Skip to content
 

It’s not “lying” exactly . . . What do you call it when someone deliberately refuses to correct an untruth?

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens tells the story. First the background:

On Thursday I interviewed Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo on a public stage . . . There was one sour moment. Midway through the interview, Pompeo abruptly slammed The New York Times for publishing the name last month of a senior covert C.I.A. officer, calling the disclosure “unconscionable.” The line was met with audience applause. I said, “You’re talking about Phil Agee,” and then repeated the name. . . . My startled rejoinder was not a reference to the covert C.I.A. officer unmasked by The Times, but rather a fumbled attempt to refer to the law governing such disclosures. Philip Agee, as Pompeo and everyone in the audience knew, was the infamous C.I.A. officer who went rogue in the 1970s, wrote a tell-all memoir, and publicly identified the names of scores of C.I.A. officers, front companies and foreign agents. His disclosures led Congress in 1982 to pass the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, a.k.a. the “Anti-Agee Act,” which made it a federal crime to reveal the names of covert agents. Agee died in Havana in 2008.

Then came the false statement directed at Stephens:

Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media, tweeted that I had [disclosed the name of a covert officer].

“CIA Dir Pompeo calls out @NYTimes for publishing name of an UNDERCOVER CIA agent,” he wrote on his official Twitter account, adding, “Just as disgraceful? @BretStephensNYT REPEATS name 2x’s!” He also posted a brief clip of the exchange — but muted my voice when I mentioned Agee.

Stephens elaborates:

This was nasty, manipulated and false, but it wasn’t necessarily a lie.

Why not necessarily a lie? Stephens explains:

If Scavino had never heard of Agee, didn’t know the name of the C.I.A. officer whose name was published by The Times and didn’t bother to fact check before tweeting, he might have inferred from my reply that I had indeed done what he alleged. That’s a plausible surmise about a White House where the line between idiocy and malice isn’t always clear.

“The line between idiocy and malice isn’t always clear” . . . that reminds be a bit of Clarke’s law, relating to the fine line between scientific incompetence and scientific fraud. At what point does the refusal to admit incompetence become a kind of fraud? I’m not sure.

But I digress. Let’s return to Stephens:

To give Scavino the benefit of the doubt, I asked the C.I.A. spokesman to set him straight. I also rebutted his claim on Twitter, emailed and left messages with him on his private number, and wrote the new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, at his personal email address.

And what was the response from the government of the most powerful nation in the world?

No acknowledgment. No response. The tweet has not been deleted. The C.I.A. has not publicly corrected the record. The White House is knowingly allowing Scavino’s falsehood to stand. That’s called lying — which, as Pompeo might say, is “unconscionable.”

So here’s my issue. I don’t think Stephens is quite right that Scavino is “lying” when he refuses to admit his error. I agree that Scavino’s action is morally equivalent to lying, but it’s something different.

Here’s the definition of “lie” according to Merriam-Webster:

1 : to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive . . .

2 : to create a false or misleading impression . . .

Definition 2 suggests that you can lie “by accident,” as it were. I guess we’ll never know if Scavino’s original statement was a purposeful lie or just aggressive ignorance: “The line between idiocy and malice isn’t always clear” and all that.

Is there a term for Scavino’s follow-up behavior, where he deliberately avoids correcting an error that he is responsible for? I didn’t like it when David Brooks did it, but Scavino’s behavior is arguably even worse, in that he’s lying about a specific person rather than just refusing to correct false statistics. I’m wondering this because something similar recently happened to me (on a much much less important topic).

P.S. I’m kinda liking the term “misrepresent” rather than “lie” as it’s more general and seems to work ok in the after-the-fact sense.

For example:

– David Brooks misrepresented statistics on high school achievement; this misrepresentation was originally unintentional (I assume) but then he intentionally avoided correcting the false numbers.

– Satoshi Kanazawa misrepresented the information from a survey in order to draw a scientifically unwarranted conclusion about beauty and sex ratio; after his statistical errors were pointed out to him, he refused to alter his published views. This continuing misrepresentation was intentional but it could be explained by his continuing to not understand some of the subtle statistical principles involved.

– Susan Fiske misrepresented my writing when she wrote that Ulrich Schimmack and I implied that the entire field of psychology is inept and misguided; after this error was pointed out, the journal where it was published refused to correct it. Fiske’s original misrepresentation may have been a simple sloppy error (“the line between idiocy and malice isn’t always clear”) but the journal’s refusal to correct it was an intentional act of misrepresentation.

– Brian Wansink misrepresented his data and data-collection procedures in many published papers. It is not clear to what extent these misrepresentations arose from sloppiness, confusion, or intent to deceive. When these errors were pointed out, Wansink minimized them, thus misrepresenting the large problems they represented for his published work.

– Dan Scavino misrepresented Bret Stephens’s words in a particularly malicious way. It’s not clear if the initial misrepresentation was intentional, but Scavino intentionally perpetuated the misrepresentation by not correcting it.

