Parsing “factual shortcuts”

“Factual shortcuts” was the phrase of the day after Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican convention last week.  It was how AP characterized statements he made about the Medicare cuts, the closing of a GM plants, etc. Many other outlets reprinted the story and the characterization, so it received huge play in the media.

It’s an interesting phrase.  Clearly someone at AP had to think hard to come up with something that was softer than “lies” but stronger than “misstatement” or “inaccuracy” or “questionable claims”. It drove Andrew Sullivan nuts:

“Factual shortcuts” are newspeak for lies. Zack Beauchamp goes nuts at the media euphemisms for lies. I think they should call them “enhanced campaigning techniques.”

Daily Kos snarked:

What is a “factual shortcut”? Does that mean that you were on your way towards a fact, but then decided to hop a fence and cut through Cow Patty Fields?

It really does seem to be a neologism.  Google only gives hits related to the AP usage.  Google Ngram Viewer doesn’t show any occurrences through 2008.  So somebody just added an idiom to the language!

But why bother?  We already have a perfectly good phrase that says pretty much the same thing.  You could say “Ryan’s speech played fast and loose with the facts” and people would understand you perfectly.  And Kos is right–the phrase doesn’t really make any sense.  It seems to rely on an implied negative connotation to the word “shortcut”, as in “there are no shortcuts to success” or similar phrases.  But where is the shortcut in factual shortcuts?  Where are you heading when you take a factual shortcut?  It sounds like a quick and perhaps morally dubious way of reaching a fact.  But of course its meaning is exactly the opposite — it’s a way of avoiding a fact.

I suppose the phrase was formed by analogy with “ethical shortcut,” which is a morally dubious way of resolving an ethical challenge.  So, a “factual shortcut” is a morally dubious way of dealing with a fact–by twisting it in some way so that it means something different from what ordinary people would recognize as the truth.  In this interpretation, Ryan didn’t say anything that you could directly point to as a lie, but if people had all the facts, instead of the ones he twisted, a different reality would emerge.

OK, that’s the best I can do.  Ultimately an idiom doesn’t have to make sense.  I don’t really know what the literal meaning of “play fast and loose” is, but I understand it well enough.

Still, it would be helpful if the mainstream media could bring itself to utter the word lies.

Lying — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t

Dunno why I’ve gotten so interested in lying lately.  But it keeps popping up in the news.  Here we see the ex-Yahoo CEO landing on his feet at some new high tech company.  He was the guy who lied on his resume by claiming an extra minor degree from an obscure college instead of going for broke with a bogus Oxford Ph.D. or something.  And now we see Fareed Zakaria getting himself in hot water by copying text from a New Yorker writer on his blog.

So I went and read Sam Harris’s free book on lying.  But he doesn’t really doesn’t have much of interest to say about the subject.

If you leave religion out of the picture (which, of course, Harris does), you generally have two ways of approaching lying (and other moral issues): the utilitarian way or the Kantian way.   If you go the utilitarian route, you can ask whether a particular lie adds to or subtracts from human happiness.  If you go the Kantian route, you can ask whether there is a categorical imperative not to lie, because that’s the way people should behave.  Harris dismisses Kant rather breezily, so we’re left with a utilitarian discussion, in which he brings up various cases where it might seem that lying would be a good idea, but it turns out not to be.  People lie to grandma about her terminal cancer, and everyone is worse off.  Harris tells a friend that his screenplay sucks, and the friend turns out to be grateful.  That sort of thing.  So, the world is better off if we don’t lie.

But that’s too easy!  Because obviously there are cases where lying works.  The Yahoo CEO lied on his resume, and eventually it tripped him up, but not so much that it ruined his career.  Mitt Romney is setting Olympic and world records for lying, and for all I know it may get him elected president.

One can, of course, make the case that lying is (at least in general) bad for society, even if it helps the individual.  So it comes out behind in the utilitarian equation.  And I’ll buy that–I don’t want Mitt Romney to become president!  But that’s uncontroversial.  The interesting thing, for me as a writer anyway, is the moral dilemma that lying presents to the individual.  In Senator, I present the protagonist as a presumably moral guy who ends up lying throughout the entire novel.  But he feels bad about it–it worries him, not just because he might get caught, but because it’s wrong.  Did it worry the Yahoo CEO?  Does it worry Romney?  Is Romney making utilitarian arguments to himself about the greater good that his lying is supposed to achieve?  Or is this just another business decision for him?

I wish Harris had spent more time looking at issues like that.  But I suppose this is why some people write novels instead of philosophy.

While I’m here, I’d like to recommend Rick Gervais’s weird little movie The Invention of Lying, which treats the issue of lying in an amiably subversive way.

Sam Harris is opposed to lying — go read his free ebook about it

I find that Sam Harris is always interesting, even when I disagree with him (and lots of people disagree with him about lots of things).  He has a post up on his site about Jonah Lehrer. In response to the Lehrer scandal, he has made his short ebook Lying available for free as a PDF for the rest of the week.  You’ll find a link to it in the Lehrer post.  I have started reading it, and his position on lying is pretty clear — he’s agin it.  My sense is that Harris is not an especially deep thinker, but he is a clear and graceful writer, so you may want to check out his book — it’s only about 60 pages.

I also have Harris’s book Free Will on my e-queue. He’s not necessarily agin free will, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think it exists.