, thus giving the version of the statement in your head a positive truth value)
-Hearing someone make a statement that you know to be false, then sharing it with other people without letting them know that it's not true (for instance, if Bob says "I saw Frank's girlfriend Martha making out with Sam at lunch today," and you know for a fact that Martha was alone studying in the library during lunch period, but you still go around telling people "Bob said he saw Martha making out with Sam" and letting them assume it's probably true)
To even call these "lies of omission" would be overly generous. They're just outright, blatant, unambiguous lies, simply worded in such a way that the speaker can retroactively *claim* (however implausibly) that they were being honest. And InfoWars, unlike the New York Times, frequently resorts to these sorts of tricks. ("I didn't say "[false statement]," I just said "X said [false statement]," that's totally different" is a pretty common defense of theirs.)
When was the like button removed? Or am just not seeing it?
Anyways, thanks Scott for discussing that at length with anyone. That's exactly how I feel about the phrase "lie" but would have given up arguing by now.
Just going to add that I was quoted in an article in The Times of London (on the occasion of exam results day) as saying something like, "Anyone who says marking standards are falling is belittling our achievements". Didn't say it! But it did support the narrative of the article.
From Zack's comment:
"I'm skeptical that 10 out of 500 people were unfortunate enough to have 2 household members die: one from COVID and one from the vaccine. (Especially because these are not large households; 4 of these 10 report that they have 1 other household member [...])"
Those 4 are obviously protagonists/narrators in hackneyed "they were dead all along"-twist horror stories.
I think looking at some indisputable cases of #7 highlights how rare they are:
o) Jayson Blair inventing stories and sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayson_Blair#Plagiarism_and_fabrication_scandal
o) Another guy doing the same thing: https://www.poynter.org/ethics-trust/2022/usa-today-fabrication-breaking-news-reporter/
and I think it's generally individual reporters doing this freelance, so to speak. I can't think of any fabrication scandals where editors issued an order to make things up. Maybe there were some back in the "yellow press" days?
Could it be a helpful contrast to say that Moscow Kreml (or indeed any nation at war, Kiev as well but less in-your-face) lies in the point 7 sense continuously 24/7? It's part of the war effort to spread misinformation.
Most media are NOT participants of an actual physical war and do NOT deliberately spread lies, though they still serve interests that compel them to do all things in points 2 through 6. Contrasted with a clear example of point 7, and thus a bit detached from the U.S. bi-partisan echo-chamber circle-wankery, perhaps the claim would sound a lot less controversial.
Harry Frankfurt has a famous essay on bullshit:
He distinguishes it from lying, defining it as "speech intended to persuade without regard for truth". A key summary from the wikipedia article:
>Both people who are lying and people who are telling the truth are focused on the truth. The liar wants to steer people away from discovering the truth and the person telling the truth wants to present the truth. The bullshitter differs from both liars and people presenting the truth with their disregard of the truth.
Now, you might say that bullshitting is just a variant of "egregious disregard for the truth", so it's already been analysed above. But I think that we rationalists have a bit of a blind spot where bullshit is concerned; we're so concerned with the truth that we assume that others are equally so concerned (interestingly, many conspiracy theorists are similarly very concerned about the truth). It didn't appear in Scott's list in section 8 (point 4 was the closest, but "more-or-less subconsciously not trying to reason well" doesn't really cover "entirely unconcerned with reasoning well, and not seeing why reasoning well would even be an issue").
So I think we want to round bullshit to something more understandable. Alex Jones, for example, is mainly a bullshitter. The truth or not of his published statements is not a concern of his. Is he lying? As Scott pointed out, he's not. Is he telling the truth as he sees it? No, he's not doing that either. So I think Scott is reasoning "he's not lying" while others are reasoning "he's not telling the truth" and then get into definition arguments. But if we add the third category of bullshit, then it seems easier to classify Alex Jones.
So, armed with bullshit as a category, what can we say about the other media sources? Weekly World News? Bullshit. New York Times? Going off the descriptions in this article and the original one, not bullshitting (or rarely doing so) - we might need to add another category for what they're doing, but it's not bullshitting. Infowars in general? A high proportion of bullshit, though not all of it.
Anyway, just wanted to remind people that some people really don't care about the truth, one way or the other. They're not lying, they literally don't care about the truth, and probably have difficulty imagining that other people do.
One might think that you are expending an inordinate amount of time and energy on an undeserving subject, but not me. The actual subject of this investigation is:
THE NATURE OF TRUTH.
On issue 3 and media believing their own lies, among many obvious differences between Infowars and NYT I see one that is particularly relevant.
Imagine that journalist Alice works for a newspaper and covers space exploration. She has opinions on the matter, reads many sources, does her best to decide which stories are true and which are not, and honestly tries to inform her readers as well as possible. There are people out there who disagree with Alice on some topics, sometimes pretty emotionally, but these people do not control most of her sources and do not have the means to manipulate her. When Alice finds a story about Saturn rings of some given relevance and novelty to her readers, Alice would try to establish the degree of truth in this story and will not publish it unless she was 95% confident in it.
Another journalist, Bob, works for another news outlet, covering domestic politics, NSA surveillance, and conspiracy theories. He has the same motivations as Alice and also does his best to decide which stories are true and which are not and tries to honestly inform his readers. There are more people out there who disagree with Bob. However, for some weird reason, Bob honestly believes some of the outlandish conspiracy theories, such that there is a secret email list of journalists that covertly coordinates domestic policy coverage in main news outlets to favour one party, or that Twitter is running a shadow banning program against people who express beliefs similar to Bob's, or that most of media fact checker outlets are coordinated and funded by the same people who fund one of the political parties.
