Comments about Steele on lying

Many people think that lying means saying something that you know to be false or something along those lines. Elliot Temple has explained that this position is wrong: lying is about misrepresenting reality rather than just being about saying something you know to be false. David Ramsay Steele has disagreed with Elliot in a couple of comments on this blog and I’m going to point out some problems with his comments.

Steele writes:

The word “lie” has a definition in English. It means asserting what you believe to be false. The piece you refer me to strikes me as muddled. If you assert what you believe to be the case, you are not lying.

One dictionary definition of lie reads:



1 a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.

2 something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture:

His flashy car was a lie that deceived no one.

3 an inaccurate or false statement; a falsehood.

verb (used without object), lied, ly·ing.

1 to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.

2 to express what is false; convey a false impression.

verb (used with object), lied, ly·ing.

1 to bring about or affect by lying (often used reflexively):

2 to lie oneself out of a difficulty; accustomed to lying his way out of difficulties.

The second noun definition of lie isn’t equivalent to an assertion that you believe to be false. It includes a lie by omission involves omitting information in such a way that you know people will misunderstand what you’re saying rather than making a statement that one knows to be false. Nathan Phillips, the Indian involved in the Covington high school controversy claimed he was a Vietnam era veteran and many media outlets reported that he was a Vietnam veteran. In reality Phillips became a marine in the last year of the war and probably never went to Vietnam. Phillips left out information about his military in such a way as to give the impression that he was a Vietnam veteran. This is a good example of a lie by omission. Lying by omission is common and Steele pretends that it doesn’t exist.

Steele’s position often leads to problems with saying a person is lying. For example, Bill Clinton claimed he didn’t have “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky and claimed that the term “sexual relations” didn’t include getting a blow job. Was Clinton lying by Steele’s definition or not? If Clinton was thinking about his special definition of “sexual relations” when he was making the statement then he wasn’t knowingly making a false statement, so Steele would say he wasn’t lying. But if Clinton wasn’t thinking about that definition then he wasn’t lying. And there is no way to tell the difference so Steele can’t say Clinton was lying. And any person at any time could claim he was thinking about non-standard terminology so anyone can easily avoid a claim of lying by Steele’s standards.

Steele continues:

Of course, you can’t lie to yourself (not without bringing in multiple personality disorder, which I think is a myth).

Elliot explains what lying to yourself means in the essay:

Lying has to do with pretending, misrepresenting or faking. You can do those things with yourself or others. If you know something is false, and you say it, that’s lying. And if you choose not to consider whether it’s true or false, and then hide your ignorance (from yourself or others), then you’re pretending to have a more reality-based approach to life than you do, and lying about that when you falsely present yourself as knowing more than you do.

Steele ignored this explanation of Elliot’s position. Lying to yourself in this view doesn’t require multiple personalities. It requires that you deliberately or negligently misrepresent reality. Doing that with your own beliefs just requires that you decide not to pay attention to problems with your beliefs. This does require having inconsistent ideas but there is nothing particularly surprising about that because comparing ideas for inconsistency isn’t automatic: it requires some effort. Steele either didn’t read the essay closely or he did read it and decided not to engage with the argument. In either case he is trying to give a misleading impression about the lying article being stupid: he is lying.

In another comment, Steele writes:

Lying to oneself is not possible, because to lie is to deliberately mis-state what one believes to be the facts, in order to mislead. How can anyone say to themselves “The moon is made of green cheese. I know it is not, and so therefore you do too, but I am going to deceive you, that is myself, by saying it to you (myself).”

That isn’t how people lie to themselves as Elliot pointed this out in his lying essay:

People lie to themselves because they don’t like some aspect of reality and don’t want to face it. They see a problem, and don’t expect to solve it, and don’t want to live with an unsolved problem.

This sort of behaviour is common: let’s consider a realistic example of a person lying to himself. Jim has recently noticed that one of his testicles is larger than it used to be. Jim thinks he might be ill and there are multiple possible causes, including testicular cancer. He’s in the process of moving for a new job so he thinks he doesn’t have time to go to the doctor and possibly end up getting surgery or chemotherapy. Instead of facing up to this issue he decides to ignore the change in his testicle and hope it goes away. He’s lying to himself about the fact that he’s ill and that it might be a serious problem. Has Steele never come across examples like this?

In an earlier comment I wrote:

Psychiatrists’ position is that mental illness legitimises involuntary commitment. That claim is commonly accepted as the basis for involuntary commitment. Accepting that this is the way people commonly talk about this issue doesn’t require accepting that their framing of the issue is correct, but stating psychiatrists’ position accurately requires stating their position in that way. Szasz is stating his opponents’ position to refute it, not accepting their framing of the issue.

Szasz states their position is a lie as illustrated by the quotes I gave in the post. It would be odd for Szasz to say that psychiatrists’ position is a lie if he accepts part of it.

