Truth be told, it's easy to mislead
Patrick West on the dangers of careless reading
Truth: A User's Guide
By Hector Macdonald, Bantam, 352PP, £20
Don’t be put off by the title of this book. At first glance, you could be forgiven for assuming that it was about “fake news” or our “post-truth” society – fashionable tropes that have come to dominate political discourse. Nor is this book concerned with a more long-standing question: is all truth relative, and is your truth as good and valid as mine? You will find no postmodern philosophising here.
Rather, Truth: A User’s Guide accepts from the outset that some things are facts and others are falsehoods. But it contends that what truth you accept or assert depends upon your point of view, upon which truth is useful to you, and which truth you would prefer to accord to your point of view.
For example, in 2015, both of these statements would have been true: “A teacher on a salary of £28,000 is earning below the average income”, and “A teacher on a salary of £28,000 is earning above the average income”. Both are true because the first statement is based on a mean average income that year of £31,000, the latter on a median average of £22,400.
Or consider, elsewhere, the fact that Canada and Australia have the highest rates of kidnapping in the world. Their figures are higher than those of Mexico and Colombia – but only because their governments included parental disputes over child custody in kidnapping statistics. Similarly, Sweden has the second highest incidence of rape in the world, because Sweden has one of the broadest definitions of rape.
There are many competing truths out there, writes Macdonald, and it falls to us to discern how real facts can become misleading truths through various means.
Statistics can notoriously be used to mislead. The author reminds us to be wary of graphs where the Y-axis doesn’t begin at zero – these are always designed to exaggerate falls or drops in numbers. Also, beware those who proudly declare that the “Royal Family costs you just 56p a year”, rather than £35.7 million per year to the taxpayer; or those who boast that the Government spends just 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas development assistance. This latter figure, in 2016, amounted to £13.3 billion, more than we spend on universities or the police.
We should also think twice when using GDP figures as barometers of happiness, particularly in our digital age. A car share app or a free dating site increases the sum of a nation’s happiness, but neither will add a penny to GDP.
Meanwhile, a natural disaster or you breaking your leg in a motorcycle accident will increase GDP figures, as a consequence of reconstruction programmes or the incurred cost of ambulance travel, insurance claims and the purchase of a new motorcycle.
Truths are concocted in other ways. One is through the misuse of language. In 2013, the housing charity Shelter put out a press release with the headline “80,000 children facing homelessness this Christmas”. The word “homeless” evokes images of people sleeping in cardboard boxes on the streets, but Shelter was using the word in a more redundant, literal sense, referring to children dependent on temporary accommodation arrangements by their local government authority, usually in a B&B – ie not living in their own “home”.
Another example of how a truth can mislead – deliberately or otherwise – is by confusing correlation with causation. Take the well-known truth that left-handers have a shorter life-expectancy than right-handers, based on a study in 1991 – a truth that suggests that life is more perilous in a world built for right-handed people. Before the late 20th century, it was common to force left-handed people to become right-handed. Only in recent decades have people described themselves as left-handed. In short, because most left-handed people these days are on average younger, they are also recorded as younger on average if they die.
This confusion between correlation and causation was brought into relief in January, when a report in the Sun said that people called Mohammed were more likely to be quoted higher car insurance than people called John – a report which didn’t relate that men called John tend to be far older than men called Mohammed, and likely to live in suburbs or the countryside.
Not everyone is out deliberately to deceive us. Macdonald says that there are three types of communicator: the Advocate, who simplifies facts to communicate a positive message; the Misinformer, who passes on dubious truth by accident; and the Misleader, who does so on purpose.
Each chapter concludes with advice on how to spot those using suspect means, but also on how to get your own truth across successfully in the eternal battle of competing varieties. Truth: A User’s Guide is not so much just a handbook on how to spot misleading truths as a field guide in how to propagate your own.
Such a Machiavellian work is what you’d expect from a strategic communications consultant. Nonetheless, it’s an illuminating, judicious and lucid affair. It will surely change the way you read the news and see the world.