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OnWords: 'Untruth' vs. 'Lie'


NPR has recently taken several opportunities to discuss and defend its decision to use terms like 'untruth' rather than the term 'lie.'

This is an important discussion to have about how language is used but it misses a critical point: you can use factual language and still depict an untruth. If I say that the Indonesian island of Krakatoa was destroyed by a volcano and follow that with the sentence Indonesian economy bounces back. I'm making two statements a verifiable fact. But if I fail to point out the intervening 130 years I'm giving you a false sense of cause and effect.

We see this kind of problem all over, even from rather reputable news sources. The opposition to the reality of human-caused climate change can exist largely because of a lack of reporting on the well-understood idea that carbon dioxide absorbs heat. On the flip side coverage of small studies of the thoughts and habits of a few undergrads are depicted as unearthing universal psychological truths. The results may be factual but the sample they're based on in no way represents human kind.

In discussion of facts the focus on whether or not facts are present is good but it's not good enough. We also need to understand how those facts work in the real world, the contexts in which they have meaning. That takes both great reporting and a deeply curious audience.