We should be more offended by dishonesty than by pointing it out

April 30, 2017

There was some criticism of this post from last week where I gave learning styles as an example of lies that trainee teachers in Australia might encounter. Most of the criticism was of a familiar sort, focusing on whether use of the word “lie” was insulting. In this post I wish to explain why sometimes “lie” is an accurate and appropriate term for some of what we hear when discussing teaching.

There are 4 basic types of dishonesty we are likely to encounter in education (or anywhere else).

  1. Lying. This is where somebody deliberately claims something they know to be false with the intention that another person, or other people, believe it. It’s often seen as the worst type of dishonesty, but it is something that most people will have done at some point, and can be the lesser of two evils.
  2. Misleading. This is where somebody claims something that may actually be true, but does it in such a way as to communicate a false idea or false impression. This is often viewed as less serious than lying, although it can contain an element of trickery or manipulation that makes it more serious.
  3. Bullshitting. This is where somebody says things that they do not know to be true (but do not know to be false either). A great essay on this can be found here, which considers the possibility that it is worse than lying, as it shows an indifference to the truth. My opinion is that this form of dishonesty is particularly common in education.
  4. Neglecting the truth. This is where somebody makes a false claim that they believe to be true, but where they had a moral responsibility, and an opportunity, to check their claims were indeed true. This is particularly relevant in the context of teacher training and CPD where people may be hired on the basis of their expertise and the expectation that what they teach will have been considered thoroughly.

All of the above are morally wrong, but I would argue that it is hard to judge any category to be always better, or always worse, than one of the other categories. Mentioning that something is a lie, is not necessarily an attempt to give the worst interpretation to the passing on of false information. It is not as if those who are offended by the word “lie” are less offended by people pointing out that it was actually another form of dishonesty. How often does anybody say “how dare you call this a lie, it’s actually just bullshit” or “how dare you accuse me of lying when I am only misleading you?” Often, it is important to point out that something is a lie, rather than a misconception or error. I used the example of learning styles in my last post, as VAK learning styles are not simply mistaken or outdated. VAK comes from Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a highly profitable pseudo-science full of entirely fabricated claims that scientists have described as “bunk” or a “scam”. Most phonics denialism is also based on demonstrably untrue invented claims. We shouldn’t hesitate to use the word “lie” to describe something that can be confirmed as a fraud by Googling it.

One objection to describing a claim as a lie is that the word “lie” describes intention. A lie is not simply false, there must be an intention to deceive. This is, of course, true and we should be careful about using the word “lie” when somebody is simply mistaken. However, we should be aware that if we inadvertently repeat a false claim that somebody else invented with the intention to deceive, then we are repeating a lie, even if we are not lying. Any false claim that is a deliberate invention, rather than, say, a misunderstanding, can still be described as a “lie”. We should not accept that the possibility of somebody passing on a lie without meaning to deceive means we cannot call still call it a lie. If we were to accept this, we would be accepting that a lie ceases to be a lie if it fools enough people. While these ideas may be passed on by those who have been fooled by those who lied, they are still lies and to pass them on is different to passing on a mistaken opinion or something based on error.

It could be argued that in this case, it would be politer not to mention that a lie is a lie, in order to protect the feelings of those who pass it on unaware it is a lie, even if they do some from a position of authority. In the case of my earlier blogpost, the argument is that damaging the pride of educationalists is a worse sin than passing on a lie. Such a position is little more than a license to deceive. There will always be those who are upset to be challenged. There are “cry bullies” who claim to experience emotional damage when anyone stands up to them. If a lie is being spread to educators it should be exposed, if we care about education. The honest would rather be corrected than to be left to pass on a lie uncorrected. When called out on a lie or bullshit, the honest are more concerned at the possibility that what they have said is wrong, than at the manner in which this was pointed out. The last time I was accused of spreading a lie on social media I asked over two dozen times what it was that wasn’t true, before I decided that, in the absence of a clear answer, the accusation was not made in good faith.

A further level of offence-taking can be achieved by combining the confusion between repeating a lie and lying with confusion over the difference between saying somebody lied and saying they are a liar. On the face of it, if somebody lies then it could be claimed they they are a liar. However, if that were so then almost everybody would be a liar and the word “liar” would be fairly inoffensive. The word  “liar” is often seen as more offensive than saying somebody lied because it can be used to mean more than somebody who once told a lie. As St Augustine observed:

Nor are those lies to be allowed, which, though they hurt not another, yet do nobody any good, and are hurtful to the persons themselves who gratuitously tell them. Indeed, these are the persons who are properly to be called liars. For there is a difference between lying and being a liar. A man may tell a lie unwillingly; but a liar loves to lie, and inhabits in his mind in the delight of lying.

It is fair enough to say that, on this understanding, it is worse to call somebody a liar than to say they lied. It is, therefore,  unfair to infer from a claim that somebody has lied that they have been called a liar. Those who react with “are you calling me a liar?” when challenged, are typically attempting to deflect discussion of what they have claimed.

Finally, there are various other forms of taking offence when people disagree about education, such as policing tone and claiming that it is unprofessional to challenge them. I have listed and analysed these arguments in this post. As before, I would argue that these are tactics to avoid and silence debate rather than a response to genuine grounds for offence. It is a fact of life that some people simply think it is not legitimate to disagree with them. We need to make a deliberate effort to privilege open debate, and ignore the protestations of those who think their utterances are above scrutiny.


  1. Part of the problem is that people do vary in their auditory, visual and kinesthetic memory, and teachers can readily observe this. Whilst teaching pupils to spell, I saw some pupils ‘ghost writing’ when they were spelling a word orally. Had I not been familiar with the research (which goes back well into the 1980s) and impressed by the Abt Associates results for Englemann’s Direct Instruction, I might have been induced to vary instruction to suit perceived ‘learning styles’, and passed on this deluded wisdom to others. We should never forget that most teachers have neither the time nor the educational background to smell a rat and find out that this rat is well and truly deceased.
    When I first started conducting INSET for our Wave 3 intervention, I found that challenging the VAK myth caused a lot of distress. Since I was trying to sell books, I quickly decided that it was far more effective to present a positive message about synthetic phonics and the value of ensuring that your pupils were always ‘getting it right’–Ignoring the VAK question altogether. After all, it wasn’t relevant to our intervention.
    So as much as I share your feelings about people who propagate harmful myths, I’ve learned that the real battle is being fought at the chalk face, where pragmatic concerns enable us to have a real impact. Insofar as those who should know better are concerned, I don’t think we have much chance of enlightening them no matter what we say. For this reason, I think denouncing VAK as a ‘lie’ doesn’t really get us anywhere. Willingham puts the case clearly and elegantly, and we should follow his example.

  2. […] We should be more offended by dishonesty than by pointing it out, by Andrew […]

  3. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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