When Bob sees a story about a certain conspiracy theory of the same novelty and relevance to his readers as was Saturn rings story to Alice' readers, he would do his best to establish degree of truth of this story and would not publish it unless this degree was rather high. Would it be rational for Bob to set this threshold at the same 95% as Alice? I do not think so. Bob honestly believes the conspiracy theories about Twitter and factcheckers, so he thinks that his and his readers news flows are heavily biased against this kind of stories. A lot of good and true stories simply do not propagate well enough to reach Bob and his readers because of suppression. So the stories that do get to Bob are more valuable, and Bob would set his threshold at 80% and not at 95%. This does not mean that Bob is less honest of more gullible than Alice. He just believes that he lives in a world with powerful forces that manipulate the news flows and sees his duty to try to compensate.
Nicely argued. I especially like your last series of comments. One problem you hint at but don't really answer is what are we supposed to say/do about the many instances when grossly deceptive information is disseminated without actually crossing the threshold of genuine lying?
There is a huge ingroup/outgroup component to this. When your side is just wrong, you can safely ignore it for a while, then come out with retractions/corrections if you want (e.g. NYT on Russiagate, Hunter Biden laptop, etc). When the other side is a member of your outgroup, it's all "lies" down the line, even if the "lies" are mistaken yet honestly help beliefs. The reasoning here is pretty simple, calling someone a "liar" is a moral attack that us useful to deploy on your enemies.
Contrast Alex Jones to a group that says lots of false things all the time but we don't call a bunch of liars: flat-earthers. For a variety of reasons that may include a mix of genuine belief / trolling / performance, they make even more unlikely claim that the Earth is flat. I highly doubt that the NYT will be condemning them as a bunch of liars anytime soon. Nor do we condemn professional wrestlers, or members of small religious movements even if we think their beliefs are mistaken. You have to be an outgroup member to deserve this treatment.
Also, Jones never said he lied as far as I can tell. Rather, he said that the shooting actually happened which the media ran with as "Alex Jones admits he lied". But if you look at what he actually said at the time of the shooting, it was mostly just his conspiratorial take on the situation that things look fishy. The NYT helpfully compiled a list of Alex Jones "lies" around Sandy Hook. It is here:
Ironically, if he has said at the time "I think the shootings definitely happened, nothing to see here" , then *that* would have been a straight-up lie as he clearly did not think that. This just highlights the alchemy of converting "my opponent is wrong about something" to "my opponent is a liar"
What about media that are propaganda amplifiers, like Russia Today? Sure, they still prefer 6 to 7 (if only it's generally considered to be more effective), but when the same source claims four contradictory versions in two-to-three days (I think I'm not even exaggerating the time - thinking of the Bucha disaster) with the only thing in common "we did nothing wrong there", one has to wonder whether this is even possible (quoting gwern: "“Possibility” in ordinary language doesn’t include astronomically small odds.") to do on pure 6, without 7.
It is so nice to see discussions of moral theology on here re: "what constitutes a lie? is lying always wrong? is silence, equivocation, or mental reservation the same as lying?" 😁
"In a country with 100 million conservatives, is it really that hard to find a handful of them capable of writing news articles?"
Regarding the liberal bias in newsrooms, this is an old story. Even the media itself (at least back several years) recognised this. *Why* it happens is something that is much debated.
The Public Editor of the New York Times wrote about this in 2016:
And in 2004:
They ran a guest opinion piece in 2015:
A former editor in a talk in 2011 admitted they had a liberal, urban lean but denied this slanted political coverage:
The Washington Post dipped its toes into controversy in 2013;
And Rod Dreher gave his take on it:
"Over the years, talking to fellow conservatives about media bias, it has usually been my place, as one who worked in mainstream media, to tell conservatives that they’re wrong in some significant way about media bias — not its existence, but the way it works. Most reporters and editors, in my 20 years of experience, do not set out to slant stories, and in fact try to be fair. The bias that creeps into their coverage is typically the result of a newsroom monoculture, in which they don’t see the bias because everybody, or nearly everybody, within that culture agrees on so much. In the case of gay rights and the marriage debate, though, they don’t even make an effort to be fair. I have heard some version of the “error has no rights” claim for years now. They honestly believe they are morally absolved from having to treat the views of about half the country with basic fairness in reporting. And they are shocked — believe me, they really are — that these people view them and the work they do with suspicion, even contempt."
So where are all the conservative reporters? Probably working for newspapers you never heard of because they're local or regional. Why aren't they getting jobs in the NYT or the Post? It's that thing about "cultural fit" in interviews - sorry but we just don't think you'd fit in to the company culture here.
Remember back in 2020 the staff protesting they felt unsafe because the NYT ran an op-ed? Now just imagine the protesting about expecting them to work side-by-side, in the same room with, a bigot and reactionary!
I just skipped to your actual thoughts because I get tired of the confirmation bias driven arguments that the press is filled with liars and
6 is fuzzy, but you acknowledge that. It's sorta case by case. How egregious is it.
But yeah. This model is good and right, imho.
The National Enquirer story about deliberately >not< checking out their sources' stories resonates for me.
For mainstream, i.e. what people consider "serious", media deliberately not checking: remember Rathergate? Documents (that we now know were fake) presented as real on national news about a political story just before an election. Not authenticated, but Rather said they had been, and continued to say so for weeks (as well as the company backing him).
