Truths often enjoy an exalted status in social thought. The Romans considered veritas, the Latin word for truthfulness, a personal virtue and personified it as a goddess. One founding father of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, stated that “honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” English essayist and statesman Francis Bacon felt that “no pleasure is comparable to standing upon the vantage ground of truth.” The quest for truths, in fact, lies at the heart of scholarly inquiry, around which societies worldwide have built a great many institutions with inspiring traditions and tireless knowledge workers. The veracity of utterances can therefore confer on them an aura of dignity and righteousness.
What, then, is wrong with the following statements, assuming that they are factually accurate?
- Children from low-income households are faring well, with 55% of them moving on to college this year, compared to just 15% three decades ago.
- Men carrying promiscuity genes have an evolutionary edge over those who do not.
- 7% of hit-and-run drivers have not been nabbed. (as opposed to “93% of hit-and-run drivers have been caught successfully”) (Pinocchio episode 10)
- A police officer is suspected to have caused a major fire claiming 40 victims, including deceased persons, at a waste disposal plant in Hangang district through his negligence. (Pinocchio episode 14)
The fallacy of statement 4 has been illustrated by the scriptwriter. Even though the speaker is careful to use the term “suspected,” the statement as a whole, when presented in an authoritative medium like a television news bulletin, leaves such a powerful impression that listeners walk away thinking that the officer is indeed responsible for the tragedy. Statement 3 can be problematic as it conveys a stronger notion of police incompetency than its alternate version, even though the arrest rate is rather high and may actually be a huge improvement from past records. Statement 2 suggests that there is justification for male infidelity. Finally, statement 1 is questionable on many fronts even though it paints a rosy picture. First of all, with such a subjective description as “well,” is the standard of welfare that would make the sentence correct the same standard the reader has in mind? Second, in the locality concerned, has college education maintained or increased its rigor and economic value over the years? How much of a difference can colleges there make to children’s lives? Third, what are the college attendance rates for other income groups and what are the dropout rates for everyone? If more than 90% of children in other groups are graduating from colleges without much difficulty while most children from low-income families cannot obtain a degree, the latter has probably been disadvantaged in the education system, the college application process and/or their family upbringing.
All four statements can be attempts at using truths to propagate falsehoods through psychological manipulations. Statement 1 associates an ostensibly positive but ill-defined attribute with what may be the most flattering fact from among a set of bleak statistics. It does not claim that the latter is the cause for or even representative of the former, but the juxtaposition of the two harmonious concepts can etch an image strong enough in the information recipient’s mind that he regards the flattering fact as an average representation of the attribute. Statement 2 works on some readers’ assumption that what is natural and secures survival is also right to produce its undesirable effect. Statement 3 feeds on general public dissatisfaction with authorities and capitalizes on inclinations toward passive reading (i.e. readers’ negligence to mentally convert 7% failure into 93% success). Statement 4 overwhelms listeners with its air of gravity and a flood of sensational details, under which the crucial note that the speaker is merely voicing suspicion gets less attention than it deserves.
A person reading the above paragraphs may find them inconceivable—s/he would probably argue that information recipients are not superficial creatures prone to crude conclusions and overt biases. However, those statements can be targeted at a far broader range of people than the discerning, patient readers who take time to savor and ponder over a long article like this. Workers flipping through newspapers in the morning rush are often not out to question what they read. Broadcast reports flash by so fast that they give audiences little opportunity to pause for thought. Besides, it is a sad fact of life that many individuals make inferences with emotions as well as logic, sometimes to the extent of emotions overriding logic—hearing what they want to hear or losing themselves in the atmosphere. Truths that invite their receivers into erroneous conclusions not only exploit these vulnerabilities by placing themselves in those inappropriate settings and/or omitting interpretation advice, but also give them the false assurance that there is reason behind their judgments.
It is time to exercise greater caution to prevent truths from sugarcoating falsities and to reject the reliance on factual accuracy as an infallible defense to arguments. The label of “truth” should not blind us to the murderous potential of words.
Lying with Statistics The Drama
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