When facts aren’t false — but not true either

My MinnPost.com colleague Eric Black recently posted a very well-researched piece, “Palin’s phony claim.”  Eric’s analysis of GOP claims that Palin said “Thanks, but no thanks” to the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” takes us down into the weeds of the issue. Good reporting, but there’s a much larger issue with far greater ramifications than the truth or fallacy of Palin’s claim.

Eric may recall back in October of 2006, when he was with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he was interviewed by radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. The topic was DFL congressional candidate Patty Wetterling’s campaign ad claiming that Republican congressional leaders had admitted to knowing about licentious email sent by Rep. Mark Foley to congressional pages.

Hewitt made the point that Wetterling’s statement was false, that no such admission had been made. Eric agreed, but said one couldn’t call Wetterling’s statement a “lie” (as Hewitt was) without knowing the intent behind it. At the time I blogged (which Eric may not remember) that Eric’s willingness to give Wetterling the benefit of the doubt on lying missed the point. Regarding Eric’s recent post “Palin’s phony claim,” he’s a lot closer to getting it right — but he’s not quite there.

What’s the intent?
The intent of the Wetterling ad was to heighten the impression of wrong-doing on the part of Republicans. The intent of the McCain campaign’s claim that as governor of Alaska Sara Palin “killed the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ project” is to heighten the impression of Palin as a maverick reformer standing against Washington pork barrel spending. In both examples, it ultimately doesn’t matter to either camp whether their statements are true or false. As long as claims are plausible, possibly even accurate (if not precise), and create the correct impression, they are justified. That’s neither lying nor being phony; it’s bullshit  — and philosophically speaking, such B.S. is more dangerous to the truth than is lying.

Retired Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt has made a retirement career out of an insightful little book aptly titled “On Bullshit.” In it he writes B.S. is a misrepresentation short of an actual lie. To avoid the consequences of the truth, a liar makes a specific false statement, replacing truth with fabrication. A person cannot tell a lie unless he knows what the truth is and what its impact is. B.S. on the other hand, is indifferent to the truth. That’s what makes it so insidious.

Frankfurt is not advocating that somehow slinging the bull is morally superior to lying. Rather, he makes the case that B.S. serves a different purpose. Lying hides the fact that the speaker is not telling the truth. B.S. hides the fact that the truth is of no importance. A statement might contain fact, but the use of facts is meant to create an impression that is not necessarily connected with reality. The fault lies not in getting something wrong, says Frankfurt, but in not even trying to get it right.

Eric’s piece on the Palin claim to having stopped the “Bridge to Nowhere” gets close to that point when he writes:

“In the great scheme this is a small episode, and other examples of Palin claims to a reformer’s reputation are more substantial. But the McCainiacs’ continuing use of and defense of the phony bridge claim says something about Team McCain’s commitment to straight talk.”

Finding fault
But Eric weaves off track when he implies motives to the McCain campaign (as he was off track when he said one needed to know Wetterling’s “intent” before judging whether statement was a “lie”). He writes: “By doubling down and then tripling (with an ad) on a false statement, the McCain campaign seems to be saying: Let the fact-checkers, with their puny audiences, say what they want. We don’t need no stinkin’ facts. We have gross rating points.”

As Eric notes, the “Bridge to Nowhere” is a small episode. It’s not something worth lying about, and the McCain folks aren’t lying or thinking of it as a phony example. The fault of the McCain campaign in this instance, and one can find equally egregious examples in the Obama camp, is not that they got their facts wrong; it’s that they didn’t even think to get them right. And therein lies the particular insidiousness of B.S.

Not trying to get it right is what leads to “facts” that “justify” waging preemptive war and “statistics” that justify nationalizing the health care industry. A desired outcome is determined, and then facts are used like a drunk uses a streetlight — for support not for illumination. We have a political culture where politicians and policymakers don’t just get it wrong; they don’t even try to get it right.

