“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” –President George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 28 January 2003
It appears this statement is 100 percent accurate. A CBS report, however, states:
Before the speech was delivered, the portions dealing with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were checked with the CIA for accuracy, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.
CIA officials warned members of the president’s National Security Council staff the intelligence was not good enough to make the flat statement Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa, sources tell CBS News. [Note: Regarding my comments below, I am assuming this statement is both accurate and true. Surely, it would have been better if CBS had named the source.]
The White House officials responded that the September paper issued by the British government contained the unequivocal assertion: “Iraq has…sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
As long as the statement was attributed to British Intelligence, the White House officials argued, it would be factually accurate. The CIA officials dropped their objections and that’s how the charge was delivered.
That the administration believed the British intelligence was questionable adds an interesting subtext to this simple, declarative statement, but it in no way challenges its technical accuracy. As a rhetorical maneuver needed to bolster the president’s argument last January, it’s an excellent example of hiding behind the correspondence theory of truth.
In short, this theory says that for a statement to be true it must correspond to a fact in the world. And the fact may be checked with a meta-statement, e.g. “It is raining outside” checked with “It is raining outside if and only if it is raining outside.” (Something I find fascinating about correspondence theory: Its meta-statements create tautologies.)
Like other transactionalist philosophers, I consider the correspondence theory seriously flawed. This situation points out one of those flaws. While the President’s statement is “true”–it corresponds to facts–the theory cannot handle the truth of the subtext. For that we need a better theory. I suggest the embodied theory of truth of Professors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson following from cognitive linguistics: A statement is true if what the speaker/auditor understands a statement to mean fits what the speaker/auditor understands the situation to be.
The common-sense feel of correspondence theory supports much of Western thought. Challenges are few; acceptance of those challenges is rare. This situation allows a rhetor to craft statements that are “true” for rhetorical purposes while maintaining escape routes in the semantics and the subtext.
This situation creates a paradox, which a theory of truth should not do: One may deceive by stating the “truth.” While this is possible with the correspondence theory, it is a more difficult achievement with embodied theory. Embodied theory suggests this: If the administration understood the statement to mean Iraq in fact was trying to obtain uranium from Africa, but the statement does not fit what they understood the situation to be, then the statement is not true.
(A final caveat: These are theories of linguistic truth, not capital T truth or transcendent truth or some other kind of objective truth. That’s an important distinction. What we’re talking about here is how to decide if a human utterance is true.)
PoliticalWire has a round-up of this morning’s coverage.