I'm not a Skeptics user, but I click through from the Hot Network Questions section on Stack Overflow. Twice now, that I can recall, I've come across a question where the following are all the case:

  • The claim in question comes from a right-wing source
  • Per what I believe to be a plain-English reading of the claim, it is straightforwardly true, at least based upon the evidence presented in the accepted answer
  • ... and yet that same answer leads by stating, bizarrely, that the claim is false, right before presenting the facts illustrating that it's true
  • Further interrogation suggests that the answerer, along with lots of other readers, have read some bizarre alternative meaning into the claim that is plainly not what was actually stated. My attempts to draw out what this meaning is (and thereby understand what the sense is in which the answerer believes the claim to be false) draw derision from other commenters and quite possibly get deleted.

This situation differs from that described in How to proceed when implicit and explicit claims diverge in that that question is premised on the idea that the implicit claim is clear (although I reject that framing of the supposed "implicit claims" listed in that question); I'm instead talking about the scenario where an answerer is responding to a claim that I don't think is implied at all.

I've found these situations frustrating. You can accuse any claimant of being a liar if you take the liberty of reading whatever random outrageous crap you like into their words, rather than addressing their plain meaning; to me, these highly-upvoted answers (and the personal attacks on me that have consistently followed for criticizing them) seem to be motivated by a desire to accuse conservative speakers of dishonesty, rather than to objectively address the truth or falsity of the claim. I fear that skim-readers will see the tl;dr summaries at the top of these answers and go away misled, thinking that the plain-English claim is false, when really only addressing some wacky alternative interpretation of the claim specially selected for its falsity.

Two case studies:

Is this Swedish government pamphlet a guide for men who have married underage girls?

The wording of the original claim:

Sweden’s board of health and welfare and the migration authority just released this pamphlet ... meant to help guide men who marry underage girls through the Swedish welfare system.

My interpretation: the pamphlet contains some helpful information about welfare entitlements in Sweden specific to men married to underage girls. (This is 100% true.)

The accepted answer's interpretation, drawn out through a long, frustrating comment thread with its author: the pamphlet expresses pro-child-marriage views and is a detailed step-by-step guide to claiming benefits for men married to underage girls. (This is 100% false.)

The distinction between my interpretation and MichaelK's interpretation, it seems to me, is that mine is what the original text says and his is something he made up so that he could disagree with it. After I finally figured out what was going on and pointed out the two different interpretations of the answer, he didn't edit his answer to reflect the possible interpretations of the claim and indicate that one was true and one was false; along the way, he throws this at me in chat...

@MarkAmery I don't know why it is so damned important to you to be able to point a finger at the Swedish authorities and make it sound as if they are helping paedophiles, but I am not supporting you in that because that CLEARLY is not the intent of the pamphlet, nor can a reasonable person ever think that from reading the pamphlet. You are being deliberately unreasonable just to be able to push this interpretation, and I think that is low of you.

despite the fact that I'd already told him that I thought it was perfectly reasonable for the Swedish government to release guidance on how the welfare system handles underage marriages, and so it plainly made no sense for this to be my motive - I was just arguing for the plain-English interpretation of the claim.

Did the FBI spy on the Trump campaign with an embedded informant during the Obama administration?

The wording of the original claim (from Donald Trump):

Wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI “SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN EMBEDDED INFORMANT.” Andrew McCarthy says, “There’s probably no doubt that they had at least one confidential informant in the campaign.” If so, this is bigger than Watergate!

My interpretation: somebody in the Trump campaign provided information to the FBI. (This, based upon the evidence in the accepted answer, seems to be 100% true.)

The accepted answer's interpretation: I don't really have a clear picture of that - maybe that the FBI deliberately planted some... fake employees, or something?... inside the Trump campaign whose whole purpose was to spy upon Trump? In any case the answer suggests that there was a "leak" but that there was not in fact an "embedded informant", which seems bizarre to me since those sound like two ways of saying the same thing.

I questioned this apparent self-contradiction in the answer, and now after a long comment thread my comment has been deleted. Except perhaps by asking this Meta question and drawing the answerer's attention to it, I'll never learn what his interpretation of words was by which it's meaningful for a leaker not to be an "embedded informant", and he may never see that I found his interpretation incoherent.

What should I do in situations like these? I struggle to comprehend how these answerers have managed to reach their interpretations of the claims at stake, and I don't like leaving tl;drs up asserting that a claim is false on an answer that actually completely vindicates (my interpretation of) the claim. Is it reasonable for me to suggest edits to these answers such that they lead by listing the two different interpretations of the claim and indicating which is true and which is false? How can I engage with answerers like this constructively to try to figure out what their interpretation of the claim is without getting sucked into a political flame war, accused of dishonesty, and censored by the mods?


2 Answers 2


In the first example, you are correct as to the summary of the question, but you have ignored the original tweet motivating the question that the SE user supplied, which claims that the pamphlet is: "meant to help guide men who marry underage girls through the Swedish welfare system". I do not think that is a good summary of the guide, which deals primarily with the lack of control the older spouse has over the child spouse, including enforcement of a sexual age of consent irrespective of marriage.