And that’s why B.S. stinks, and that attitude, not the details of the death of the “Bridge to Nowhere,” is what needs to be exposed and cleaned up.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Tom Peterson on 09/15/2008 - 01:11 pm.

    I have been following stories on the general topic of “The Post-Fact Society” and I find Craig’s piece to be spot on. Thanks for emphasizing the importance to and for all us in “getting it right,” or at least making a serious attempt at it.

  2. Submitted by Craig Westover on 09/18/2008 - 09:21 am.

    Britt, Tony –

    It was Adlai Stevenson who sought “the vote of everything thinking individual – plus a few more so he could have a majority.” I hope to find the same “thoughtful” audience here and fare better than Stevenson.

    To paraphrase another aphorism, “Expose examples of bullshit, and a person knows more today; teach a person what bullshit is, and he is wiser forever.”

    When in the heat of the campaign, examples of bullshit arise, it’s not enough to simply expose them from a partisan view, especially for those of us in a position to define “teachable moments.” If a disregard for the truth were simply characteristic of some candidates or a specific political party, it wouldn’t matter nearly so much. It would be excised from the body politic by the surgery of public opinion. But a disregard for seeking the truth is so prevalent today, so integrated into our way of viewing the world, we feel justified in using bullshit to battle bullshit – and rationalize with an “the end justifies the means” arguement until we no longer realize we are rationalizing and have become the very thing we oppose.

    Indeed, let’s go back to the “John McCain votes 95 percent of the time with President Bush” claim. McCain has responded to that charge by pretty much running from it and distancing himself from Bush with the maverick image. In the last election, Mark Kennedy ran from the charge. Norm Coleman in this election is doing the same thing. They do this with, frankly, a lot of bullshit, trying to spin their voting records, instead of standing up to the claim and saying, “Yup, and I’ll defend every one of those votes on principle, and when I haven’t voted with Bush here is the principle I’m standing on. So, damn it, get specific.” Instead, they are fighting bullshit with bullshit and don’t even know it.

    That’s what my argument is all about. Some, perhaps a majority, will continue to pounce on every exaggerated bit of rhetoric and label it a “lie” for partisan advantage – and sometimes they will be right. But my hope is that someone, preferably on the offending side, will stand up and say, “Hey, that’s bullshit and here’s why.”

    Or we can keep putting lipstick on apartisan pig.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/15/2008 - 01:56 pm.

    Good points!
    Something about creating your own reality?

  4. Submitted by Tom Poe on 09/15/2008 - 02:11 pm.

    Test for Craig:

    McCain, for decades, has voted NO on any and all veterans issues bills. Some say he suffers from PTSD, and it is manifested through his belief that he is a member of an exclusive club. His votes are intended to cause as much suffering of veterans as he suffered as a POW. In other words, if a veteran really wants to call herself a veteran, she should suffer as he did.

    So, Craig, after looking up McCain’s voting record (hopefully, you went at least two decades back), is the above B.S., or truth, or lies?

    Maybe we need to have your contribution of a post/article discussing what your psychiatrist networking contacts have to say about this. I’d love to read their quotes. I’ll bet voters would like to know about their republican candidate, as well.

  5. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/16/2008 - 09:58 am.

    “Not with a bang, but a whimper” (Eliot)…

    If we’re going down, let it not be with a ‘whimper’ but a ‘bang’…and let the Titanic play its own tunes, be it “Nearer My God to Thee” or “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, as historically suggested.

    I’m playing the late, great Professor Long Hair, “Who’s Foolin’ Who”, for starters.

    Now, what was the original dialectic for this fine article?

  6. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/16/2008 - 07:25 am.

    If a Lie performs its misconceptions in order to deceive, and activates that lie in the public arena, it cannot be shrugged off as rhetorical excrement. It is more deadly than B.S.

    Try a more generous indictment. Call it propaganda.

    There is a bridge of lies supporting this administration and dangerously sold, and continues to be sold, as ‘truth’.

