Getting Pedantic about the SOTU

by Brian on July 12, 2003

In Josh Marshall’s excellent reporting on the uranium claim in the State of the Union one of the frequent qualifications he makes is that what Bush said was “technically true”. Even if it worked, this would be a fairly pedantic defence if the White House insisted on it. At least in Australia it’s _misleading_ the House that’s the hanging offence, not necessarily _lying_ to it, and presumably the SOTU should be held to as least as high a standard as daily question time. But in any case the defence doesn’t hold up. For what it’s worth, Bush’s line wasn’t even technically true.

Josh has been attributing to Bush the line that the British said Saddam was trying to buy uranium from Africa. And that may have been true. (I’ll drop the ‘technically’ from now on, since I’m not sure there’s any difference between technical truth and truth _simpliciter_.) For instance, Josh today said:

bq. Saying that the British said this was _technically_ true. Thus the speech was _technically_ true.

But this isn’t in fact what Bush said. From CNN’s transcript of the SOTU:

bq. The British government has *learned* that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. (my emphasis)

In any version of English I’m familiar with, ‘learned’ is factive. You can’t _learn_ something that’s false. I might come to believe that Sydney is the capital of Australia. I might even come to believe this on the basis of good information. (Or on the basis of a letter from someone offering $18,000,000 if only…) But I can’t learn this unless Sydney really is the capital of Australia.

I think the claim that ‘learned’ is factive should be fairly obvious, but if an argument is needed note that whoever learn something comes to know it, and one can only know what is true.

There’s an interesting question about what the status of a claim like _The British learned that blah blah blah_ is if _blah blah blah_ is false. Some people, too heavily influenced by Wittgenstein I fear, think that the sentence is just defective and is neither true nor false. (Many will put this by saying the sentence has a presuppositional failure.) I think that the sentence is just false. Either way, the sentence isn’t true, and unless ‘technically’ is a non-factive modifier, it isn’t technically true either.

If the claim about the British was put in to qualify the claim about Saddam, it backfired rather badly. If Hussein at some other (recent) time tried to buy uranium from Africa (and who knows, he probably did, I mean I’ve tried to buy African uranium from time to time for my DeLorean and I think Saddam had fewer purchasing options than I) then the unqualified claim would have been true. But since the British had no knowledge of this other transaction, what Bush actually said would still be false.

As I said, I’m not sure how much any of this matters. And to be fair to the administration, they don’t seem to be resting heavily on the pedantic defence. (Though see the fifth paragraph of this story for a possible exception.) That’s to their credit. The only point I had was that we don’t need to qualify our criticisms of them by worries about the ‘technical truth’ of the crucial sentence.

UPDATE (35 minutes later): Via Lambert on Atrios’s site I found that Tenet’s confession fudges this point, claiming that the speech _said_ that the British said that Saddam had attempted to acquire uranium. Again, to be fair, Tenet doesn’t try to rest anything on this. (Contrary to the impression you might get from a quick read through Lambert’s post.) Tenet quite properly says the standards in the SOTU should be higher than this, and I suspect that the fudge here was an honest mistake.

SECOND UPDATE (36 hours later): Via Unfogged I found that Rumsfeld and Rice are now using the ‘technically true’ line at least as part of their defence. Ogged is right that there’s little point arguing the point put here in public – the important political issue is whether Bush misled the public, not whether he lied to it. I think it’s good to know all the details, including the fact that really it wasn’t even _technically_ true. But if for some reason I was going on _Meet the Press_ to talk about the issue, I wouldn’t spend much time on that detail.



kokomo 07.12.03 at 4:46 am

Huh? You can’t learn that something is true, unless it turns out that the thing is true? And how I’ll ever know that the thing is true if I have to know the true thing before I ever learn anything I’ll perhaps never know.

So no one ever learned the earth was flat? Or no one ever learned that the mullahs say the earth is flat? I unlearn something everyday.


Keith DeRose 07.12.03 at 5:15 am

Brian is right, I think.

Tim came to believe that the Cubs won today. You know that in fact they didn’t win. Is it right for you to say, “Tim has learned that the Cubs won today” ? Seems to me that’s not correct to say. (Don’t you agree?) Why is that wrong to say? Best explanation: “Learned” is factive: If such-and-such isn’t the case, then it can’t be true to say that so-and-so has learned that such-and-such.

