“I don’t believe you” vs “You’re lying”

If there’s one aspect of misinterpretation that really gets my goat, it’s this: “I don’t believe you” = “You’re lying!”

And it’s quite easy to see why this misinterpretation is made. Someone makes a statement and the person listening expresses skepticism, and the person making the statement interprets the skepticism as being accused of manufacturing details. I’ve come across this numerous, numerous times.

A little over a month ago, I had an exchange on Facebook regarding Martin Shkreli — yes, him. Shkreli had stated that he jacked the price on the toxoplasmosis medication Daraprim with the intent of spurring research into a new toxoplasmosis drug. He also acknowledged the price increase would cause another company to produce a generic. A click-bait headline stated that Shkreli was “fuming” when a San Diego pharmaceutical manufacturer did just that.

Going off Shkreli’s public statements, I said that Shkreli likely was not “fuming” with that development and that everyone “focused only on the new price” and basically ignored everything else he said. In response, a friend said, “He has no real intention of using profits to fund research, nor does he sincerely hope that his actions will motivate the development of safer treatments.”

My response was quite direct:

And when did you become a mind reader? Absent any other indications of his intentions, we can only go on his statements, which is also called giving him the benefit of the doubt. So if you have anything else you can point to that indicates his true intentions, then let’s have it. Otherwise, give him the benefit of the doubt and take his statements as his intentions, unless you’re not wanting others to give you the benefit of the doubt. And if you’re not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, why should anyone else give it to you?

In response, a friend of that friend responded with “Sorry, know the guy, [friend] has it”. I challenged that statement:

You know [Shkreli] personally and have spoken with him about this particular move and his motivations behind it such that you can speak to his motivations? Sorry but I don’t believe you. But even if you did, you’d still be engaging in hearsay which makes any such statements untrustworthy. And saying you “know the guy” doesn’t mean what you say about his motivations on anything is correct, as a person you know can still surprise you.

When the friend of friend replied saying “Believe what you want – clearly you will”, I challenged further:

It’s not a matter of what I believe, [friend of friend], or what I want to believe. What I believe is immaterial. What you believe is immaterial. It’s a matter of what can be demonstrated to be true. And in some cases, we have little choice but to take a person’s statements prima facie — that is, assume them as true unless or until they can be shown to not be true. Why is this a concept so difficult for others to understand?

So unless you or someone else can *demonstrate* or has demonstrated his statements as false, then he is to be afforded the benefit of the doubt, regardless of whether you feel he deserves it or not.

Be skeptical all you want. There is nothing wrong with questioning someone’s motives or whether someone’s motives are genuine. But before you call someone a liar — which both you and [friend] are implying herein — you’d better be ready to demonstrate that they lied or otherwise hold your tongue. Otherwise, why should I hold mine?

If I still have you at this point, I’ll give you a quick demonstration of what I mean.

You’ll notice that above I did not call you a liar, implicitly or explicitly. I did not say or imply you knowingly and deliberately made a false statement in claiming you “know the guy”. For all I know, you just might. Or you may not. I have know way of proving the statement false, so I must assume it to be true — not accept it as true, only assume it is true.

That’s why I focused on whether you spoke to him specifically about his move regarding Daraprim.

The friend of friend’s responded saying they interpreted my statements as calling them a liar. My assumption is the friend of friend thought I should have just taken as fact unless I could disprove it their statement that they “know the guy” and, therefore, could speak to Shkreli’s intentions.

That’s not how things work. That isn’t just a shift in the burden of proof. It’s declaring that one should be able to manufacture statements and that no person can challenge them.

Expressing skepticism with regard to someone’s claim is quite different from stating the claim is false. If I say “I don’t believe you”, I mean just that: you haven’t convinced me your statement is true. If I say “You’re lying”, it means I can demonstrate your statement is false and I can demonstrate that you know your statement is false. Obviously, then, there’s an in-between.

To this extent, I have defended Anita Sarkeesian against accusations that she is a liar with regard to the content she has produced for her non-profit, Feminist Frequency:

Evidence shows Anita misrepresented herself and gained tremendous financial benefit from that misrepresentation, and I believe the evidence demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that she committed fraud. She professed to be a gamer, but the level to which she played video games, or once played video games, is likely on the same level that someone who has built a computer could call themselves an “expert” at building computers.

But with regard to the content she has created, I think it’s a little bit of a stretch to say that Sarkeesian was lying, as that means she was being knowingly and intentionally dishonest with what she was presenting. The entire project stems from a fallacious starting point, though, in that she entered her research with a preconceived notion and bias, and she was looking for any evidence that could support her point. But a fallacious premise does not mean she was being knowingly and intentionally false with her statements. To say she was is a tough statement to prove.

Even with regard to Hitman and the video that Thunderf00t made on the scene in question, we can’t really know if Sarkeesian (or as proxy of her researchers or John McIntosh) is lying about the game. In all cases, however, Anita was certainly misrepresenting the games portrayed in her videos, with plenty taken out of context. Many have pointed this out. But it is not correct to call her a liar with her misrepresentations without also proving she knowingly misrepresented the games in question.

And I’ve gone further, in that one should not call someone a liar without maintaining context. Again, defending Anita Sarkeesian:

Context is what matters. We’ve all lied at some point, so would it be fair to hold the banner of “liar” over everyone’s head? No. Anita certainly misrepresented herself and gained financially from that misrepresentation. But with regard to her content, to say she was being knowingly and deliberately false in what she presented is a bit of a stretch. As such to call her a liar without limiting the statement to the context in which it can be proved she was knowingly and deliberately dishonest is not fair to Anita, just as it would not be fair to anyone else.

And again, this time responding to a video by Liana Kerzner:

You and I share the same definition on “liar” and “lying”. As I said in a couple comments in threads on your previous video, to me lying is being knowingly and intentionally false on statements being made. And I keep to that definition in part because I believe in always giving someone the benefit of doubt. Someone could be saying something that is demonstrably false only because they didn’t know.

But even then, I also feel that if you want to say someone is lying or is a liar, the context needs to be maintained. Everyone has lied at some point in their lives, I feel it is safe to say. But it is not fair to hold the banner of “liar” over everyone without also mentioning the context in which they lied, while also being able to demonstrate that they were being knowingly false in their statements. The latter is a tough standard to reach, and intentionally so. It isn’t fair to call someone a liar in any context unless you can show they were intentionally conveying information they know is false.

I believe whole-heartedly in giving everyone the benefit of doubt. It is why I’m a very staunch defender of due process. Sadly, I’m often a part of a very, very tiny minority when it comes to that.

Expressing skepticism toward a statement is not calling a person a liar. And generally when you make a statement with regard to someone else’s intentions — as opposed to your own intentions — you are making a material statement. Whenever you make a material statement, expect to be challenged, especially if you are making a statement with regard to someone else’s intentions.

Again, lying is a deliberate act. A person lies when they knowingly make a statement that is false. Along with lying comes fraud and perjury, both of which are treated as deliberate actions. You cannot “accidentally” commit fraud or perjury, just as you cannot “accidentally” lie. You can be mistaken with regard to a certain statement, due to being misinformed or making incorrect assumptions, but that is quite different from making statements you know to be false.

And unless you can demonstrate that statements someone made are false, and you can demonstrate that they knew or should have known those statements are false, you should not call someone a “liar”.

But again saying “I don’t believe you” is not and should not be interpreted as saying “You’re lying”. Lying means you know your statements are false and I can show it. “I don’t believe you” just means you need to try a little harder to convince me.

And if someone says to you “I don’t believe you” and you interpret that as “You’re lying”, then you believe whatever you say should be accepted as true regardless of whether it is true.