    How many men and women; ours and theirs, have died for belief in a lie raised to its highest form of deception?

    Can’t shrug this one off as mere B.S. be it the lies, the rhetoric of intentional deception; be its perpetrators, the Bush administration or its campaigning party hopefuls.

    Call it by the more generous indictment. Call it propaganda.

  7. Submitted by John Olson on 09/16/2008 - 07:49 am.

    Whether a statement by any candidate is 23 percent B.S., or 87.5 percent B.S. (or anywhere else on a scale of 0 to 100), it still has the same aroma. And the stench seems to increase when any given candidate’s handler or mouthpiece is dispatched to deliver it. And, of course, the olfactory nerves of a “red” voter are distinctively different from that of a “blue” voter.

    As an increasingly cranky voter who–like many other Minnesotans–is a notorious ticket-splitter and is watching his family’s modest investments get whacked, this election cycle has got to be at or near a new all-time low. In case the candidates and their minions haven’t noticed, the economy is unraveling in front of us and the world 24/7 and there seems to be more interest in bovines and lipstick.

    This may be a wonderful esoteric discussion for some, but given the larger issues confronting this nation at present, I would liken it to arguing about the musical selections of the orchestra after dessert has been served on the Titanic.

  8. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 09/15/2008 - 07:27 pm.

    I second Britt’s post above and would love to see further discussion on it. Equating a fairly blatant false claim by the McCain campaign to Black’s Wetterling comments from 2006 seems like both a “gotcha” on a colleague and a “both sides are doing it”-type defense.

    I applaud the idea of rooting out the causes of this problem in American political discourse, but implying that the McCain campaign isn’t at fault, but rather the underlying “attitude” of political B.S. is, seems to further excuse McCain’s very specific behavior in the present moment. Which doesn’t seem like a very good way of beginning to reform the B.S. or lying behavior in question!

    Let’s be diligent in covering the B.S. and lies of all politicians, but with election day just around the corner, let’s not lose focus of context. The McCain campaign B.S. is NOT the same as the Obama campaign B.S., nor is it of equivalent immediacy as Wetterling’s past B.S. No B.S. should be forgotten, but not all past instances should be trotted out for sake of “equivalency” either.

  9. Submitted by Craig Westover on 09/17/2008 - 06:54 am.

    Britt –

    I agree with your attitude on “equivalence,” usually portrayed as “journalistic objectivity,” the presenting of all arguments as if they carried equal weight. But equivalence is not the issue here. Nor is the concept of “bullshit” a partisan issue on which we keep score. That one side may be “doing it more often and/or insidiously” is a partisan question, but the lesser of two evils is still evil. Turning the discussion into a partisan issue negates the point while proving it.

    Your assumption that I was referring to illegal aliens when talking about “health care statistics” is a case in point. Illegal aliens never crossed my mind. I was referring to references used to justify universal health care as a policy – statements like “50 percent of all personal bankruptcies are caused by medical expenses” and references to longevity and infant mortality rates. Briefly, here’s how that bullshit works.

    It is true that “50 percent of all personal bankruptcies are caused by medical expenses.” But the same study in which that figure is found states that medical bankruptcies affect about 2 million people a year including spouses and dependents. Now that is a lot of people, but it is less than 1 percent of the population. “Fifty percent,” however, sounds more frightening if one is pushing for a government take-over of health care. A prudent policymaker would not change an entire system to solve a problem affecting less than 1 percent of the population. He or she would address the 1 percent.

    The misuse of longevity statistics to support the notion that the United States has an inferior health care system argument goes, the United States spends more on health care than other countries (including Japan) and has a lower average expected life span; therefore we have an inferior health care system. But if the health care system were the issue in longevity, one would expect that Japanese in the United States would have a shorter life expectancy than those living in Japan. In fact, that is not the case – they are about the same.

