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This is the archive for August 2008

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

There's three ways somebody can lie to you: They can make a statement that is factually untrue; they can make a statement that is factually true but place it in a context that makes its meaning untrue; and they can be a stopped clock.

The first is a child's lie. "No, I didn't take a cookie out of the cookie jar." This kind of lie is subject to objective refutation, and is mostly avoided by the most sophisticated liars.

The second is much more sophisticated. It is context that provides the meaning for any statement, and a factual statement placed in the wrong context becomes a non-factual statement.

"George Bush is just like Hitler". What is the context of that statement? There is none, so you are left to fill in your own context, and most people would assume the context in which those two figures are most often discussed, that of being the top leader of a country. Leaving the context undefined, implying the widest possible context, is often a form of lie, when it isn't just the result of sloppy speaking.

But it's a factually correct statement, given the right context. Bush is of the species Homo Sapiens. So was Hitler. Of course, that context is one nobody would bother working in. There are policies Bush has pursued that are similar enough to some policies Hitler pursued that the statement could be considered factually correct in the narrow context of those policies as well. But that still leaves the statement in full context of the leadership of a country untrue.

A stopped clock is right twice a day. But still, even on those two minutes each day when it, through sheer coincidence, is reporting the correct time, it is lying to you. Coincidental correspondence to fact is not the same thing as truth.

You have no way to know when the stopped clock is right. You know that for 1438 minutes of the day it is lying, and for two minutes it is correct, but the only way you can know which two minutes are the correct ones is to trust that the clock is always giving the correct time. If you always checked it against another clock, the first clock's statements about the time would be redundant and useless. Once a clock's veracity is determined, it becomes its own standard of truth.

Until it is caught in a lie, that is. From that point on, everything it says has to again be considered a lie. An intelligent and malicious clock, one determined to mislead you about the real time, would realize that it could occasionally give you the correct time, yet still be providing misleading information. The bonus is that if you called it out on one of those statements, it could claim "See, I was telling the truth.". And a really clever clock could claim that the time it gave was correct, in some context other than the one you assumed it was working in. The time was correct in Singapore, so technically, the clock wasn't lying. But now you know that it is always lying.