Steele replied:

Well, saying someone’s position is a “lie” involves the claim that they don’t believe it. I think it’s a stretch to say that all psychiatrists are insisting on claims they secretly believe to be false. I think some of them do believe what they say, in which case they are not lying.

Steele’s position depends on the tenability of his view of lying and it isn’t tenable. Szasz and many others have criticised psychiatry as coercive and pseudoscientific. It also doesn’t take much thought to see that if a person is behaving oddly that doesn’t imply that he’s ill. So the idea that psychiatrists don’t know their profession has a lot of flaws doesn’t hold water now and didn’t hold water even before Szasz came along. The only way Steele can claim psychiatrists aren’t liars is to adopt a restrictive definition of lying and ignore counterarguments. Trying to get away with a claim that can be refuted by looking up a dictionary definition using a search engine is at best negligently giving a false impression: it is a lie. By that standard Steele is lying.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

13 Responses to Comments about Steele on lying

  1. Clark says:

    lying to oneself can extend to organizations. i work for a well-known technology firm, and the amount of purposeful, selective exchange is astounding. the catholic faith has the notion of a sin of omission, and i am consistently astounded by how this kind of dishonesty is manifest in the premeditated en masse delusion that takes place in my company. whole teams of people participate to “manage” messages to such a point as to avoid confronting and solving problems, let alone doing the right things right. i do try to speak up, but doing so is not appreciated. I guess people would prefer the cancer …

  2. Dec says:

    In the following post, Elliot Temple brings up a Popper misquote on the TCS website:

    The misquote from Myth of the Framework that Temple discusses also appears word-for-word the same in BoI, yet Temple does not mention that. Given that Temple was heavily involved in BoI, he is also implicated in the bad scholarship that he, rightly, accuses DD and SFC of. He should add some updates to his post.

  3. Dec says:

    When I read Temple’s post it occurred to me that the passage on the TCS website alleged to be a Popper misquote may have come from a different edition of The Myth of the Framework. It didn’t. But when I searched for the misquote using Google, I found it in BoI. This took less than five minutes. Why didn’t Temple do the same? Furthermore, given he has read BoI many times and was a reviewer, why did this passage escape his recollection? And why did he not notice the misquote when he was reviewing? Was he not checking the quotes? Is Temple’s post a form of lying? It misrepresents his involvement and all the opportunities he missed to spot the misquote in BoI (including doing a five minute search to check his post).

    For reference, the Popper misquote in BoI is on pages 411 to 412.

  4. Dec, I wasn’t aware that the same misquote was in BoI. I will update my post and also probably write another post about it or talk about it in a video. (BTW/FYI it’s not quite identical in BoI, and my first text search didn’t find it, but it’s similar and also very badly wrong). Despite your flaming me, I appreciate the information. That is the kind of thing I want to know about. If you have more similar information, you can email it to me or share it at my CF forum (I didn’t receive a notification about your comments, but fortunately someone told me).

    I’m not a co-author or co-founder of BoI, was never tasked with checking quotes for DD. I believed that DD was a good scholar and was not as suspicious back then (plus DD didn’t give the pages 7-9 clue that I picked up on).

    I don’t think MotF has multiple editions (but I haven’t checked thoroughly), and the pages SFC gave matched my paper copy that I checked, as well as the PDF copy I checked, and the same words were in the book, so I was confident SFC misquoted without further research.

    I didn’t remember this quote because I haven’t reread BoI recently, except for part of chapter 1, which I found a misquote in. Specifically:

    > As the physicist Richard Feynman said, ‘Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.’

    That is a fake quote that is being spread on the internet, and has now been cited in some books that attribute it to as quoted in BoI. It’s similar to stuff Feynman actually said and I think I know where it comes from (someone paraphrased without quote marks or source, but made it sound like he was giving a quote). I also found a book that gives the quote and then has a footnote saying the author couldn’t find a source … but he put it in his book anyway (wtf!?). I will be sharing info about this but wanted to briefly mentioning now due to relevance.

  5. ugh, so, BoI says:

    > As Popper put it, ‘We can let our theories die in our place.’

    That is not the start of a sentence in the original (In Search of a Better World), so that’s problematic. And DD doesn’t source it. And he writes the same quote differently elsewhere:

    > As Karl Popper put it, we humans can “let our ideas die in our place.”

    Popper didn’t put it that way. The change is “ideas” instead of “theories”. What is going on? Does DD try to quote this from memory? BTW, I criticized DD’s memory at

    Popper wrote something similar in MotF, but DD’s text doesn’t match it. He also said something similar in a speech:

    And in an old unpublished article that the BoI evolution of culture material was based on, DD wrote:

    > As Popper puts it, we “let our ideas die in our place”.

    so that’s wrong too. But in turned into “theories” in BoI and at but what is going on that DD misquoted in that old article that he tried to publish and in the first Nautilus article I linked above but not the second one.