So, in answer to the questions at the end of the top comment above, I say: Nobody ever learned that the earth was flat, though, of course, many came to believe that it was. But many (I suppose) did learn that the mullahs said that the earth is flat, since (I suppose) they did in fact say that.


Note that it’s not just Josh Marshall who’s claiming that Bush’s statement was accurate. Here’s what Tenet said, as he fell on his sword:

“From what we know now, agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa.”

Note his big cheat: changing the falsehood Bush really said (that the Brits had *LEARNED* that…) to a truth (that the Brits *SAID* that…)

[I made the same point that Brian made in comment on Calpundit before coming over here to Crooked Timber & discovering that Brian had already made it. See: ]


kokomo 07.12.03 at 6:07 am

I don’t agree. “Come to believe” seems to leave something out, or dodge around what is at issue. How about “come to know” — could I have come to know a thing (if it were somehow later shown to be false?)

IMO I’ve learned and unlearned many false things in my life. I definately came to believe (and unbelieve) and know (and unknow) them.

I also imagine that I’ve learned a few true things, and likely unlearned some true things too. Is it possible to unlearn a true thing (say if you get a Ph.D in economics, or become a scientologist?)

When I was three, for example, I learned that I was lucky enough to have been born into the one and only sect with the map to God’s treasure in the sky. (I definately came to know this, though I never believed it until I unlearned it, and then I believed it but knew it to be false. Just kidding. I think.)


E. Naeher 07.12.03 at 7:24 am

There are two subtly different meanings of ‘to learn’ here. In the SOTU, ‘learn’ clearly meant ‘ascertain,’ which I think is pretty clearly factive. ‘Learn,’ as in the statement ‘I learned as a child that evolution was a liberal myth,’ is simply shorthand for ‘to be taught,’ which is a very different thing. In the first sense, the use of the term ‘learn’ when referring to a third party (‘the British have learned’) carries the implication that the speaker intends the term to be factive.


Dell Adams 07.12.03 at 11:52 am

Brian, this reminds me very strongly of your posts on TAAR arguing that knowledge is the same as true belief. According to which, if it turns out (as it might) that Saddam was trying to buy uranium from Niger after all, then it will have been true all this time that British intelligence did know it, and that they had learned it. Only – do they know they knew? If so, was Bush’s statement true or false, or not?

What will the President have known, and when will he have known it?


Brian Weatherson 07.12.03 at 1:27 pm

Er, Dell’s right that my posts here and on TAR aren’t obviously consistent. The short story is that on TAR I run arguments that are somewhat experimental and here I just stick to fairly orthodox views.

The long story is that on both sites I’ve kept to the view knowing (and similar verbs like learning) requires truth. What I also assumed here (but only in the sixth paragraph) is that knowledge requires some kind of connection to the truth. If the view I was floating on TAR was right, then I’m still right that what Bush said in the SOTU is false unless Saddam tried to buy uranium from Africa. Where I’d go wrong is if there was some other attempt to buy African uranium. If Saddam tried to buy uranium from Libya last October, but never tried to buy uranium from Niger, then most semanticists would say the SOTU claim was false, but the author of TAR might say it was true. In other words, if I’m right on TAR (and no one thinks I am) then Bush’s statement reduces to “Saddam recently tried to buy African uranium and the British believe that he did.” That’s still false I think – the first conjunct is still false.

Kokomo’s argument is a good one, but I think there’s a pretty persuasive response to it. (The following argument is taken pretty much verbatim from Richard Holton’s paper Some Telling Examples.)

It’s certainly true that in retelling the story of one’s intellectual development one may say things like “I learned that evolution is a liberal myth.” To get an argument against me from that fact, we need a second premise: that one can only say true sentences when telling stories. And that premise looks to be false. Quite often the rule that governs assertion in the case of storytelling is not “say what’s true”, but “say what seemed true from the point of view of the protagonist”. And from the child’s point of view, it certainly seems that s/he has learned that evolution is a liberal myth.

Richard illustrates this with a view different examples. Here’s one he borrowed from Billy Bragg.

bq. I saw two shooting stars last night. / I wished on them, but they were only satellites.

The storyteller here is not describing a situation where satellites are shooting stars. Rather he’s describing a situation where he saw two objects, thought they were shooting stars, wished on them, then discovered they were satellites. The first sentence is false, even in the context of the story, but it’s still perfectly acceptable to say it.