– That character in Dear Evan Hansen (spoiler alert!) misrepresents his relationship with that other kid. The misrepresentation was a mistake at first but becomes intentional when Evan avoids opportunities to correct it.

In general, when people misrepresent evidence and their mistakes are pointed out to them, they can choose to acknowledge and correct the error, to do a minimal correction or quasi-denial that perpetuates the misrepresentation, to just duck the issue entirely, or to double down on the misrepresentation by going on the offensive. Any option but the first is an active misrepresentation. Even if the original error was an honest mistake, it’s misrepresentation to perpetuate it.

As the Evan Hansen example illustrates, correcting a misrepresentation can be difficult and awkward, it can hurt people’s feelings. There can be good reasons to misrepresent evidence, just as there can be good reasons to lie. Marc Hauser might well have felt that, in misrepresenting his monkey data, he was serving a higher truth. That’s fine: misrepresent if you feel that’s the right thing to do. But let’s be honest and admit that’s what people are doing. Dan Scavino is following in the footsteps of Winston Churchill who famously said that “in wartime truth is so precious that she should be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

29 Comments

  1. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Well, it’s malfeasance because Scavino is a public official, but that doesn’t help for a general term for “not correcting the record when you have an opportunity to do so and you know the original record is incorrect.”

    • Andrew says:

      Jonathan:

      Yeah, there should really be a word for this! I’d kind of like to go with Stephens and just call it lying, but that doesn’t seem quite right. It’s really bad in this case—accusing a reporter of repeating the name of an undercover agent—but in a milder version I see it in science all that time, with scientists who make mistakes and then then spend years bobbing and weaving to avoid looking at their errors in the face.

  2. AnonAnon says:

    Perhaps negligent misrepresentation from tort law? That is the CIA Director Mike Pompeo “carelessly makes a representation while having no reasonable basis to believe it to be true.” That is, someone in his position should know about Phil Agee and as such he has no reasonable basis to believe his statement

    “CIA Dir Pompeo calls out @NYTimes for publishing name of an UNDERCOVER CIA agent,” he wrote on his official Twitter account, adding, “Just as disgraceful? @BretStephensNYT REPEATS name 2x’s!” He also posted a brief clip of the exchange — but muted my voice when I mentioned Agee.

    to be true.

  3. Hal says:

    He continues to spread the falsehood via the existence of the tweet to new audience while being completely aware it is false.

    He may not have lied by some shifty definition when he originally typed, refusing to delete is /exactly/ the same as continuing to state it. He has a machine repeating it. He knows this. This is a clearly a lie by any meaningful definition of that word. The man is clearly a liar. Exactly the same as if he were to keep saying it out loud after knowing it to be entirely false. Don’t over think it. Don’t look for benefit of doubt when there is none. Lies are lies. He has a machine repeating something he knows to be a lie he has decided not to switch off. This is the unconscionable conduct of a pathological liar who now has zero credibility and should be referred to as a liar henceforth every single time he is quoted in public life.

    The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

  4. Daniel Hawkins says:

    What about the good old “lying by omission,” since that includes failing to correct a misconception? It’s not a one-word description, but it fits! (Surely German has a word for this?)

    • Daniel Hawkins says:

      Or perhaps prevarication, which is much broader than this, but contains the overall sense of “evading the truth.” However, prevarication definitely has the sense of active deception, (much like the scientists you mentioned who bob and weave), rather than simply allowing a misconception to persist.

    • Andrew says:

      Daniel:

      See P.S. added above. I’m liking the term “misrepresent.” It’s a bit awkward, I feel that it captures the intentionality without being quite the same thing as “lie.”

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        I suggest “neglect of due diligence”. Or “willful neglect” or “willful negligence”

      • jrc says:

        Maybe “misrepresenting” is how they do it, but what they do is “disinform” in an attempt to “delude” us. I dunno. But none of these things is the actual act of “not coming back and admitting the error or correcting the record.”

        Based on Wiki, I think what they are doing is called “deflecting”

        Deflecting: Avoiding the subject that the lie is about, not giving attention to the lie. When attention is given to the subject the lie is based around, deflectors ignore or refuse to respond. Skillful deflectors are passive-aggressive people, who when confronted with the subject choose to ignore and not respond.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lie#Deflecting

        • Andrew says:

          Jrc:

          “Deflecting,” yes, that’s good. But this doesn’t fully capture the idea that the deflecting is in support of a lie (or, an untruth that reaches “lie” status once the untruth is revealed).

  5. Alex Gamma says:

    If it’s “morally equivalent” to lying, the word used for it should convey the same weight of moral blameworthiness as the term “lying”. I’m not a native speaker, but the terms suggested so far don’t seem to me to do that.

  6. Keith O'Rourke says:

    Maybe this background on omission suggested earlier might be helpful –
    “word omission means: ‘a failure to act’ that means when a person is bound to do or act but he omits to do that or deliberately neglects it, it’s called omission” from https://www.lawteacher.net/free-law-essays/tort-law/omission-means-a-failure-to-act.php

  7. A. Donda says:

    “I’d never lie. I wilfully participated in a campaign of misinformation.”

