Shades of truth | Scoins.net | DJS

Shades of truth


What is truth?   Bullshit   Humbug    Lying

In a world filled with opinion and one that encourages us to express our opinions (as I do here so often) we lose track of the issues we continue to accept as true.

I'll offer working definitions for the purposes of this page:

Truth is what accords with fact or reality. That does not mean we agree what either fact or reality are, but if we make enough effort, we should have some common ground we can then accepts facts and reality. There is an awful lot written about truth. You hold beliefs, which are supported in whole or in part by facts. Facts themselves can be elusive, shaded by description and interpretation and might be usefully called assumptive truths. Issues such as whether a belief can be true I leave to others (what is a true belief, for example).

To me, lying is the deliberate telling of known untruth. Apparently there are four classes of lie; black, grey, white and red, so my concept of lying is the black lie, where one is lying to their own benefit and the disbenefit of others. The white lie is the one generally done out of what is considered kindness, where what is said is altruistic, for the general benefit of others. These shade toward the grey, depending upon the level of benefit I think I gain. According to the diagram below I have misunderstood the 'white' lie for decades. Given that I personally value internal truth highly I see a disbenefit in any contemplation of less than the whole truth. I am more likely to make a phatic remark or grunt in response to an invitation to lie, white or grey. I would far rather find a true statement to make.

So, whether a lie is white or grey the measure is the perception of gain to the individual, so it is a self-referenced shade.

A red lie, new to me today, is about revenge or spite; both parties lose. I think these surface in rage with no regard for subsequent behaviour, that this is the untruth of retribution. I continue to believe that revenge should be served cold.

I am concerned at the apparent need to lie at all. I read [3] and copied this table that compares what is being achieved with what is at stake. I note the case of meeting a peson with bad breath where the consensus behaviour is to avoid pointing out the problem (embarrassment), to save face; this need not involve any lying. There are cultural behaviours at work here. One I see often in film is lying to support a friend who is trying to avoid trouble, such as by giving an alibi. I see this as cultural behaviour and I will not do it. But then northern Europe and America give greater concern to truth, especially legal truth, than other societies.

We often provide social structures that make lying easier than truth-telling. Where I have seen this occur it is the avoidance of punishment and embarrassment that are the drivers. I'd like to think that there should instead be rewards in esteem and advantage in telling the truth. Much of what turns a business into a success centres on internal truth-telling. Personally I find the shading of truth that occurs in sales entirely counter-productive.


Let us move on to incomplete telling of truth. A politician repeats a true statistic like a lowest unemployment figure, but says this is because of current policy, when the trend downwards began long before election. In the very current fracas about Christmas parties in Downing Street, deciding that 'a party' means something different from the regulation preventing people meeting together.  I have never failed to match par at golf, but then I've never played golf either. 

There are many ways to provide what is a true statement by avoiding some necessary content. I have never failed to match par at golf; I've never played golf. 

There is partial truth by avoidance: let's say that unemployment has been trending downwards for a decade but the current government has been in power for only a year. A politician then celebrates some new low of unemployment by attaching to that news that this is a result of policy since election. The statistic is true but the connected statement is not;  any policy changes have not appreciably changed the trend as yet.

Politics is a minefield filled with partial truths, though I do not see why. A politician can be irrecoverably damaged by being caught in a lie (there are notable exceptions) and so there are many attempts to avoid absolute lies with the result that many questions are never answered and only very rarely does any response seem to be complete. I find that the attempt to make statements stand up to scrutiny requires them to be overlong, well beyond a recipient's patience level, so one commits to short-form and eventually this falls foul of the elision. "Covid deaths yesterday were 161. This is better than last week".  This is reported deaths (on 20211208, not date of death) within 28 days of reporting a positive covid test. The 7-day trend is around 121, which is marginally down (by 0.8%) on the previous 7-day period. So the 161 might well mislead, though as it happens today's figure is bigger than the running mean, contrasting with the 'down on last week' message.

Pamela Meyer, [5], says people lie in one in five of their daily interactions and that we're lied to from 10 to 200 times per day. But that's US interactions, not British ones and yes, many of those are lies of the white variety. Strangers lie three times within the first ten minutes of meeting.[...]  We lie to strangers more than we lie to co-workers; extroverts lie more than introverts; men lie 8 times more about themselves than about others; women lie more about other people' you lie to your spouse in about one in ten interactions; if you're unmarried that drops to one in three; lying is complex. ({5], at about 04:30) We are against lying, but covertly for it.      She says (conflation) if we were more explicit about our moral code then we exempt ourselves from the complicity in a lie.

This is not my world. I'd far rather say nothing than knowingly tell a lie. I wonder if the comment on men lying about themselves is exaggeration and if 'only' exaggeration is lying. But then telling yourself 'I'm better than this' could be called encouragement and also a form of untruth. Evidently, if you have spotted or been spotted in poor behaviour (what it is that you are 'better than') then the better behaviour is not universal. But for the statement that you are better to be true, there is either an existing norm or a future behaviour that demonstrates this is so. Otherwise it is not a truth. 

Exaggeration could be an expression of insecurity or a need for approval or a temporary truth. When I'm in reading mode I read a lot, like in excess of a book per day. But implying that I read more than 365 books a year would not be true. I run a lot, up to six times a week, but that is not 300 days a year, though there was one year, perhaps 2013, when I ran on 360 days.

Meyer's complicity is a fascinating pointer to very common behaviour – those little white lies. One that bothers me is the lie of omission. Example, you have an interaction your partner may misinterpret: you tell an acceptable version of the event or you simply don't mention it. If one or both of these a deceit, maybe there is a better line of action that falls within a scenario that improves both trust and communication.

