A half-truth comes in several forms, and is a deceptive statement, that includes some element of truth. The statement might be partly true, the statement may be totally true but only part of the whole truth, or it may utilize some deceptive element, such as improper punctuation, or double meaning, especially if the intent is to deceive, evade blame or misrepresent the truth.
The purpose and or consequence of a half truth is to make something that is really only a belief
appear to be knowledge
, or a truthful statement to represent the whole truth, or possibly lead to a false conclusion. According to the justified true belief
theory of knowledge, in order to know that a given proposition is true, one must not only believe in the relevant true proposition, but one must also have a good reason for doing so. A half truth deceives the recipient by presenting something believable and using those aspects of the statement that can be shown to be true as good reason to believe the statement is true in its entirety, or that the statement represents the whole truth. A person who is deceived by a half truth (there are several kinds) will then consider the proposition to be knowledge and act accordingly.
- "You should not trust Peter with your children. I once saw him smack a child with his open hand." In this example the statement would be technically true, but the other half of the story is that Peter was actually slapping the child on the back, because he was choking.
- "I'm a really good driver. In the past thirty years, I have only gotten four speeding tickets"* This statement is true, but irrelevant if he or she started driving a week ago and has since accumulated four tickets.
- "I am a healthy person. I eat six servings of vegetables a day." True, but irrelevant if the servings of vegetables are served deep-fried and soaked in butter.
- The classic story about Blind Men and an Elephant. Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant and reaches a different conclusion about the nature of the elephant; while each man's experience of the elephant is accurate, none of them have a full understanding of the nature of the beast.
Some forms of half-truths are an inescapable part of politics in representative democracies
. The reputation of a political candidate can be irreparably damaged if he or she is exposed in a lie, so a complex style of language has evolved to minimise the chance of this happening. If someone has not said something, they cannot be accused of lying. As a consequence, politics has become a world where half-truths are expected, and political statements are rarely accepted at face value.
William Safire defines a half-truth, for political purposes, as "a statement accurate enough to require an explanation; and the longer the explanation, the more likely a public reaction of half-belief".
In his 1990 work The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of 1989 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague, Timothy Garton Ash responded to Vaclav Havel's call for "living in truth":
Now we expect many things of politicians in a well-functioning parliamentary democracy. But "living in truth" is not one of them. In fact the essence of democratic politics might rather be described as "working in half-truth". Parliamentary democracy is, at its heart, a system of limited adversarial mendacity, in which each party attempts to present part of the truth as if it were the whole.
Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said in 1953: "There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil". If this is true, statements, or truths, which according to Whitehead are all half-truths, are susceptible to creating deceptive and false conclusions (see Alfred North Whitehead).
Richard Brodie links half-truths to memes "the truth of any proposition depends on the assumptions you make in considering it - the distinct memes you use in thinking about it". Brodie considers half-truths are a necessary part of human interaction because they allow practical application of ideas when it is impractical to convey all the information needed to make a fully informed decision, although some half-truths can lead to a false conclusions or inferences in the world of logic.
The notion of half-truths has existed in various cultures, giving rise to several epigrammatic sayings.
- Karl Kraus, an Austrian journalist, critic, playwright, and poet noted, "An aphorism can never be the whole truth; it is either a half-truth or a truth-and-a-half"
- William A. Mathews, author of Lonergan's Quest: A Study of Desire in the Authoring of Insight, stated, "All maxims have their antagonist maxims; proverbs should be sold in pairs, a single one being but a half truth."
- Ardha-Satya Mithya Apeksa Bhayankara Translation: Half-truth is more dangerous than falsehood.
- Arthur Koestler "Two half-truths do not make a truth, and two half-cultures do not make a culture."
- Yiddish Proverb "A half-truth is a whole lie."
- Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist who made fundamental contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, said, "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth." This reflects the little understood world of dimensional truths, or half-truths as they are called.