  8. Phil says:

    I realize this is beside the point, but: suppose Stephens HAD repeated the name of the undercover agent twice. How would that be a bad thing? And what does Scaramucci mean when he says that’s “just as bad” as revealing it the first time? Surely once the name is out there, it doesn’t matter how often or in what venue it gets repeated? You could run it in ads, put it on billboards, hire a skywriter to write it across the skies, and you aren’t doing any more harm.

    SInce I don’t understand that part of the story, I don’t really understand the rest of it either. If you’re “accused” of something that isn’t actually bad, why do you even care?

    • Andrew says:

      Phil:

      Good point: once the name is out there, who cares if it’s repeated? It’s not like it’s a secret anymore.

      But in answer to your second paragraph: lying about what someone did isn’t right. Just as an example, suppose Dan Scavino, White House director of social media, were to tweet that he saw Phil smoking a cigarette the other day. Actually, you don’t smoke at all, it’s not something you’d go around doing. It’s not immoral to smoke, though, so he’s not exactly “accusing” you of something, but he’s lying and he’s misrepresenting who you are.

      • Phil says:

        You’re right, although since smoking is distasteful to many people I don’t love your analogy. To me it’s more like: suppose he were to tweet that he saw me wearing a red shirt on Saturday, whereas in fact I was wearing a blue shirt. And he’s all outraged about it: “Price was wearing a RED SHIRT on Saturday! What a horrible person.” Yes, sure, I could call him a liar and demand a retraction because in fact I was wearing a blue shirt, and it’s bad for him to lie, and how dare he fail to retract his lie, etc. But I think a more appropriate response would be to point out that there is nothing wrong with wearing a red shirt.

        Indeed, I would say that it is a mistake to focus on the fact that he is wrong, because to focus on that is to ignore the more important issue that even if he were factually right about the name, he’s completely wrong when he says it is “just as bad” to repeat a secret that has already been published as it was to publish it in the first place.

  9. paul alper says:

    Truth is in the eyes of the beholder. I offer this scenario:

    Suppose we are dealing with a football team’s won/loss performance The former coach is fired because his record is 1 win and 9 losses. The new coach comes in and his record is 2 wins and 8 losses. To the naked eye, and to those familiar with risk in all its medical glory–absolute, relative, reduction, NNT, NNH, not much improvement. However, Kellyanne Conway is hired and she (correctly) claims that there has been a 100% improvement in wins and in addition (!), an 11% decrease in losses. Those facts are not “alternative” but thoroughly misleading.

  10. Terry says:

    In securities law, this is called “deception” where “deceit can be in the form of an affirmative misrepresentation or of an omission of fact which, in context, makes other facts misleading.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SEC_Rule_10b-5

  11. Dave C. says:

    “bearing false witness” is an older phrase

  12. Xname says:

    NYT had a list of Trump’s lies, many of which are not really “lie”. I don’t believe NYT journalist did not know the difference between lie and mistake. It’s kind of lies about lies.

    • Andrew says:

      Xname:

      I remember that NYT article. It’s hard to classify what’s a lie, what’s a misrepresentation, and what’s a difference of opinion. What I was thinking they (or somebody) should do is to make a similar tally for the first several months of the presidencies of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, etc. I’m sure that every president has some lies, but the frequency could differ from president to president. I’d find it easier to interpret that list of lies or misrepresentations or whatever, if they were presented in a comparative context. And it could well be that Trump has lied more often have previous presidents. After all, I’ve heard it argued that based on his experience as a deal-maker, Trump has experience using false statements as a form of negotiation, and if he gets good results for the U.S. it’s ok if he uses lies or misrepresentations along the way. That is, it should be somewhat of an empirical question who has lied more.

  13. Kaiser says:

    I love this post. You hit all your key threads in one post!
    I have been incensed by a related but different phenomenon – misrepresentation in software design. Example 1: when installing a new copy of Microsoft Office on my PC, I got to a step in which I was told that I am signing up for promotions and offers from Microsoft, and that I can change this option “later” – the only button is labeled “NEXT.” If I don’t press it, the installation stalls. If I press it, it is highly likely that I will forget to go back and unsubscribe to the spam. I did not forget, and immediately called a service rep to ask how to unsubscribe – the poor guy clearly did not know the answer. Example 2: my friend told me the Android File Transfer software stopped working and she couldn’t transfer her Droid photos to her Macbook anymore. The error message indicated that the software couldn’t proceed because her phone was locked. Her phone was not locked. Some others have figured out that this error message is an error (by idiocy or deliberate lack of care we do not know): the real error is something else – you need to tell the phone to use the USB port for file transfer not for power. Increasingly, I find software that either pops the wrong error message or no error message at all, when an error is encountered.

Leave a Reply