    And BoI doesn’t source its quote and only has an accurate (other than it not being the start of a sentence) source (In Search of a Better World) in the bibliography by luck. I know this because I told DD to consider that book for the bibliography after he showed me an earlier draft without it. He only added it to the bibliography because he liked the material covered in the book more than some alternative Popper books, not because he needed it as a quote source.

  6. Dec says:

    Sorry for flaming you Elliot Temple. It seemed puzzling to me you didn’t spot the misquote, even when you were writing your post. But I’ll back off from any claims about lying or misrepresentation.

    Re. DD quotes, I decided to randomly check a quote in BoI. Picked the Hoftstadter quote on page 150. BoI version:

    > In retrospect, I am quite amazed at how much genuine intelligence I was willing to accept as somehow having been implanted in the program … It is clear that I was willing to accept a huge amount of fluidity as achievable in this day and age simply by putting together a large bag of isolated tricks, kludges and hacks.

    The actual paragraph:

    > In retrospect, I am quite amazed at how much genuine intelligence I was willing to accept as somehow having been implanted in the program. I had been sucked into the notion that there really must be a serious natural-language effort going on at Fort Leavenworth, and that there had been a very large data base developed, including all sorts of random information: a dictionary, a catalog containing names of miscellaneous people, some jokes, lots of canned phrases to use in difficult situations, some self-knowledge, a crude ability to use key words in a phrase when it can’t parse it exactly, some heuristics for deciding when nonsense is being foisted on it, some deductive capabilities, and on and on. In hindsight, it is clear that I was willing to accept a huge amount of fluidity as achievable in this day and age simply by putting together a large bag of isolated tricks-kludges and hacks, as they say.

    So DD’s version has some inaccuracies.

    How many quoting errors are in BoI? Maybe a lot?

  7. > How many quoting errors are in BoI? Maybe a lot?

    Yeah. The Hoftstadter issue you found makes 4 (if you count presenting something as a full sentence, with a capital letter at the start without brackets, while omitting the first word of the sentence). Good job.

    I was just thinking earlier today that it could be worth reviewing every quote in both of DD’s books.

    I’ve just been finding some more misquotes from SFC and also DD’s associate Chiara Marletto, and posted more updates at

    I also found which appears to have copied the “The inductivist or Lamarkian approach” misquote from a paper copy of BoI and typoed “Lamarkian” (which is correctly “Lamarckian” in BoI). I emailed him to let him know about the misquote. The article says “Thanks to David Deutsch and Karl Wilzen for commenting on drafts of this.”

    There are currently no misquote corrections on DD’s BoI errata page:

    I don’t know if you’re aware, but I have a history of finding and complaining about misquotes and other scholarship errors. I have this blog category for it:

    For example:

    > I checked 10 randomly selected footnotes from 5 Ann Coulter books.

    In this post I found Zubrin misquoting Malthus:

    and in response he got very angry (his reply is at the bottom of my post) and decided i was in the other opposing tribe from him and therefore i was “fine with” the holocaust. he apparently can’t imagine that someone who agrees with a lot of his conclusions would ever criticizing his bad scholarship.

    At least DD didn’t try to associate me with the holocaust when I questioned his Godwin quote. He seemed pretty upset though. I don’t think he’ll take corrections of BoI misquotes well.

    • Dec says:

      I guess that misquoting in books is common and Ann Coulter is exceptionally good at getting quotes right. What concerns me with BoI is that it took more than a decade for anyone to notice all the misquotes. We were all blind for some reason. I guess that sort of thing is common too.

      I can see how Deutsch’s quoting problem ties in with your harassment problem.

      • People/society are bad at lots of things, for lots of reasons. Quoting is on the list but unfortunately I think we’ve got plenty of bigger problems.

        Anyone who wants to actually help should focus primarily on self-improvement and learning first. (In my experience, most people refuse to do that, which is one of the bigger problems. Things they do instead include posturing as high status or wise, attacking the outgroup, seeking the unearned, trying to socially fit in, hiding information that could be criticized.) They can pursue self-progress at my CF forum and they can go through my existing educational info. I’m reposting my best past stuff at currently and will be sharing new CF info after that. I’m also open to debate at my forum, but I’ve found that serious debate is pretty much unavailable, which is another one of the bigger problems.

  8. Dec says:

    Check out the Michelson quote on page 198. Looks like the last sentence in the quote is itself a quote by Michelson but Deutsch omits the quote marks, making it appear as though that sentence is Michelson’s own words. Whose words Michelson is quoting is unclear (Rayleigh’s?).

  9. I found another misquote in BoI (first try when spot checking…):

    Before that I reviewed FoR some without finding a misquote (I noticed it doesn’t have a lot of quotes) but I do think I found plagiarism in FoR:

  10. Dec says:

    Btw, “Hoftstadter” should be Hofstadter. My typo.

    Another Feynman quote in BoI is incorrect. This one on page 444. Same issues you picked up in other quotes.

    Deutsch should be made aware of these errors.

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