    In the United States we spend a great deal of money sacing babies with very low birth weights. Many of those babies die despite the extraordinary effort and many have lasting (and costly) health problems attributable to low birth weight. In European countries low birth weight babies are declared, “still born.” This is more than a bookkeeping distinction. The policy question is, in a government-run system, who chooses whether or not to take extraordinary and expensive measures to save a low birth weight baby? Someone with an interest in maintaining an efficient system or a family and its doctor?

    Your illegal immigrant example raises two points. First, it is a segue into a more concrete example of bullshit about McCain’s voting record; second it illustrates how bullshit spawns the very dangerous “the ends justify the means” argument.

    That McCain votes 95 percent of the time with the Bush Administration is an accurate statement. The premise of the argument, however, is that Bush is always wrong or always evil therefore McCain must also always be wrong or always be evil. The truth lies in examining individual positions. Immigration is one case in point. Essentially, McCain agrees with Bush on immigration and their position is pretty close to that of Democrats. So, in this case, McCain is being knocked for a position very close to that of Democrats simply because it agrees with Bush.

    Or take the concept of preemptive war. The idea that Bush “lied” to get us into war camouflages the mutual acceptance of both Republicans and Democrats that under some circumstances preemptive, undeclared war is valid policy. Really? Is that in the Constitution somewhere? Why aren’t we having the latter debate instead of “rationalizing” partisan positions?

    Which brings us back to your defense of Obama’s supposed use of bullshit on the illegal immigration question. Bullshit facilitates the “ends justify the means” argument to defend partisan positions. It spawns notions like one side is doing it more and/or more insidiously. That’s not the point. Lying to each other is one thing; bullshit is more insidious because by doing it, by rationalizing that the end justifies the means, we are “lying” to ourselves. Treating the concept of bullshit as a partisan issue only ensures that we will bullshit our way into more ill conceived actions. If the discussion is framed in partisan terms, it goes for naught.

  10. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 09/17/2008 - 05:10 pm.

    Following this discussion, it seems like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Saying that the problem goes deeper than any candidate, campaign, or party is basically excusing what an individual candidate, campaign, or party does in the present election cycle. Yet according to Mr. Westover, if we distinguish between B.S. based on any of the above factors, we are ignoring the root causes and encouraging more B.S.

    I think Westover’s point is largely correct as applied to partisan B.S. detectors (i.e. partisan blogs focused on “exposing” Bush, Minnesota Democrats, etc.), maybe even certain statements of partisan-leaning journalists like Black, and may be applicable to this period of American political history in general. But it seems largely inapplicable to independent observers — certainly a nonpartisan like myself or a truly independent media source should be able to gauge degrees and intent of B.S. coming from different sources, correct? To judge them both equally would not only seem unfair to the Obama campaign at this point, but would also seem to ignore the effectiveness of McCain’s tactics as compared to Obama’s.

  11. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 09/19/2008 - 11:37 am.

    Mr. Westover,

    So you want a mass of Republicans or Democrats to come out and condemn the B.S. behavior of their candidate, party, or campaign? How do you realistically propose that is going to happen? That’s some utopian ideal of political behavior, but I certainly could get behind it. I think voters would need a viable 3rd-party candidate as an alternative to make this even a possibility, though, and that is going to take a lot of work in its own right.

    In the meantime, I don’t think we can simply ignore it when a campaign tells a lie or tries to B.S. us, nor should we treat them all as equal when one campaign or candidate does it more frequently, more blatantly, and (regrettably) more effectively than the other.

    Frankly, maybe it’s a result of low standards, but I’m reasonably impressed when a candidate and his/her surrogates are polite, free from attack ads, and generally not trying to deceive me, even if I disagree with their policies and motives. I definitely prefer that over the recent McCain strategy, even if the two camps are born from one common political culture that could use major reform anyway. Seeking the lesser of two evils, or avoiding the evil of two lessers, seems like the only realistic strategy until we can genetically engineer a charismatic cross between Ron Paul and Ralph Nader.

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