Artful Paltering in Science?

I wanted to explore this more.

Artful paltering: The risks and rewards of using truthful statements to mislead others.

By Rogers, Todd,Zeckhauser, Richard,Gino, Francesca,Norton, Michael I.,Schweitzer, Maurice E.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 112(3), Mar 2017, 456-473


Paltering is the active use of truthful statements to convey a misleading impression. Across 2 pilot studies and 6 experiments, we identify paltering as a distinct form of deception. Paltering differs from lying by omission (the passive omission of relevant information) and lying by commission (the active use of false statements). Our findings reveal that paltering is common in negotiations and that many negotiators prefer to palter than to lie by commission. Paltering, however, may promote conflict fueled by self-serving interpretations; palterers focus on the veracity of their statements (“I told the truth”), whereas targets focus on the misleading impression palters convey (“I was misled”). We also find that targets perceive palters to be especially unethical when palters are used in response to direct questions as opposed to when they are unprompted. Taken together, we show that paltering is a common, but risky, negotiation tactic. Compared with negotiators who tell the truth, negotiators who palter are likely to claim additional value, but increase the likelihood of impasse and harm to their reputations.

Paltering is a type of dishonesty, distinct from telling a falsehood or unintentional omission. It is the intentional withholding of pertinent information to mislead.

What examples of paltering have you seen in science, the origins debate, and perhaps even COVID-19? To the extend possible, try and identify it in communication from more than one camp in the conversation, not just the people with whom you disagree.


I honestly can’t recall having seen someone give a pro-evolution argument on those topics that deliberately left out information which the person was aware of and, if included, would alter the conclusions to those arguments.

1 Like

I was recently ask to look at a website questioning the safety of vaccines. The site claimed that “150 children has died in a vaccine trial” sponsored by Bill Gates Following thru to the NEJM article cited. There were indeed 150 death on-study in the Gates’-funded trial, but they were roughly equal between vaccine and Control arm of the study, and no statistical difference. BLATANT PALTERING.

I am officially adding this word to my regular vocabulary.

I have encountered paltering in evolution debates too. It’s hard to distinguish between deliberate lies by omission and confirmation bias from cherry-picked sources.

I have sometimes gone into a Facebook debate group and posted (with examples) about how well science works for it’s intended purpose. These posts attract very few dissenting comments and are soon lost buried by newer posts to lack of interest. To me this signals a sort of reverse-paltering, where people fail to acknowledge an inconvenient truth.


I’m sure you’ve seen this before:

I am uncomfortable with evolution because it would mean God does not exist.

Well, there is just a ton of evidence for evolution, let me show it to you. Ready to abandon God yet?

Left out of this exchange is, “evolution does not show God does not exist.” If the atheist here knows this and does not correct it, it does seem deceptive. Everything he said is true, but it players, revealing he is promoting atheism more than advancing science.

To be sure, we could rework this dialogue with a Christian anti-evolutionist too. So it is not as if this is uniquely an atheist problem.

To be sure, not all atheists do this either. And I would not even guess the prevalence.


I’ve never seen anyone do it. Are you sure it happens? And in the dialog you made up, the second person simply accepts the first person’s premise, apparently for the sake of argument.

1 Like

Really? While I do agree, of course, that evolution does not show that gods do not exist, it does seem to me that a person whose expertise is stronger in biology than in arcane religious mutterings is likely to focus his attention on the “evolution” part of that and not get dragged into an angels-on-heads-of-pins argument about the peculiarities of his correspondent’s theology.

I can’t recall seeing “paltering” in pro-evolution arguments. The very nearest thing I can think of is that when trying to explain evolutionary theory to creationists, it’s often necessary to start very, very simply, and that leads to simplified examples. Those simplified examples can be argued with – they may leave out important aspects of what is going on – but they typically are not so much “wrong” as “incomplete.” The difficulty is that when dealing with people who are extremely ignorant, you’ve got to start somewhere. A lot of these people have been reading Discovery Institute stuff and have got their heads loaded with the most extraordinary nonsense.


I certainly have seen this, but emphasize again all atheists do not do this.

More common I think is scientists just leaving out because they want to stick with the science. But that can be misleading, unintentionally in this case, because it grants a false premise. I don’t think I’d call it deception in that case, just poor communication.

1 Like

Can you cite a real example?

Yes but I’d rather not. This thread is not intended to call specific people out. For now you can take my word for it or not. I’m not sure it matters much, as this is meant as an illustration.

I think a lot of this happens in popular Christian apologetics (not just to do with evolution), where they tend to focus on statements by major scholars which happen to support Christianity but don’t mention about the dissenting opinions. For example, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ claims to be a journalist’s investigation of the evidence for Jesus, but all the experts he interviews are evangelical scholars. (A similar strategy is done in The Case for a Creator to support ID.) It would have been I think there’s nothing wrong with the content of these books per se - there’s no obligation to always present both sides of the argument - but if you’re just presenting the Christian side, then honestly say so and don’t give the impression that no other scholars disagree with the ones you interviewed.

This is also why, in my Resurrection article, I took care to mention significant dissenting opinions and at least briefly address why they don’t present a significant problem for my argument.