Now, you can argue that this is rare and therefore memorable.
I say it's common, but most of the time outside people don't go to the effort of actually checking, or else when they check and find it fake they are drowned out by the "new news" or by deliberate suppression. For the few times I have been on the scene for something later reported, I have always found something inaccurate about the report.
The unusual thing was not that Dan Rather lied. Technically I guess he didn't lie, Mapes lied when she said it had been checked and it had not, while I guess Rather trusted her - although it's interesting that he didn't press her on it when the refutations started coming out and didn't get a second opinion on it.
No the unusual thing was that he got caught at it. He thought he could brazen it out, and it didn't happen.[/edit]
[Further edit]From what I can see (I haven't really followed the multi-year saga) the difference with Infowars seems to be that they got sued fairly quickly. Once they got sued, backing down would have meant losing the case. I guess they also thought they could outlast the people suing them.[end further edit]
I’m a day late, $20 short, but I recall the ‘George Bush amazed by grocery store scanner’ being in a nightly news broadcast. (Probably ABC) where it was presented as he was out of touch with the masses…
YEARS later I encountered the truth in my data-collection tech job. It was brand new scanner tech that weighed and scanned damaged barcodes.
Which ‘lie’ type was this?
Here’s a summary:
In litigation, the difference between #6 and #7 is the difference between a great lawyer and a terrible lawyer.
Personally I think a very common mode, that is missing from your list is the noble lie and I think a lot of journalists/experts believe they are engaging in the practice. While this is technically congruent with your 7. I think there is a strong association with your phrasing that the person in question is malicious or bad or some such, which doesn't perfectly match up with the noble lie. If you agree with the noble liar it feels weird to call them a liar, but if you disagree that is obviously what they are.
Your definition of lying implies that a person who reasons badly or doesn’t have a good enough model of the world are incapable of lying. This seems like an overstatement.
I encourage people to read the "Nanci Pelosi Hanged at GITMO" article that Scott linked to (https://realrawnews.com/2022/12/nancy-pelosi-hanged-at-gitmo/) thanks to a commenter who wanted to provide an example of actual fake news. I'm sure most would agree that there is no mistaking that particular article for anything but parody fiction (and not particularly good or incisive parody either). I'm not talking about the gist of the content itself (that Pelosi was recently hanged at Trump's order, the way Hillary Clinton was hanged the year before) but the style of narration, which comes across as that of a comedic short story writer trying to amuse themself in a fantasy-fulfillment way. I just don't believe that in any day and age anyone but the bottom-10% stupidest readers among us would mistake a story written this way for a genuine news article, whatever the platform calls itself.
I read your Section 8 (My actual thoughts) as a round-about admission that yes, your definition of lying is unusually high, as many commenters point out, even though you mostly individually refuted them. That is ok, though, it is your choice how strictly to take the definition of lying; if anything, it clearly shows that even you are operating somewhere along that spectrum of truth vs. lie, and your original headline is clearly not a lie given your own definition, but might be viewed as deceptive by others who have a narrower definition of sharing true facts.
I do very much appreciate your article and the discussion though - it makes it very clear that outlawing, or even identifying and condemning false stories is exceedingly difficult. Your point that mainstream media and conspiracy platforms are not fundamentally different, just a different points on a spectrum is the one key and true fact here.
Perhaps we have to take the old adage that "you cannot not communicate" and change it to "you cannot not lie?" Writing a story that is entirely true, based completely on verifiable evidence, and not deceptive at all is very difficult in a complicated, messy and contradictory world.
FWIW, I thought picking apart the ways they give misleading ideas without formally lying was a nice way to teach media literacy and criticism. Kind of like an updated 'How to Lie With Statistics'.
>I asked Jeremy to guess the probability that this was an honest mistake vs. malice. He said (thanks for giving a clear answer!) 60-40 in favor of malice. I think this is pretty high, given that I had to read Jeremy’s comment several times before I realized what the error was supposed to be
Did anyone bring up [JJ's Razor](https://www.sonyaellenmann.com/2018/03/jjs-razor.html), the corollary to Hanlon?
>“The intentionality of an agent with behavior sufficiently indistinguishable from malice is irrelevant.”
I don't think it was malice, but excusing The Washington Post (or The NYT, or whoever that's supposed to be at least occasionally reliable; ie, not Cousin Jimmy's Facebook Rant) for an "honest mistake" of this scale is too generous. It's... what's a good name for it, conveniently advantageous stupidity? What did you call it last year- [too good to check](https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/too-good-to-check-a-play-in-three)? Dishonesty that tells the right story doesn't get checked, and while it's not technically a lie, neither is it usually an honest mistake. Or rather, we can't know the difference between an honest mistake and a dishonest one, and the distinction is irrelevant for truth-seeking anyways.
Rarely do I think the supposedly-trustworthy outlets are *malicious*, per se. But neither do they make *honest* mistakes. You say all your readers are too paranoid, all your readers say you're insufficiently paranoid, and the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Brian Sicknick was not murdered.
This was known immediately upon his death. The Capitol Police put out a statement about it on Jan 7. (I can't find it, but I can find a Reuters article from Jan 7 that references it https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-capitol-police-officer-has-died-following-attack-capitol-building-cnn-2021-01-08/ ).
However, the NYT said Sicknick WAS murdered, and so WP:RS applies and that false "fact" got repeated everywhere, including Trumps impeachment.