Two points out of that. The negative point is that kokomo’s interesting example doesn’t _prove_ that my claim about ‘learn’ is wrong, because there’s an alternative explanation of the data. The positive point is that the alternative explanation is in fact correct, and what’s going on here is a quite general phenomena about story-telling.


kokomo 07.12.03 at 4:25 pm

Regarding Bush’s statement, I think the relevant point is not only that the yellowcake claim was false, but that Bush KNEW it was false.

I continue to believe it is possible to learn a false thing.

But it is NOT possible to learn a false thing IF you already know the thing is false. Magellan, having circumnavigated the globe, could not learn from the Pope that the earth is flat.

If Magellan says “I learned from the Pope that the earth is flat” he would be making a false statement. Not only is the statement false, but it would not be acceptable (in a context where misleading statements are not acceptable).


Marie Foster 07.12.03 at 4:43 pm

Ugh… If Clinton said “I did not have intercourse with that woman.” He would have been technically correct too. However, that is NOT THE ISSUE. The issue is that someone in the Whitehouse felt it was necessary to win American acceptance of the war to bring out the nuke issue. If Tenent had said we told them to change the wording to lay the problem at the feet of the British that would be falling on the sword. What he said to me was that we told them that they were quibbling.

And for anyone to say that going into Iraq was a slam dunk without this PATTERN of weighing the facts to their side of the argument is what is going to be at the heart of the debate from now on.


Jon H 07.12.03 at 8:26 pm

Learning has nothing to do with truth values. It doesn’t really have much to do with belief, either. You can learn false things. You can learn things that you don’t believe in.

People learn false things all the time.

Many people learned in centuries past that the sun revolved around the earth. It was false, but they learned it all the same.

kokomo’s point about not being able to learn a false thing once you know the truth is interesting but I’m not sure it always holds.

It may be that what you learned was actually a temporary state. Not likely when addressing the shape of the planet, but may apply to other things.

It also would tend to apply only to things directly experienced. A person *could* learn, say, that there’s this stuff called “luminiferous aether” through which light moves (even though that was in fact false), and then later learn that there is no aether needed (which is true).


Dog Bone 07.12.03 at 8:34 pm

This statement is flawed:

“But since the British had no knowledge of this other transaction, what Bush actually said would still be false.”

We don’t know that the British had no knowledge of this because Blair says that British intelligence had nothing to do with the forged document. If Blair is lying, what Bush said would be false. If he is not (and no one knows whether he is), what Bush said is true.


Keith DeRose 07.12.03 at 10:23 pm

Someone (named Katherine) with a background in journalism made this interesting comment in the calpundit discussion:

I saw the same thing about “learned”–I don’t know anything about philosophy but I used to work in journalism. If I reported “So and so has learned that the mayor was bribed” instead of “so and so says” or “so and so claims”–I would have been in a mess of trouble.

Note how similar the statement Katherine imagines as causing trouble is in form to what Bush actually said: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” and how Tenet’s modified formulation — “The British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa” — matches Katherine’s examples of what wouldn’t cause the mess of trouble. Call me cynic, but I can’t help but suspect the change (the cheat) was made precisely to get Bush out of trouble.

I’d love to know the details of the interchange between the administration (and State Dept.) and the CIA on this. I can easily imagine this scenario: In an attempt to pressure the CIA to sign off on the speech, someone in the administration proposes: “Well, what if we just say that the Brits said that it happened?” The CIA then says OK, on the grounds that it is factually accurate to say that the British report says it happened, but then someone in the administration pulls a fast one before the speech & changes “said” to “learned”. Just speculation, of course. As I said, I’d love to learn the details of these negotiations.


pt 07.13.03 at 12:23 am

I learned that… it came to my attention that…I heard today that….I learned today from an email that its possible to grow your penis by 3 inches.


Matt Weiner 07.13.03 at 3:42 pm

Head over to Talking points memo. Josh Marshall quotes a New York Times article in which Mr. Foley, of the CIA is said (probably by himself) to have told Mr. Joseph, of the NSC that the CIA has doubts about the yellowcake information, and that they have informed the British of it:
“Mr. Joseph then asked whether it was accurate that the British reported the information. Mr. Foley said yes.”

I’ll give Foley that–“report” isn’t factive.

On the other side, I’d say that the non-factive sense of “learn” is just “to be taught.” This doesn’t apply to the British, who weren’t sitting in classrooms being told about yellowcake.