I believe you are missing connotations in the right-wing sources that other people are finding. The very fact that the original tweet begins "No Joke". Since a guide to persons entering Sweden with an underage spouse is very reasonable (let me note that many states of the USA allow marriage below 18, in which case there might be Americans in need of this information should they for some reason go to Sweden), I suggest that the tweeter's intent was to mislead readers into thinking the Swedish government was endorsing child marriage. They use of the present tense "marry" and not "are married to" intensifies this mistaken impression. (I don't know Swedish and can't address whether it has tenses that would disambiguate this.) They can not contract such a marriage in Sweden.

I think the reading comprehension failure in the second case is also yours. The original, uninterpreted claim is consistent with an existing member of the Trump Campaign getting disgusted with some practice (for example, meeting with Russian agents) and calling the FBI. The "informant" is a whistleblower. You seem OK with this interpretation, but it is not consistent with the word "embedded", which suggests that the FBI recruited an informant and infiltrated the campaign. Once again the right-wing source has shaded the issue to mislead the casual reader. And you have to be naïve not to recognize this as part of a conspiracy theory about a Deep State that infiltrated the Trump Campaign for some reason, but was so incompetent it not only couldn't stop Trump from winning, it couldn't stop its colleagues from releasing damaging information about his opponent.

I think the accepted answers in both cases were excellent insofar as they acknowledged the truth of most of the factual claims, while also showing the falsity of insinuations added on to them.

  • 1
    Your point about the dubious use of "marry" is well-taken - and indeed in the comments I reached a vaguely similar conclusion about the Tweet's subtext. Yet that is still what it is - subtext, not the literal claim. Even if we agree that a subtext is present, I think answers should by default address the explicit claim. If they want to address a (perceived) implied claim then they should clearly state that, rather than wrongly labeling the explicit claim as false.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 21:48
  • 7
    @MarkAmery Per "How to proceed when implicit and explicit claims diverge", answers can and should address the implied claim. Addressing only the explicit claim is lying through omission.
    – Kevin Fee
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 22:07
  • @KevinFee The distinction between this scenario and the one described in skeptics.meta.stackexchange.com/q/3916/15961 is that that question talks about a case where explicit claim X "clearly" implies implicit claim Y. Here I'm instead talking about other people perceiving an "implicit claim" that I simply don't think is present, or which at least is sufficiently non-obvious as to be invisible to me on the first reading.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 22:19
  • @KevinFee ... although, interestingly, two of the three examples that question lists are exactly like the ones I list here - an explicit claim, made by a conservative speaker, with a supposed "implicit claim" that seems like a patently unreasonable reading that I can't imagine anybody assuming was true purely on the basis of what the speaker really said. So I guess my question remains: how should I deal with the SSE community deciding to interpret a whole bunch of extra meaning into conservative claims that I simply don't believe was actually meant?
    – Mark Amery
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 22:24
  • 4
    @MarkAmery Implicit vs. Explicit has been a bit of an unclear thing. You can see that Sklivvz, at least at the time of the Q&A, was very "hard-line, literally explicit only, no exceptions", but the voting on the answers suggest the users feel otherwise. I'm among them, feeling it's a disservice to the very principles of scientific skepticism. And I rather doubt this applies only to "conservative claims". You notice them more because they strike you the most, and because there are a lot of conservatives making skepticism-inducing claims in power right now. Commented May 19, 2018 at 10:19
  • @MarkAmery The explicit claim is that Sweden is providing a guide to assist those married to children navigate the welfare state. The pamphlet does not offer anything helpful to the older spouse. It only serves to tell them all the things they can't do that they probably expect they can do. If I hand out pamphlets to people who say they're turned on by children that says "you can't have sex with children even if they say it's what they want" would you call that a guide for pedophiles to navigate the legal system? Commented May 20, 2018 at 15:51
  • @DeanMacGregor I'd call it "pretty pointlessly telling people things that they already know". But in a hypothetical universe in which there are a bunch of paedophiles don't know that having sex with children is illegal (and assuming that there was actually a pamplet worth of detail on child sex laws, rather than just the single sentence you've proposed), then, uh... yes, I would, and it wouldn't even occur to me that someone might disagree. Does that not seem like a reasonable characterisation to you? What part of that description do you claim wouldn't apply in the paedophile case?
    – Mark Amery
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 16:59
  • @DeanMacGregor "The pamphlet does not offer anything helpful to the older spouse." - that's certainly an... interesting perspective. Maybe you have a different value system to me, but if I were married and fate were somehow to put me in a country where I was in danger of being forcibly separated from my wife by the state against both our wishes, then I'd damn well consider it "helpful" to have advance warning of that threat so my family and I could prepare ourselves and plan what we'd do in the event of such a separation. I'm not sure how you're figuring that that information isn't useful.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 17:07
  • 2
    @MarkAmery regardless of the exact semantic meaning of describing the hypothetical pamphlet as "a guide for pedophiles to navigate the legal system", many people reading that phrase at going to assume that this is trying in some way to help pedophiles engage in paedophilia while avoiding prosecution: it sounds implicitly pro-paedophilia. Which is the exact opposite of what it actually is. It is the kind of description typical of people trying to manufacture outrage by distorting or misrepresenting the facts.
    – PhillS
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 8:57

I haven't examined the first example, but I think there is an important distinction to be made in the second.