Now I would think that the NYT might want to explain how/why they pushed this lie (er, untruth) and a good way of doing this might be to burn their source for the "murdered" bit. After all, that's a mistake so egregious that literally nobody should use this person as a source again.*
But they won't.
Which is odd, considering that they've been willing to out bad sources before. Why not in this case?
-They are good friends with the source and don't want to embarrass them?
-The source is politically/socially connected in the journalist community?
-The source has been reliable (in the sense of truthful) in the past and has pinky-sworn that they won't make such a mistake again?
-The source doesn't actually exist, but was inferred from a DM-chain?
-The source has been reliable (in the sense of telling the reporter what they want to write about) and they don't want to lose that resource?
*Of course, I though the same thing about Vox after their "those meanie Israelis shut down the bridge between the West Bank and Gaza" article, but apparently most people disagree with me.
You're all still here? It's over. Go home.
One of the reasons for making the lying distinction as narrowly as Scott does, that I have not seen mentioned here or in the other two columns, has to do with which forms of deception are actionable, and in what ways. (I made a comment about this on DSL.)
Lying in the sense Scott seems to want to use, is libel (or slander), and you can sue for it. It's hard, for multiple reasons, but possible. If a journalist makes a claim, and they know it is false when they make it, and it causes damage to you, and you can measure that damage in dollars, and you can convince a jury of all this, then a judge can punish that journalist in a way that journalist will feel, and make that type of lying less likely to happen again.
Lying in the sense a lot of people here seem to want to use, is practically impossible to bring a suit against. Karl Gallagher, in another comment here, mentions "sins of commission" and "sins of omission". Commission is the above thing, and an easy call. Omission, though, can happen for lots of reasons, some innocent, and is technically unavoidable unless every article comes with a bolus of every known true claim in the universe. "Oh, you claimed Saddam was shopping for nukes, but you left out the bit where OBL was Saudi Arabian!" Is the latter relevant? To some people, in some contexts, it is. In others, not. In yet other contexts, it's assumed, and clutters the article if included. Clutter matters. If a journalist makes an important claim in an article, but has to attach megabytes of exposition to avoid any possible charge of omission, readers will glaze over and skip to the next article, and that claim may as well never been made, and so is therefore unmakeable. By extension, every interesting (and possibly true enough) claim is unmakeable. I don't consider that situation preferable.
So omission can't warrant a suit (AFAIK). The defendant can always argue that the omitted claim was irrelevant, or assumed known but not important enough, or out of scope or context, or even itself questionable enough to be un-includable without even more justification. If we ruled these excuses insufficient and we allowed such suits anyway, we would quickly flood the court with them, and nearly any article could be found punishable, and we'd find the suits correlating with "someone had an agenda opposed by the claim" much more than with "journalist was being deliberately deceptive". Ultimately, every journalist would clam the hell up (or find a black market), and there'd be little news to be found anywhere, even the stuff that's true enough to act on.
In a world where one type of deception can bring a formal response by secular law, and another type is effectively unassailable via the same means, it's worth making the distinction. I contend Scott has done so.
Notice I'm saying "via the same means". There are ways to deal with deception by omission, by misleading, etc., and there are even institutional pressures that arbitrarily block those ways, and I think there's changes worth making in those areas. But those ways still require acknowledging the distinction.
As a corollary, acknowledging that distinction will also mean acknowledging that both InfoWars and NYT commit sins of omission, because only then can one group of people with evidence of InfoWars making a sin of commission that NYT isn't, convey that information to the group of people who don't yet have it. The alternative is to yell "one's lying, the other isn't!". That language is so low in resolution, that it makes the former group of people look like they're being deceptive as well. In other words, for example, I see no way to make the case that InfoWars is worse than NYT (or WeeklyWorldNews is worse than WaPo, etc.), without also copping to the charge that NYT cannot be implicitly trusted.
I know I'm late to this conversation, and I haven't read all the comments to see if anyone has made this point yet, but I was reminded of this story from <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/11/23/503146770/npr-finds-the-head-of-a-covert-fake-news-operation-in-the-suburbs">NPR</a> from 2016. NPR actually went to the trouble of tracking now a Fake News (under the strictest definition) purveyor, and found this guy:
<blockquote><p>[Jestin] Coler is a soft-spoken 40-year-old with a wife and two kids. He says he got into fake news around 2013 to highlight the extremism of the white nationalist alt-right.</p>
<p>"The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction," Coler says.</p></blockquote>
Many more fascinating details at the link.
It occurs to me that fake news isn't just run for the clicks (as in the Macedonians) or however you want to characterize what InfoWars does. Some of it is a pretty straightforward effort at embarrassing your opponents, with a potentially large payoff. Let's say the FBI agent murder story (as detailed in this article) infiltrated a congressional candidate's talking points because some low-level researcher tasked with showing that Vince Foster was part of a weird and disturbing pattern found it and didn't vet the source, and his notes went to a speech-writer who then didn't double-check the researcher, and then the congressional candidate is saying something that isn't actually true, and then the mainstream media spend the rest of the campaign talking about it.
If anything, I'm disappointed that you're making this out to be a technical nit-picky point.
Most people seem to care passing judgement on media outlets for their morality, and If that is your goal, then sure, the a strictly literal definition of "lying" might be nit-picky.
But if your goal is to be able to be able to make sense of the world, then being able to tell the difference between outright lies, shoddy speculation, and misleading framing is a crucial skill.
We can reason through own analysis and model our own framing, but we're more or less reliant on outside sources for our raw facts, and the knowledge that we can _mostly_ trust those raw facts is extremely useful.
