I had a conversation the other day about a man who sued a company (for a Macguffin claim unimportant to this narrative). Just as his attorney was about to reach a settlement deal with the company, the man was hospitalized and, suddenly, died. When the company asked the attorney why settlement talks stopped so abruptly, he replied: "my client was hospitalized."
This was not of itself a lie. His client was hospitalized. But it wasn't the whole truth. It was a carefully-worded selection of the truth which the lawyer cherry-picked to conceal the more important fact that client had died. "My client was hospitalized," while accurate, deliberately implies the lie: "but he is still alive." And it's hard to hold someone accountable for lying by implication. Not a huge surprise that this came from a lawyer.
There is another great example of this on the TV show Arrested Development. There is a reoccurring character on the show, a doctor who perpetually emerges from an emergency room to announce the status of the patient to the waiting cast of characters, who becomes infamous for his deceptive statements. After life-or-death surgery on a character who (for reasons I will not get into) has painted himself blue, the doctor announces to the family: "It looks like he's dead." He later clarifies: "it looks like he's dead, he's covered in blue paint or something." Another time he operates on a character who had been attacked by a wild animal and announces: "He's going to be all right." He later clarifies: "he's lost his left hand, so he's going to be all right." A third time he says: "We lost him. He just got away from us. I'm sorry." The family enters the room only to discover the patient has escaped. Each time he uses a small, incomplete truth to (inadvertently) tell a bigger lie.
All of this, along with Mark Twain's line that "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics," was fresh in my mind during last night's State of the Union speech, as there were several data points President Obama announced that performed precisely this sort of bait-and-switch. USA Today made a decent list of half-truths in their fact check, but I'm going to pick on the one that leapt out at me during the speech. The President made the following statement:
Taken together, our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet. Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.
We start with the fact stated: "The United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth." This is the "my client was hospitalized," the "we lost him. He just got away from us" statement. It is technically true. But what does it imply? While the lawyer implied that his client was alive and the TV doctor that his patient was dead, the President implied the United States' businesses and government are targeting carbon reduction and getting more drastic results than any other country. But let's look at the bigger picture:
Few other countries even come close to emitting the amount of carbon dioxide that the U.S. does. The U.S. improvement results are different when the reduction amount is measured by the percentage change.
So the Little Truth is that "the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth," the Implied Lie is that the United States' government and businesses are targeting carbon reduction and getting more drastic results than any other country, but the Whole Truth is that not only does the US trail dozens of other countries in its relative emissions reduction, but much of our own reduction is the result of the decrease in activity caused by the recession, and we continues to be one of the largest polluters on Earth by a long shot.
I won't go blow-by-blow through every time the President used this technique in the State of the Union-- not because it isn't worth examining, but because the tactic is endemic to persuasive discussion, whether it's politics or law or anything else. Examine the implications behind statements! I suppose that is my lesson for today.
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