Promises are another route to deceit. I have long said that it is silly to promise the action of others and only to promise your own action. Then you have to cope with those occasions where a promise is failed and I need a route under those circumstances that does not damage mutual trust. You may disagree, but I see trust as an essential in my interactions.

Gossip is something I do not understand. My test for sharing opinions about people is whether I am prepared to say that to their faces. But I feel differently about people in public life, for whom I am not at all likely to have the opportunity to tell them what I think, and so I spend time wondering how that public person reached such a position and how the public perception reached its particular state. But I see a marked difference between what really happened and what is perceived to have happened. I perceive gossip as, at best, faintly wicked.

That issue of complicity centres on the agreement that some marginally alternate reality has occurred. It may very well be true that this alternate is preferred, and perhaps just preferred for the purposes of this conversation. But there is a difference between agreeing that this is the reality or seeing it as a model for how we would like things to be. I see this as including an element of self-deceit, then.



So we come to bullshit and humbug. I am going to declare these as equivalents from American English and British English. ¹

A liar wants you to believe their apparent truth, wants to benefit from this but knows that this is the position. Crucially, a liar knows that the lie is made.

A bullshitter (beeser, bser) also wants you to believe their truth and to get away with this but neither knows or cares whether what they say is true. This is more dangerous (says Frankfurt) because it erodes the very idea of truth. I agree strongly; if, as I perceive at the moment, we have a society that is largely uncaring whether things are true or not, then how do we make good decisions? 



I consider myself to be a person who lives on truth. But having read around the topic I find that I too do exaggeration (though I'd like to think I'm aware of it and make physical indications). I wonder whether teasing is deceit and therefore one has to wonder at the extent of what we call humour that demands levels of untruth. I suspect that the fine but important difference is that issue of complicity and recognising it: someone known to be acting in comedic manner is inviting complicity in whatever false realities are discussed, because these point up flaws in the reality we experience outside the comedic situation. So, on the understanding that amusement is occurring, we buy into the false reality so as to better appreciate or understand the one we have.  So a valid conclusion would be that this serves a useful purpose.

Having written this much and read a lot more, I promise myself to be (even) more aware of committing forms of deceit. One I shall particularly try to stop is the self-serving exaggeration of self; another is to try to notice where and when any form of white or grey lie occurs. I refer to myself; I'm not demanding that anyone else change and I'm not going to directly challenge any white or grey lie (where others gain) but I am going to continue to pose questions that might permit the other party to correct or retract, thus making more indirect challenge.


DJS 20211210






1.   I prefer to say that humbug is the British English version of the American English bullshit.  Language being what it is, both words have several meanings whcih include overlap and allow for self-knowledge of the behaviour, which is the characteristic of the liar. Black on Humbug and Frankfurt on Bullshit both define their terms with care and at length and I see very little difference. So I choose to say these are the same.  I am also aware that in the House of Commons one may not accuse a fellow MP of lying, but one can claim humbug, while bullshit would be considered a rude word not suitable for the public context.  In the British sense, humbug fits the idea of not caring whether what is said is based upon truth.If there is a difference between humbug and bullshit it lies in the motivation to so behave. The fine distinction, if one is to be drawn, would lie in the neither knows or cares component of the bullshitter; I think the humbugger, if different, knows but doesn't care.

2. I am mixing truth with opinion there. It is shown that our PM has lied repeatedly and the general conclusion is that he does not care about truth, which makes him a humbugger / bullshitter (much as Trump). The growth of that section of the public that decries this may result in a change in society that moves us toward demanding truth, which politically would mean statements supported by evidence, even if the evidence is flawed. That business about making poor decisions may very well prove the differentiating factor, and one could certainly hope so.






[1] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth/

[2] http://changingminds.org/explanations/behaviors/lying/four_lies.htm

[3] http://changingminds.org/explanations/behaviors/lying/why_lie.htm

[4]  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325431194_Bullshit_Truth_and_Reason/link/5c90cd2692851c1df94aaccd/download

[5] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/telling-the-truth_b_3831304

[6] https://www.ted.com/talks/pamela_meyer_how_to_spot_a_liar  who says lies are co-operative acts, that one buys into  the lie by agreeing to believe it. Good stuff, and linked to other good stuff.

[7] https://reasonandmeaning.com/2017/01/23/harry-frankfurt-on-bullshit-and-lying/  John G. Messerly    URL 

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth … Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off … He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.

As to the cause of so much bullshit, Frankfurt argues that:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

Masserly says:  I’m less convinced that bullshitting is worse than lying. To clarify, consider the following: 
1) I am scientifically literate. Therefore I know that biological evolution is true beyond any reasonable doubt. If I lie about this—say because I think that will  make you more likely to contribute to my political or religious cause—then I subvert the truth.
2) I am scientifically illiterate. Therefore I don’t know if evolutionary theory is true or false. If I bullshit about this—say because I want you to think that I know what I’m talking about—then I ignore the truth.

In these two cases I think lying is worse than bullshitting because the liar always subverts the truth whereas the bser might inadvertently tell the truth.

But if the bser not only doesn’t know or care about the truth, but rejects the very distinction between the two, if the bullshitter believes that there is no truth, then bullshitting is worse. A world that denies the existence of truth is a far worse one that still accepts the difference between truth and falsity.

What I think is more important than any distinction between lying and bullshitting is the one between truth and falsity. Why? One of the reasons that Frankfurt gives for the importance of truth in his follow-up book On Truth. “How could a society which cared too little for truth make sufficiently well-informed decisions concerning the most suitable disposition of its public business?” I think this is correct, but I think there’s a lot more to it.

[8] https://www.jstor.org/stable/24441821 Remarks on Humbug and Bullshit, Michael Wreen      paywall

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