"I think this is pretty high, given that I had to read Jeremy’s comment several times before I realized what the error was supposed to be"
You must have aced calculus.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists thing appears to be a genuine miscommunication, not even a motivated misreading of facts or the like. The Bulletin talked to a bunch of the scientists MacAskill cited and five of them really did say that they didn't remember talking to him. This is because they were contacted by a member of his research team who didn't mention that the questions were for his book: they really gave the quotes, but didn't think they were giving them to him, for that.
Scott: <writes a third post in a series trying to explain the point better>
People: CA psychiatrist says that "the facts" used to spread MISINFORMATION were ACTUALLY TRUE
> Regardless of any of this, the point I’m trying to make with these posts is that the media, while doing all of 1 through 6 pretty often, very rarely does 7.
Why did you want to make this point though? I don’t think a significant number of readers learned something important or changed their minds about anything?
Regardless of the exact definition of lie used, this article has caused me to realise something I hadn't properly internalised before.
Most people - even otherwise very dishonest people - do actually have an subconscious aversion to just making things up completely.
Sadly, even the tiniest shred of evidence is enough to overcome this.
>Could I have saved myself some trouble if I had titled the post “The Media Very Rarely Says False Things”? Or “The Media Very Rarely Makes Up Facts”? I think people would have been equally annoyed that I was using “false things” or “make up facts” in a way that excludes technically-true-but-misleading statements.
That's because people are mainly complaining about your category, and only secondarily about your definition. "Makes up facts" is a category that doesn't carve reality at its joints very well--people find such a category much less useful than they find the category "lies". They are upset that you are applying a word for a useful category to a less useful category, but they are also upset that you are using a less useful category at all. Just changing the word you use doesn't change most of the complaint.
>Oh god, if saying there’s “no evidence” for something counts as a lie, then every media source in the country stands hopelessly condemned.
You seem to be saying "this example makes media lies common, so it doesn't count". A better conclusion is "media lies are common; this example demonstrates it."
(This is especially so since you've emphasized literal truth. If literally true means it's not a lie, and context doesn't count, "literally false" *must* mean "lie" and context can't count for that either. And it's literally false that there's no evidence.)
Reason a couple of hours ago posted something which connects to some of these comment threads (one in particular actually but Substack is being stupid and not letting me find it right now):
"How Do We Solve a Problem Like George Santos? The slippery slope of political fabulism, from the "Jew-ish" freshman representative to the president of the United States."
"numerous comments getting angry at me for saying that I was calling NYT exactly as bad as Infowars, and saying I was being deceptive / lying because of this. " - This is a clear sign of a) so. reading too many of this comments - ACX is a no lies-place, that is one reason we are here
b) having done a post that triggers sub-par comments (this one included). Which may happen. - About the NYT: was their hit-piece about Scott a lie (by his definition)?
A lie requires intent. "Intent" of pure talk - is usu. a hard tell. Why do we talk? Why do I write this comment?!? - I want media to be mostly right, not wrong. I hope.
Bigfoot-tabloids run on interviewing cranks? Disagree. We have (had when me young) one in Germany, too. (No, not BILD.) And we do not have enough people believing in alien-abduction/bigfoot/third eye (as in: a real third eye at the back of one's head). Still that tabloid brought out those stories every month. They were not lying but in the business of writing and selling a regular bigfoot-tabloid. Fiction. Same as Harry Potter. Same as the dozen or so of royalty/celeb-journals that need a dozen "stories" every fortnight; same as Barbara Cartland or Zane Grey. They do not do "research" or interviews, lol, grow up.
I don't understand how this point is confusing at all. Of course there's a meaningful distinction between "lying" and "saying true things in misleading ways". I get that it's pedantic but isn't a rationalist blog the place you're supposed to go for constructive pedantry?
> the point I’m trying to make with these posts is that the media, while doing all of 1 through 6 pretty often, very rarely does 7.
Fair enough, but does this distinction make enough of a difference ? Let's imagine two Bugmaster clones: one agrees with you, and the other believes that the media does #7 pretty often, as well. How will their behaviour differ (with respect to the media) ?
Based on https://twitter.com/Kantrowitz/status/1613168223054188545
(ChatGPT said that Musk was a Twitter CEO since 2021)
- very rarely persistently lies,
- but it is very obsequious, and so
- it makes up a story to show it is a good bot and
- has a lot of motivated cognition,
- it is not aware of where its own data comes from but
- it is good at rationalizing after the fact
Basically, it has a bunch of very human failings.
I had a sudden brilliant hypothesis in relation to this: "The media very rarely asserts anything (true or otherwise) other than quoting people." This explained exactly why they never lie, as the only lie would be literally making up quotes. Having concluded this, I opened today's Times to check my hypothesis...
And it was half write. The media makes factual assertions about events (as opposed to what people say about events) all the time. However, there is a pattern to the sorts of stories they do and don't report like this:
(I'll call statements such as "John Smith shot his wife" Direct Reports and "John Smith shot his wife, according to experts" Indirect Reports. All examples are from today's (London) Times.)
It's completely standard for Science/World News articles to use Direct Reports. For example, "President Putin is trying to pin the blame for his faltering Ukraine campaign on rogue Wagner mercenaries as he seeks to consolidate his power within a dwindling band of loyalists." There's no source cited either named or anonymous.
Articles about people being "told" to do things (e.g. "Hand out statins on demand, NHS told") aren't really news stories at all, their editorials printed in the "News" section by means of a friendly think tank/rent-a-quote.
