3 min read

When It's Not Lying, It's Often Paltering

Recently, I was discussing some disinformation about the pandemic with a few colleagues who work in science communication. We were looking at an online argument about whether or not a misleading book about the pandemic contained actual factual errors or simply presented facts in a selective, misleading way. This distinction is important in a lot of debates because it's very easy to paint a misleading picture without directly lying.

What I didn't know was that this type of deception has a name: "paltering."

A paper defining the term begins this way:

A lie involves three elements: deceptive intent, an inaccurate message, and a harmful effect. When only one or two of these elements is present we do not call the activity lying, even when the practice is no less morally questionable or socially detrimental. This essay explores this area of "less-than-lying," in particular intentionally deceptive practices such as fudging, twisting, shading, bending, stretching, slanting, exaggerating, distorting, whitewashing, and selective reporting. Such deceptive practices are occasionally called "paltering," which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as acting insincerely or misleadingly.

This practice will be familiar to anyone who has watched C-SPAN. A lot of political discourse — often driven by lobbyists and lawyers — is based on assembling a collection of persuasive-sounding, at-least-narrowly-true statements that are meant to guide the audience to a particular position.

For instance, it's true that "guns don't kill people, people do" but it's also true that "people with guns can kill lots of people at once." Gun reform advocates would simply argue the latter point is more important for the purpose of legislation.

More precisely, in the climate debate, climate contrarians will sometimes claim that water vapor is the most common heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere. This is true, but no one is mining water-vapor-producing rocks and liquids from below the earth's surface for energy and transportation. Instead, carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and destroying tropical forests is the main cause of climate change.

In the abstract, conservatives will often object to policies because they have "unintended consequences." This is true, but literally every policy has some unintended consequence, as does a lack of policy or maintaining a status quo policy.

This distinction between lying and paltering is also important for disputes about factchecking and journalism. A politician can give a virulently racist speech about immigrants, replete with lurid tales of violence, all of which can withstand narrow factchecking. But the tacit message — that immigrants are intrinsically bad or violent — is obviously wrong.

More recently, researchers and journalists have disputed the editorial choices involved in yet another high profile magazine story questioning gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth.

This exchange is illustrative: it may be narrowly true to say that a study didn't find a link between a variable and an outcome, but that doesn't mean a study was even capable of finding such a link.

Other journalists have weighed in on a general defense of the essay from its writer and editor to point out that framing choices and choosing which facts to focus on are obvious editorial choices, often walking up to or past the line of advocacy.

Bigger picture, at a time when conservative politicians are instituting extremely bigoted, anti-trans policies that result in violence against trans people, it's hard to justify a national news outlet with money, time and resources to produce yet another story just-asking-questions about gender-affirming care. The public interest would be better served by accountability reporting focused on the reactionaries who are trying to harm trans people and the negative consequences of today's anti-trans policies.

As science communication researcher Dietram Scheufele has put it: "There is no such thing as an unframed message."

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