The opposite of a superficial lie


“The opposite of a fact is a falsehood. But the opposite of a profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

Niels Bohr

The news media have gotten themselves tangled up, from the beginning of the Trump era, in the epistemological question of whether any statement can objectively be called a lie. Yes, Trump says things that are untrue, that contradict objectively known facts, but are they lies? Does he have the appropriate mens rea to lie, the intention to deceive, or is that just a partisan insult?

The opposite problem has gotten too little attention. Just because Donald Trump says something that corresponds to objective facts, one cannot infer that he is speaking the truth. (We don’t really have a word in English to correspond to the opposite of lie, in this dichotomy.) A good example is the controversy over Trump’s private and public comments on the incipient Coronavirus pandemic in February and March of this year. On February 7, 2020, Trump told Woodward

You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.

This is quite an accurate statement, and also very different than what he was saying publicly. On February 10 he said, in a campaign speech,

I think the virus is going to be — it’s going to be fine.

And February 26 in an official White House pandemic task force briefing:

The 15 [case count in the U.S.] within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero. … This is a flu. This is like a flu.

When you see that someone has been saying one thing in public and something completely different in private, it’s natural to interpret the former as lying and the latter as the secret truth — particularly when, as in this case, the private statement is known to be, in fact, true, and the public statement false. And particularly when the speaker later says

I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.

With Trump, though, this interpretation is likely false.

The thing is, while his statement of February 7 was true, he could not have known it was true. No one knew it was true. We can see any number of statements by responsible public-health officials making similar statements at the time. For example, Anthony Fauci on February 19:

Fauci doesn’t want people to worry about coronavirus, the danger of which is “just minuscule.” But he does want them to take precautions against the “influenza outbreak, which is having its second wave.”

“We have more kids dying of flu this year at this time than in the last decade or more,” he said. “At the same time people are worrying about going to a Chinese restaurant. The threat is (we have) a pretty bad influenza season, particularly dangerous for our children.”

And it’s not just Americans under the thumb of Trump. February 6, the day before Trump’s remark to Woodward, the head of the infectious disease clinic at a major Munich hospital, where some of the first German Covid-19 patients were being treated, told the press that “Corona is definitely not more dangerous than influenza,” and criticised the panic that was coming from exaggerated estimates of mortality rates.

Researchers were posting their data and models in real time, but there just wasn’t enough understanding possible then. This is the kind of issue where the secret information that a government has access to is of particularly limited value.

So how are we to interpret Trump’s statements? I think the key is that Trump is not a liar per se, he is a conman and a bullshitter, someone to whom the truth of his statements is completely irrelevant.

In early February he probably did receive a briefing where the possibility that the novel coronavirus was highly lethal and airborne was raised as one possibility, as well as the possibility that it was mild and would disappear on its own. .In talking to elite journalist Bob Woodward he delivered up the most frightening version, not because he believed it was true, but because it seemed most impressive, making him seem like the mighty keeper of dangerous secrets. When talking to the public he said something different, because he had other motives. It’s purely coincidence that what he said in private turned out to be true.

It would be poetic justice of Trump were to be damaged by the bad luck of one time accidentally having told the truth.

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