Articles about politics are a mixture of Direct Reports of easily verifiable facts printed directly (eg. what's happening in the legislature), and Indirect Reports of everything else. There are few or no Direct Reports that you couldn't easily work out the source of.
Crime/Court Proceedings articles are mostly Indirect Reports, with Direct Reports interspersed.
Culture War articles are mostly Indirect Reports. Direct Reports only occur where they represent very simple analysis, e.g. "The shortlist for artist of the year is all male and four out of five nominees for album of the year are men."
Finance/Economics articles are all Indirect Reports, other than stock prices and indices.
In any articles, background information will often contain Direct Reports in places which violate the above rules. Looking at my own archive of "Newspaper is wrong" screenshots, these are often incredibly sloppy (eg "The poet participated in the feuding between the Guelphs, a mercantile family, and the Ghibellines, who were predominantly agricultural" or referring to Cecil Rhodes as a "19th Century slaveowner"). I'd give it 70% that these are just thick journalists, 30% that they consider this to be simplification as opposed to falsehood.
This broadly makes sense when you think about it - unless an article is written by an eye witness, the information in it must have come from somewhere. There's no reason not to tell you where it comes form, other than saving space.
I think the imporance of it is that if we accept (7) as the definition of a lie (which I'm happy with), newspapers really do very rarely lie. But the reason for this is that (7) can only apply to Direct Reports or inventing quotes, and Direct Reports just aren't a big feature of domestic journalism, and especially the sort of journalism where anyone would want to lie.
“If you’re 71% confident, and you falsely say you’re 72% confident, then you are lying.”
If that’s not just an offhand comment, and you really mean it, then by that definition every conscious agent who has ever lived or ever will live, aside from perhaps certain AI agents that may come to be, have lied and will lie again. And being in a media position would probably incentivize this kind of lying a lot; in fact many of your examples of media not lying but being deceptive or sloppy fit that category. Overstating one’s confidence is a common occurrence, hell I did it at the top of this post. People don’t usually provide artificially precise Bayesian confidence statements, but if pushed how many times will someone who says they’re “certain” about something back off from their certainty? From my own experience, I know a lot of those times I am in fact ginning up some kind of epistemic courage or feeling pressured to firmly state a belief that in my gut if I attend to it I will realize I have less confidence in that I’ve presented. And after that reflection, if it’s say a job interview, there’s a good chance I will stick to my inflated confidence.
Of course at this point this gets into the qualia of lying and deception, and from an outside perspective if you question someone’s confidence and they back down, it’s an ambiguous judgement call whether you think their initial confidence was on some level a lie or just a lack of reflection on the part of the overconfident one. Any given instance of this may be undetectable but it seems like the sort of thing that happens all the time.
It seems really predictable and obvious that the #7 type of lie would be rare in media reporting, since it's so incredibly easily avoidable. If you can just find literally any idiot to tell you exactly what you want to report, and then you can report it as the truth without technically "lying", then why would you NOT use that super convenient defense? Any 'evidence', any 'witness' is sufficient, and you can just make up a QED at the end. Wham, bam, now you're telling the truth.
I'm not really sure how this is a helpful distinction though; I don't think many people are surprised by the idea that most media misleads without committing to full-on #7 lies. You would have to have some pretty motivated anti-censorship cognition going, though, to conclude "technically they aren't lying in the most stringent sense possible, therefore censorship may not be as easy/effective as most people think". For those considering what sorts of 'news' should be censored or moderated away from certain places based on untruth, I imagine very few would consider #7 lies to be a unique subclass of offense, while everything else gets a pass. Outright lies are not a requirement for misinformation; I can find a source to tell me anything I want you to hear.
De gustibus non est disputandum sed solitarius postulatio rigoris.
Why I don't think this very strictest definition works:
Let's say I make up a fact and publish it. Technically, I don't *know* that it's false since I also made sure not to check - perhaps it just accidentally happens to be true. But it's ridiculous to claim that I'm not lying here. If *this* is the standard, then *of course* the media almost never "lies".
Speaking briefly to the John Buridan point about how we develop anti-conspiracy-theory antibodies, and inform our priors... the decisive moment of that for me was reading Michael Shermer's book "Why People Believe Weird Things", which explained at a level my high-school self could digest, all about cults and creationism and holocaust denial and whatnot - and then devoted several chapters to debunking them simply and effectively. The thought patterns that encouraged have been invaluable throughout life, because "knowing what the right questions to ask" in such situations is very much an art. It's a teachable art, but few people blunder upon it all on their own without help.
I heartily recommend the book to everyone's attention. Some things hold up really well over time.
great piece, I love this analysis of the press, lying, etc.
Are people doing some kind of emotional thing like... "I hate this #5 so much, more than a normal #5... so maybe it's really a #7"?
Getting rid of #7s from the media would leave the vast majority of the problem still in place. Does anyone really doubt that?
Part of the problem here is that "lie" is considered a bad thing, so when someone says something untrue and the listener hates them, said listener can describe the statement using the single-worst word in the "falsehood" Russell conjugation.