Did the FBI spy on the Trump campaign with an embedded informant during the Obama administration?

This is a loaded question, in a manner somewhat similar to the old saw "Have you stopped beating your wife?" There are actually two questions that are being conflated here:

Sub-question 1: Did the FBI gain information from an informant in the Trump campaign?

Sub-question 2: Did the FBI embed a spy in the Trump campaign?

As the answer to that question elaborates, the answer to 1 is "probably yes". The answer to 2 is "not to our knowledge".

The loaded nature comes when you try to answer the question directly. If you are asked "Did the FBI spy on the Trump campaign with an embedded informant during the Obama administration?" and you answer "No" (answering sub-question 2), you could be interpreted as being dishonest by denying the answer to 1. Contrariwise, if you choose to answer "Yes" (answering sub-question 1), that could be interpreted as affirming sub-question 2.

This is particularly important because of the political context. I don't want to get deep into it as this is not the place, but if sub-question 2 were answered "Yes", that would likely be grounds for a massive scandal. However, if sub-question 1 were answered "Yes", that is relatively unexciting.

As someone who would like to leave my readers with a truthful understanding of the issue, if I were to answer the original question with either "Yes" or "No", I would poorly serve my readers by not making it clear which of the numbered sub-questions I am answering. Most readers will not be aware at first of the distinction between the sub-questions, and so will interpret my answer based on which way they parse the original question. This is undesirable.

Thus, I feel that it is a responsibility of the answerer to unpack the question so as not to cause confusion like what you have expressed. In your case, it seems to me that you interpreted the original question as being sub-question 1, and then the answer seemed to go back on itself by addressing sub-question 2.

Furthermore, I also feel that it's necessary for us as writers on Stack Exchange to write defensively in a way, especially on the Skeptics board. There is quite a bit of authority and weight given to an answer on Stack Exchange and that weight is potentially prone to malicious misuse. If the top-voted answer to the original question was "Yes" (answering sub-question 1), a malicious person could mislead someone by priming them for an answer to sub-question 2 and then linking them to that answer, which would seemingly confirm sub-question 2. Conversely, if the top-voted answer to the original question was "No", a malicious person could mislead someone by priming them for an answer to sub-question 2 and then linking them to that answer, which would seemingly deny sub-question 1.

This reinforces the importance of writing answers in such a way that it is unambiguous precisely what question they are answering. I think that is the root cause of the issues in both questions you have cited.

  • I completely agree with your take: in summary, if there are multiple interpretations of a claim such that one is true and one is false, an answer should not say "The claim is true" or "The claim is false" but rather, "Different readers seem to have interpreted the claim differently. If interpreted as X, it is true, but if interpreted as Y, it is false."
    – Mark Amery
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 9:22
  • 1
    However, that doesn't help me much, because, as you can see in the comments above on the question, when faced with a right-wing claim that is true on its plain meaning, Skeptics users flock to argue that it's totally obvious that it's supposed to be interpreted as [some conservative dog whistle they think they've spotted, but that as an actual conservative I couldn't detect at all], and that therefore the plain meaning shouldn't be addressed and so I must be confused or dishonest or hopelessly naive to even think that anybody could interpret the claim as having the plain meaning.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 9:24
  • 4
    As you can see in the (now deleted comments) on many answers, when faced with a right-wing claim that is based on a misleading, loaded phrasing, people with no activity in Skeptics flock to argue that it's totally obvious that you should selectively read the original claim, and ignore parts of the answer, so it can be interpreted as [evidence of some left-wing plot they think they've spotted that relies on a very skewed interpretation of phrasing], and that therefore the entire site (that they don't participate in) is clearly unanimously biased against their beliefs.
    – Beofett
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 14:32
  • 3
    @MarkAmery I'd say that the question I addressed in this answer is not 'true on its plain meaning', because its plain meaning is unclear. I first read that question as being sub-question 2, and didn't realize there was a conflation of claims until I read through the full answers.
    – Sarah
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 22:11
  • 2
    @Beofett I've had answers brigaded from both sides of the political spectrum before. It seems to be especially bad when refuting talking points. My three answers with the most downvotes were refuting a claim by Trump, refuting a claim by /r/LateStageCapitalism (a left-wing subreddit), and supporting a claim that, while made by a neutral party, was made against a BLM protester. You can almost set your watch to brigades based off the question asked.
    – DenisS
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 17:55
  • 1
    @DenisStallings Unfortunately, that seems to be US politics in a nutshell. It absolutely happens, but claiming that the entire site is biased to one side or the other is absurd. The exact same behavior can be seen on IPS.se, where brigades from both sides are attracted to certain topics.
    – Beofett
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 18:10
  • It's bad here because our questions are supposed to be upvoted based off factual accuracy and legitimacy of sources, yet I've been downvoted before by someone because a source I quoted was a democrat, in spite of there being a section by Forbes supporting him below that.
    – DenisS
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 18:35

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