(Marie is right, anyway–the issue isn’t whether Bush said something technically false, it’s whether he said many things that were deliberately misleading. Clinton got a pass on parsing his statements from people who thought that his sex life was none of our business, anyway. Bush can’t invoke that sense.)


pathos 07.13.03 at 5:41 pm

“[W]hen I say a thing is true I only mean that I can’t help believing it — but I have no grounds for assuming that my ‘can’t helps’ are cosmic ‘can’t helps’ and some reasons for thinking otherwise. I therefore define truth as the system of my intellectual limitations.”

— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

It is therefore possible that a statement can be false for one person, but true for another (even a President) with different “intellectual limitations.”


Daragh McDowell 07.14.03 at 5:00 pm

Do the various semantic implications of whether or not the use of the word learned makes this particular sentence ‘technically’ true. The fact of the matter is that Bush and his junta have routinely lied to the world. The Iraq war is just another example of his perfidiousness, and there are plenty more examples of out and out falsehoods propogated to ‘justify’ the war:

a) Allegations that Hussein’s secularist, anti-radical islamist regime, that invaded Iran as a direct result of the Islamic revolution, somehow, for some reason entered into an alliance with Osama Bin Laden, who offered to use his jihadi Mujaheddin army to remove Saddam from Kuwait in the run up to the first Gulf War. The American media was complicit in this lie. MSNBC cut out sections of an OBL tape in which he urged the Iraqi people to overthrow Hussein, while construing sections in which he expresses support for the Iraqi ‘people’ (OBL’s words) as suport for the regime.

b) Powell’s chemical weapons trucks from the dossier he presented to the UN, that the NYT found out didn’t have access to running water, and so couldn’t make yoghurt.

c) The dossier itself, based on 13 year old intelligence used for some guy’s MA.

d) Early reports that Saddam was firing Scud missiles (prohibited under UN sanctions) at the start of the war. In fact they were homegrown Iraqi Al-Samoud missiles.

e) The presentation of the sad remnants of an Israeli scuttled nuclear program, preserved for a later day in a scientist’s backyard as ‘proof’ of a WMD program.

f) Aluminum tubes for rockets the US is still claiming were for nuclear purposes, despite the fact they are unsuitable for the purpose.

g) 1984 style claims that the President really meant WMD ‘Program’ not actual WMDs.

h) 45 minutes needed to ready WMDs.

i) Bush’s claim that ‘we have found WMD in Iraq.’

This is all excusing the notion that the document these Uranium claims are based on is so blatantly bogus, that if any western intelligence agency actually bought it, all our counter-terrorism efforts must be called into serious question. The signature on this document is from a minister who was out of office 14 years after the date on it. It is pure bunkum.

The fact is the Bush administration knows the vast majority of American’s garner their news information through headlines, hearsay, and scatterd half-facts, from tiny news segments on Murdoch controlled channels. This is how we can account for the alarmingly high percentage of Americans that believe that Saddam and Osama plotted 9/11, hand in hand, that Saddam used WMD on US forces during the war, and that Bush didn’t intentionally mislead the US public about Iraq, just as his cronies tried to convince the rest of the world who tend to keep themselves a little better informed.


Spoons 07.15.03 at 3:35 am

I agree with you that the “technically true” idea is lame — in part because I agree that you cannot “learn” something that is false.

However, I think we’re far short of being able to say whether Bush’s statement was actually true or false. We still don’t know whether Iraq tried to get the Uranium from Niger. We see know that there was at least one forged document that said so, but we also know that the Brits are saying that they have other intel that the Uranium story is true. It strikes me, therefore, that the Brits may very well have “learned” that Iraq was trying to get the Uranium from Niger.

Calling the report “false” (much less claiming that Bush “lied”) is WAY premature.


Brian Weatherson 07.15.03 at 4:22 am

Maybe some extra evidence that Saddam tried to get uranium from Africa, and we knew about this before the SOTU, will turn up, but I have my doubts. But in my defence at the time I wrote this even the administration seemed to be conceding it had been a false statement, and at least some people were floating ‘technically true’ as a trial balloon. It was only when that balloon crashed that we heard there was information the British had but which, amazingly, was too top secret to even share with their war allies. I know that allies don’t share absolutely everything, but if I’m going to war alongside someone else, I want to know exactly what they know about WHETHER THE OTHER GUY HAS NUKES. I think that might be slightly too big a detail to quibble over security clearances about. Maybe that’s why I never could get hired as a spy.


Ikram Saeed 07.16.03 at 5:09 am


Kinsley at Slate came up with the same thing you said first. Now people are giving hime credit for it! I think you have grounds to sue. In the UK of course.

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