The example I had in mind is the large collection of falsehoods that the Nazis stated about the Jews. (Sorry for invoking Godwin's Law here). According to Scott's analysis, the Nazis were not lying about the Jews, since the Nazis believed every one of their antisemitic canards and conspiracy theories. They technically avoid definition #7. Yet we still commonly say that the Nazis lied about the Jews. Why? Because lying is bad and the Nazis were bad, and their falsehoods about the Jews were really egregious and defamatory. It might also be because we have actual, definition #7 examples of the Nazis lying (ie, Hitler promising that he had no further territorial claims on Czechoslovakia beyond the Sudetenland), but careful readers should still note that "The Nazis were liars" and "The Nazis lied about the Jews" are two different statements.
The expression "believe their own lies" shows that the word "lie" is commonly used outside of the strict definition #7 sense. I think that the common definition of "lie" is the union of definitions #6 and #7, and the most negative Russell conjugation of "falsehood" under definitions #2 - #5. When someone says "lie" under definitions #6 or #7, it can involve morally positive examples of lying (ie, a resistance member hiding Jews and lying about it to the Gestapo officer checking in on her house), but when someone says "lie" to describe something that fits into definitions #2 - #5, it is always to denounce.
I think people are generalizing from personal life where an individual has very specific knowledge about events and actions in their life making it hard to say something untrue without being more on the definite lie part of the spectrum to journalistic reporting and general worldview or model dependent ways of making sense of the world
There are two factors required to be able to report accurately. One is the skill to do so and another is the desire to do so. You often need a lot of both and it's easy to fall short one way or the other without consciously intending to. While telling the truth in personal life is rightly strongly held and therefore appealing to transfer on a one to one basis to people who are reporting on a wide variety of issues it just doesn't go one to one
Approximately nobody in the general media is motivated to lie when reporting about fusion experiments yet it's perfectly normal for me to see basic mistakes in fusion articles. You've heard net energy was achived? Big lie. The total energy balance was 1%. You've heard that and therefore fusion is clearly a dead end? Big misrepresentation. Anyone who knows the facts is poorly justified in saying that. The laser technology itself may be capable of 40x greater efficiency and there are other more readily commercialized designs that may actually reach a full net energy gain by 2030. In other words both of the primarily reported facts about the fusion energy gain experiment would be pretty easy to call lies if you thought they were wrong and thought that the reporters had a special bias towards giving inaccurate information about fusion
So now maybe you want to agree with that but also maybe you don't because it takes away the "Just Stop Lying" button that you could just keep pressing hard enough to escape from the Late Pre-truth Era. I have an answer for that. On Metaculus the current prediction for a 100 MW fusion reactor to come online is 2035. That's probably a very accurate piece of information that you won't hear in many other places
> In a perfect world, we would have separate words for all of these. In our own world, to save time and energy we usually apply a few pre-existing words to all of them.
After being distracted for entirely too long with this, I propose the following words for those 7 things:
1. veracinate - from latin verus (truth) and ratio (reason). reasoning truly.
2. misveracinate - now you've fucked up - but you were at least trying to reason truly
3. idioracinate - you're reasoning like an idiot or common man (latin roots)
4. karsioracinate - from the greek karsios (oblique) aka skewed reasoning
5. karsiocept or karsioceive - from latin capere (to take), it's unintentional deception via bias
6. veracept or veraceive - you're taking the truth from people, subverting them with facts
7. deceive - we dont need a new word for this.
But I bet Scott doesn't read the comments 2 days later...
Your 7 categories do not seem to include the most common of them all:
8. Being so certain of the Higher Truth that precise details don’t matter when they obscure that higher truth.
I raise this point because I suspect it drive almost all of this nonsense. Who CARES whether the police kill 15 or 5000 black men every year, “we all know it’s too many”. Who cares whether 1 in 3 or 1 in 300 women is raped, “we all know that all men are potential rapists”.
If you know the TRUTH then you are doing God’s work by limiting the ability of your readers to be distracted by irrelevant details that confuse the point.
The difference between 8 and 7 is that you don’t even believe you are making up something; you are simply reporting the reality and if facts say otherwise, well, soon enough we’ll realize those facts are in error.
We're a community with a self-selection bias that sorts for folks who fancy themselves smart (you know it's true, c'mon), and I hate to break it to you fellas but we have more specific words in English to cover all of these edge cases without blurring definitions. The first two that come to mind are duplicity and subreption.
I think that if we're going to strive towards goals like: cultivating sophistication, encouraging and preserving nuance and enhancing individual sovereignty, we've got to recognize when lazy colloquial language is doing harm to our ability to discuss a particular subject.
I can never keep up with all the comments on your great posts, so apologies if this was already posted as an example, but here's a clip from a CNN report where they are not just lying, but they are deliberately saying the exact opposite of what's actually happening. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfOcz--2AjE
The context is a gathering at a neighborhood vigil after a police shooting of a young man. There was rioting in response to the shooting. The deceased's sister is speaking to the crowd, and the CNN voiceover describes it as, "Smith's sister calling for peace...". The reality? She was encouraging the rioters to go riot in white neighborhoods. (They actually issued a mealy-mouthed apology for it: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/davidmack/cnn-sorry-for-not-airing-full-clip-of-milwaukee-sister).
I don't see how this can be interpreted as anything but a deliberate lie, and not just by selectively showing only one part of her words, which on its own would count as seriously misleading, but by characterizing it as they did, it shows a willingness to unabashedly lie to promote a desired narrative.
Scott, I think you are equivocating here. In section IV of your original post you said the point of this was to show that fighting misinformation was hard. How (for the most part), you couldn't get very far simply by removing posts from "liars saying completely false things".