I also think some scientists are naive or ignorant about the possible diverse philosophical interpretations there can be even about established scientific facts and theories. One common example is the use of the term “random”, “mindless”, “purposeless”, etc. when describing evolution. Perhaps those terms have a limited and specific meaning in biology, but just because biologists cannot find purpose using scientific methods does not rule out a higher sort of purpose to nature that theists believe. If there were less of this sort of rhetoric when talking about evolution, I think Christians would have less problem accepting evolution. (For example, I don’t think we ever talk about purpose or mind in physics.)

Another example. Carl Sagan famously said the following about the pale blue dot. I’ve bolded the parts where I think he goes away from strictly the facts to philosophical interpretation:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…

…The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”


Is it, though? There certainly ARE Christians whose “theology” is inconsistent with evolution. I meet 'em all the time. Why would someone whose primary interest is in defending evolutionary theory want to get involved in a side discussion about whether it can be squared with someone’s own peculiar views about Biblical inerrancy, et cetera? In my experience, that’s invariably pointless.

I recall the last time I tried to do it. I pointed out the evolution-friendly views of various theologians, of the Catholic church, of friends of mine who are devout, et cetera. All I got back was “that’s nice, but I know why those people are wrong,” followed by a few Bible verses that were evidently thought to self-authenticate the Bible’s inerrant character. And that’s fairly typical. Why should it not be? Someone who has already concluded that the Bible is inconsistent with evolution isn’t going to listen to the views of a non-Bible-believer who says it’s not.


Is it possible that you misunderstood the comments you’re thinking of?

In the way you phrase it, I really haven’t. But I think your example is a bit simplistic. For example even though I would agree that I don’t think evolution shows(as in proves) that a personal God doesn’t exist, I would say that evolution is extremely implausible on many mainstream theistic conceptions of God. To square the two you have to invent a whole host of unlikely, ad-hoc hypotheses that just don’t follow naturally from the proposition that theism is true(that there is a God that takes an interest in human affairs).
And they’re all invented, they’re not compelled by any analysis of life’s evolution(nothing in the process by which life evolves compels the hypothesis that a God exists), nor from any reading of scripture(nothing in scripture compels the hypothesis that life evolved over billions of years, or that all extant life shares genealogical lines of descent from a single common ancestral species).

While that doesn’t “mean God doesn’t exist”, a posteriori if evolution is true, it does make it much less likely.

Anyone who thinks that evolution means that god (in general) doesn’t exist is mistaken. My experience shows this to be far more common among Christians than among atheists. Now, whether any of these people is withholding information, I don’t know but mostly doubt.

The closest I’ve seen to “paltering” in defenders of evolution is persistent equating of ID with creationism. It is a fact that the vast majority of IDists are creationists, and it is a fact that ID was intentionally used to smuggle creationism, but it is also a fact that many IDists aren’t creationists in any sense of the term and (perhaps more importantly) that ID does not entail creationism. Once a person knows this, they should avoid making the claim, but I see it a lot.


I understand where you’re coming from, but all of these statements involve assumptions about a certain hermeneutic of Scripture, theology, metaphysics, and epistemology. If a hypothetical Christian holds a view of God that is easily disproven by evolution but also turns out to not cohere with what the most knowledgeable theologians throughout have believed (and the atheist is aware of this), wouldn’t it be misleading for the atheist to claim that his arguments disprove God in general? Basic academic etiquette is to try to attack the strongest form of your opponent’s argument that you can think of, not the flimsiest versions.

Yes, the vaccine debate was the first thing that came to mind for me, as well, and it really raises my blood pressure when I see it


The political arena seems to be full of these types of paltering arguments

There is also the classic technique of using statistics to “lie”


It’s hard to judge the prevalence because these people also tend to be the most vocal. It’s much the same with the most vocal of YEC/ID.

I’ll guess you aren’t on the FB argument groups much. Good for you!

Yes, that’s exactly what happens. on the YEC/ID side the accepted premise is that YEC/ID is making a scientific argument in the first place. People on one side bait the others into argument based on a false premise, and judging from the popularity on such groups, people must enjoy it.

1 Like

I reject Facebook entirely. They better stay off my lawn.

Can you offer a real example of this behavior? No need to mention names, just quote.

1 Like

YEC want to argue with others about science. They see themselves as being under attack in an increasingly secular world. By starting these arguments, they draw attention and come under attack by those wanting to defend science, fulfilling the view they are under attack, and enabling the YEC to think of themselves as martyrs to the cause.

That last paragraph is paraphrasing a friend who passed away last year. A man of deep faith, knowledge, and wisdom.


Look me up on FB. I can point to to some argument groups where this happens regularly … wait … a better idea … don’t do that, it’s a big waste of time. :wink:

That one is very common, and often repeated even after multiple corrections. We see that one here.

Listening is not their goal.

One of the finding of Judge Jones in Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board was (paraphrasing), “Intelligent Design is Creationism.”
ID prevaricates - It’s Creationism when it wants to be, and science when there are real or perceived gaps in knowledge. Ask about the nature of the Designer, and the answer will be some version of “ID does not address that question.”

ARGH! Tell me about it! :angry:

1 Like