by Brian on October 8, 2003

Juan Non-Volokh said that Joe Lieberman said something false on the weekend:

For example, Lieberman stated that the Bush Administration’s “Clear Skies” proposal to reform the Clean Air Act “actually would increase pollution” … He’s wrong … and should know better as a member of the Senate Environment Committee.

First, the proposed “Clear Skies” legislation will reduce utility emissions of NOx and SOx by around 70 percent. As I have noted before, the worst that can be said of “Clear Skies” is that it will reduce utility emissions marginally less than they might be reduced under current law – I say “might” because current projections presume that the current regulatory process will stay on schedule, and this is unlikely. Either way, this is not a policy that “actually would increase pollution.”

My first thought was that there’s a meaning for ‘increase’ that Lieberman could be using here. On second thoughts, I’m not so sure, but the semantic question is pretty interesting I think, at least if you’re a semi-professional semanticist.

I’d have thought that the meaning of ‘increase’ would be in the ballpark of these two concepts, which I define stipulatively.

X increasest Q if X causes Q to be larger than it previously was. (The t subscript is to indicate that this is a temporal concept – what matters is that Q grows over time as a consequence of X.)

X increasesc Q if X causes Q to be larger than it othewise would have been. (The c subscript is to indicate that this is a counterfactual concept – what matters is that Q is larger than it is in some relevant counterfactual situation.)

What is the relation between the meaning of ‘increase’ and my concepts increaset and increasec? If it means the disjunction of the two, or it is ambiguous between the two, then Lieberman is (arguably) off the hook, since Juan is conceding (at least for the sake of the argument) that the Clear Skies legislation increasesc pollution. Unfortunately, it isn’t obvious that either of these claims holds. Here are a couple of cases to test intuitions.

We have here a pile of rocks. The pile is a little unstable, and some rocks are rolling down it, and if left untouched they will soon roll off the pile. Merlin casts a spell that halts one of the rocks, and moves it to a stable point. While this spell is being cast, some other rocks roll off the pile. Did Merlin increase the size of the rock pile? My intuition is that he did not, even though he did
increasec it.

The Red-Haired Australian Welfare Plan (RHAWP) calls for all red-haired Australians to be given a one-time payment of $100,000. Let’s imagine (contrary to fact) that we are in a scenario where the deficit is falling fast enough that even with the RHAWP in place, it will still fall next year. In that circumstance, would the RHAWP increase the deficit? It would increasec the deficit, but not increaset it. In this circumstance I’m a little more conflicted – I’m certainly more inclined to say that the RHAWP will increase the deficit than that Merlin increased the size of the rockpile. That’s good news for Lieberman, since arguably the Clear Skies legislation will have the same effect on pollution as the RHAWP has on the deficit.

Here’s my best guess as to what is going on. ‘Increase’ really does mean increaset, and Juan is right than what Lieberman said is false. But we are happy to use it of people who exacerbate, that is increasec, something we perceive to be a problem. To test this prediction, imagine what would happen if we thought the rock pile was getting in the way of something we want to do. For example, assume it covers up a mine shaft down which a young child is trapped. I think in that case I’d be more prepared to say that Merlin increased the rock pile. And I think (very tentatively) the best analysis of the case is that it’s a case where one can appropriately say something not true because it’s a useful way of communicating something that is true.

One final question. Juan says that

A “lie” is a deliberately false statement, typically made with an intent to deceive. Not just any false statement, or bit of spin, will do. Intentional deception is key.

Hmmm, is intent ‘typical’ or ‘key’? Anyway, we might wonder whether the following situation constitutes lying. X utters S (deliberately), S means that p, X knows p is false, but X thinks S means q, and X believes q is true. I’d say that’s not a lie. And in Lieberman’s defence, that might be what happened here. Before thinking through the cases, I thought ‘increase’ might mean increasec. I now think that’s wrong, but I think it’s a mistake a competent speaker could make. (I don’t think I was incompetent before I thought about the Merlin case.) Juan makes a point of not accusing Lieberman of lying, and I think that was correct given these considerations.



theCoach 10.08.03 at 6:16 pm

On a related note, increases in budget allotments relative to real, nominal and per person figures also gets the semantic name calling game going.


Jacob T. Levy 10.08.03 at 6:18 pm

Unsurprisingly, this is a more serious analysis of the question than we ever got during the wholly-amateur-semantic disputes over when spending is “cut” during the 80s and 90s.


Dan 10.08.03 at 7:07 pm

The mathematician in me is screaming: these are terms that don’t have obvious phrasings in English, but are intuitively easy.

If you have a thousand dollars in the bank, and I pay you a hundred dollars a month, than at the end of next year, your worth will be $2000.

If I give you fifty dollars a month instead of that hundred, the amount of money-you’ll-later-have is decreased-with-regard-to-what-it-should-be
and increased relative to now.

Politicians love this game. The “tax cut” sometimes just decreases the rate of increase. “Tax hikes” increases the rate of decrease. And, apparently, the “clear skies” iniative weakens-but-does-not-kill pollution.


Jeremy Osner` 10.08.03 at 7:23 pm

Or rather, the “clear skies” iniative weakens-but-does-not-kill pollution control.


Andrew Edwards 10.08.03 at 8:13 pm

It is very, very worth noting that the sense of ‘increase’ that Leiberman used is the exact same sense in which many, many Republicans accuse the Democratic presidential candidates fo wanting to ‘increase’ taxes. That is, eliminate an otherwise-planned reduction.


Jonathan Goldberg 10.08.03 at 9:10 pm

I think that increase(c) and increase(t) are distinct concepts. If you are trying to be honest, and if the situation is such that confusion is possible, then you need to distinguish between them. Failure to do so is (IMHO) prima facia evidence on intent to lie.
I’m afraid that my intuitions and yours don’t accord at all. In your Merlin case I intuit that he did increase the size of the rock pile. In the analysis of lying, assuming that you are using “means” as a synonym for “implies,” then X is lying. It’s certainly the case that
(x -> p) & (^p) -> ^x. Q is irrelevant; if X is a competant reasoner he knows this.


Jonathan Goldberg 10.08.03 at 9:18 pm

Well, I’ve never seen THAT before. Something in the software seems to have turned my use of “(” “c” “)” into the copyright symbol. They’re taking a little too good care of me.
More seriously, it also took the “not” symbols out of my formula, rendering it gibberish. I’ll try it again:
(x -> p) and (not p) -> not x


Brian Weatherson 10.08.03 at 10:02 pm

I agree that if you know a term is confusing you should be careful using it. But the situation I was assuming at the end wasn’t like that, it was where you simply have a false belief about the term’s meaning. Then you can quite easily, and quite non-maliciously, say things that are false.

I wonder if (common) semantic mistake is a defence to libel? One for the lawyers rather than for me I think.


erg 10.08.03 at 10:36 pm

Nice analysis.

It really depends on the context of Lieberman’s statement. He could certainly say without any question of lying or untruthfulness: “The Clean Air Act actually will increase the amount of pollution emitted over the next 10 years” (which takes out the temporal element).

If I was holding some such thought in my head, I could imagine saying that the act will increase pollution, both understanding what I’m saying and being truthful (although perhaps less than clear to listeners).

Comments on this entry are closed.