However, if your threshold for labeling something "misinformation" and removing it is not only that what it says (or maybe even clearly implies) is blatantly false, but you also require that the author of the article didn't believe what they were saying at the time, it would be impossible to identify misinformation even if it were prevalent. I mean what do you expect Facebook to do, bring Alex Jones in to take a lie detector test every time InfoWars says something blatantly false?
Any reasonable argument in favor of censoring obvious misinformation is going to label something "misinformation" if it contains prominent claims that are blatantly false or maybe even if it is clearly designed to convince the reader of an obviously false claim. But in any case, your censor probably isn't going to care about the state of mind of the person who wrote the article. So if the ability of censorship to fight misinformation is what you really care about here, you shouldn't care about whether Alex Jones actually believes Obama's birth certificate is fake either.
I think the concept of intent may be part of the puzzle here. Notably, if you assume intent then probably you should assume positive intent, and then the test for lying becomes difficult to fail.
I wrote a related post here: https://pelorus.substack.com/p/does-intent-matter
I am still going to push back on this framing.
Tl;DR Making false facts is Thing 7 and misreported confidence is Egregious Thing 6, but only if a person is reasoning well. A person reasoning poorly can commit a Thing 4 at worst. But a poorly reasoning person can intentionally make false facts and overstate their confidence, recognizing that they are doing so. Merely noting someone's unreasonable state does not guarantee a lack of intentional deception. Furthermore, a deceiver can often exaggerate their unreasonableness to escape consequences.
You say in Section 8:
|3) Reasoning badly, because you are dumb.
|4) Reasoning badly, because you are biased, and on some more-or-less subconscious level not even trying to reason well.
|5) Reasoning well, having a clear model of the world in your mind, but more-or-less subconsciously and unthinkingly presenting technically true facts in a deceptive way that leaves other people confused, without ever technically lying.
|6) Reasoning well, having a clear model of the world in your mind, but very consciously, and with full knowledge of what you’re doing, presenting technically true facts in a deceptive way intended to make other people confused, without ever technically lying.
|7) Reasoning well, having a clear model of the world in your mind, and literally lying and making up false facts to deceive other people.
|...I prefer to reserve lying for 7 and the most egregious cases of 6
And in Section 2:
|I don’t want to say you’re allowed to sound more confident than you are. If you’re 71% confident, and you falsely say you’re 72% confident, then you are lying. But if you are very dumb, and seeing a random piece of toast makes you 100% confident that Obama’s birth certificate is false, and you vomit some random words to that effect onto a page, then you’re an idiot but not a liar.
I object to this because:
A) Many people simply do not reason well and have a clear model of the world in their mind when discussing controversial topics. Under this framing, a person who is sufficiently mindkilled cannot lie, even if creating a false claim from thin air.
For example, I recently learned that a friend, devastated by a breakup and trying to express her distress, uttered the words, "He raped me". Another friend took her at her literal word, and started to file a report. She immediately realized her mistake and tried to stop him. (There were no charges, but I don't know if she successfully prevented the initial filing.)
Suppose she had decided that her treatment was morally equivalent to rape and should be prosecuted, and had proceeded with the report. It would have been a mere "Thing 4", because her reasoning was compromised by emotion.
I think most intentional falsifications about the world involve a highly unreasonable individual. It can be very useful to distinguish a cold-blooded and hot-blooded deceptions, but unreasonable people can still intentionally deceive. If internal states matter, then the person's consciousness of their deception should be a major factor, even if they are also unreasonable.
B) Under this framing, a person can vastly reduce the apparent badness of a falsehood by merely pretending to have been reasoning poorly. Because we don't have access to peoples' thoughts we can rarely distinguish this. I think this is a major source of contention by the comment section, especially regarding InfoWars.
C) Unless I grievously misunderstand, the original framing was about moderating false reports such that only "lies" are removable. However, it is extremely difficult to determine whether someone is exaggerating their confidence by 1% (Egregious Thing 6). It takes very little bias for a person to overstate their confidence, and (as in B) even if somehow caught, one can escape moderation by blaming poor reasoning. Even in the case of explicit Bayesian reasoning, you could nudge the priors or introduce a subtle math error, and if needed pretend it was because you made a mistake (Thing 3). This form of lie is effectively unaccountable.
I wonder if there should be a term for the absence of Gell-Mann Amnesia. I just read an article about a subject I had personal knowledge of, and it was surprisingly fair and accurate.
Although what's even weirder is one time last year when I read an article on a topic close to me and it was overall fair and accurate but had one offhand statement that was completely false. It was kind of baffling how that could even happen, and it wasn't ideological or bias or anything either. Presumably, the source for the article just misremembered something and they didn't bother to check.
I found an example of Scott using "lie" to mean exactly what he says isn't a lie here. :) From an old SSC post, discussing the media: https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/09/11/book-review-manufacturing-consent/
As per Chomsky, this was rarely done by direct lies, in the form of front page “EVERYTHING FINE IN GUATEMALA, SAY SOURCES”
By Scott's current definition, if there are indeed sources who are willing to say "Everything fine in Guatemala," that would not constitute "direct lies."
I think the fundamental issue is sentences of the following format:
"[completely false assertion]," said [totally dishonest person], who studies [general field of knowledge that the dishonest person told reporter he studies and which relates to the completely false assertion].
Under Scott's current definition, as long a newspaper accurately quotes a source, it's never a lie. So you could have a lengthy article consisting 100% of false assertions, but so long as they are attributed to the people who said them, the article has not lied.
The problem is, there are 8 billion people on the planet, and you can find someone to say *anything*. And even Scott in 2015 called things like this "lies."