How bothered are you if something isn’t true?

Asked in abstract, people of course say that they think arguments should be in line with the facts and the if a fact is wrong it’s reasonable to point it out. Put the points in political context and have a political opponent point out errors or missing evidence and it often becomes a very different matter, however. Then pointing out errors and omissions frequently becomes pedantry, a diversion from the real issues and irrelevant. Because of course if you’re right then arguing over details of facts is just a distraction from the fact that you’re right.

The World Cup has served up a nice example of this, courtesy of a photo widely circulated ahead of the Argentina-Belgium clash, taken from a previous World Cup encounter between the two countries:

Maradona faces Belgium at the World Cup

What it appears to show is how brilliant Maradona was, having the Belgium team bewitched and outclassing them even when heavily outnumbered. What it actually shows, as Craig Robinson has pointed out, is quite different. It’s from a match where Belgium beat Argentina, and this isn’t a moment of wizardry at all. (His post explains how a disassembling post-free kick wall gave this illusion.)

So the photo is misleading and the inference attached to it all wrong. And yet, it also captures an essential truth – Maradona was often dazzlingly brilliant, bewitching large numbers of opposing players in a few moments of amazing skill, including Belgium. And hence – does it really matter the picture is of a different moment, from a different match, not showing brilliance at all once you know the context?

It’s easy to see from the example of this photo how worrying about the facts and accuracy can seem like pedantry because, dammit, the point is true anyway. You think.

(Though I’ll concede the point on Maradona. He was brilliant. Including being a brilliant cheat. But that’s a whole other argument.)

For more on this topic, see my book Bad News: what the headlines don’t tell us.

One response to “How bothered are you if something isn’t true?”

  1. The sad thing is that this was once clearly understood by most seasoned consumers of news and I believe is still taught at a fairly junior level in school history.

    I was slow to understand that embellishment of fact to explain truth was now considered dangerous and that as a society we were likely to suffer the tyranny of facts or the tragedy of fakes.

    Perhaps I am getting old. I’m starting to long for a world where a parable was an acceptable means means of conveying truth.

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