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This site is built on testing the referencable accuracy of specific claims. And it does a good job. But I was recently prompted to consider whether strict accuracy is the same as truthfulness.

Two things came together. This question: Are black Americans responsible for more than 50% of homicides? and a recent article by Tim Harford in the Financial Times titled How politicians poisoned statistics.

Quoting the famous Harry Frankfurter essay On Bullshit he argues that

bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

His specific complaint appears to be that politicians (and political campaigners) appear to have become adept at quoting statistics that are strictly true but incredibly misleading when taken out of context. He uses plenty of statistics quoted in political debate from both the politics of the USA and the UK as examples.

An example in the article concerns misleading murder statistics and he quotes one example that illuminates the linked question above (though in a slightly different context). True, about 50% of USA homicides are committed by blacks, but only about 20% of homicides of whites (which provides extra context that a strict answer to the question asked on Skeptics might not provide). Other context that might get omitted from answers to this question might include the confounding variable of the relationship between poverty and murder rates and the disproportionate number of poor blacks in the USA.

The question I want to pose is how should questions where a lack of context might mislead be handled? Should we expect good answers to provide the broader (unrequested) context that points towards the broader truth rather than the specific accuracy of the claim?

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We only address explicit claims (claims need to be explicit).

If a claim is strictly true, so be it.

If it is misleading, show evidence that many people believe this misleading inference, and then that can become a claim on its own, to be evaluated on this site.

I think the best questions on this site present a claim simply and plainly, and ask for the evidence about it ("Is this claim true?", "What is the evidence about this claim?", etc.). Questions that attempt to provide context often inject subjective characterization, even if only in the selection of what context to provide, or red herrings that are irrelevant to the truth of the claim.

In the context of answers, how would one select what context is relevant? It is just as easy to mislead in an answer by cherry-picking which context to include. Once you get outside of providing the best evidence regarding the claim, you squarely are within the realm of subjectivity.

  • In deciding whether a claim is notable (i.e. believed by many people), we typically take it as sufficient if the claim was put forward by at least one notable source. So what if the claim was put forward by a notable source in a manner that seems to imply the incorrect interpretation? – Nate Eldredge Aug 17 '16 at 17:29
  • If you are convinced that many people believe the incorrect interpretation, don't vote to close, and vote to re-open. Otherwise, vote to close. That is how I handle it. I generally give the claim the benefit of the doubt, though. – user30557 Aug 17 '16 at 17:39
  • I'm looking in particular at skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/34933/…. The literal truth of the claim has been established, but it seems to me that the claim is misleading since, taken in context, it might mislead a reader into suspecting that the DNC may have killed Lucas in order to silence him (and I believe the claimants intend to mislead readers in this way). Could someone post an answer clarifying that, in light of the word "serve", the claim does not support that inference? – Nate Eldredge Aug 17 '16 at 18:25
  • In particular, if we stipulate that the claimants are "notable" (else the original question should have been closed), is that sufficient evidence that the incorrect interpretation is widely believed? – Nate Eldredge Aug 17 '16 at 18:27
  • There is some precedent that implied claims are not notable (I can track down references). – user30557 Aug 17 '16 at 23:09
  • meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/q/3350/30557 – user30557 Aug 17 '16 at 23:23
  • I suspect that someone commit a fraud. Oh that's misleading. It suggest that the guy really commits frauds. – user4951 Sep 26 '18 at 8:08

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