Paul Farmer, Accommodationist

You remember that Myers-Mooney showdown we all so much enjoyed?  Even the New York Times quoted this line from PZ Myers: "the word for someone who is neutral about truth is 'lying'."  Recently I read this at Pharyngula:  "pandering to your audience and hiding the truth is lying to them."  But wait a minute.  The word for someone who hides a truth is not in fact 'lying'!   Lying is deliberately saying something you believe to be false. 

Here's a nice case of "accommodation" (in the everyday sense) from the wonderful book Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder.  Dr. Paul Farmer is working in a clinic in Haiti.  As a Christian, he doesn't believe in sorcery, but his patients do.  One patient is a mother who's son has died.  She blames her surviving son for "sending" the fatal illness.  She hates him for it, and Farmer wants to intervene.  Here's his solution--
As she sits down beside Farmer and he begins telling her not that sorcery doesn't exist but that he knows sorcery wasn't involved in this instance, she lifts her chin and averts her face.  Gradually, she softens.  But it will probably take months to reconcile her fully with her surviving son.
Tracy Kidder adds that after the woman leaves, Farmer tells him he's "86% amused."

Now, what went on here?  Farmer could have tried to disabuse the woman of her belief in the son's responsibility by confronting the whole belief system it's a part of.  Instead he picks modest and achievable goals:  he tries to effect just the necessary change. The necessary change is just for her to stop thinking the one son killed the other.

Obviously, he doesn't lie to her.  It would be too strong to even say he deceived her. He does mildly mislead her, letting her think he believes sorcery might be involved in other cases.  In a way, that's admirable though.  He's trying to help her with a specific problem, not give her a western make-over. She hasn't asked him to do that. 

Speaking of vast cultural differences, the other day (in Dallas, Texas) I was behind a truck sporting a bumper sticker that said "I'll keep my guns, freedom, and money" and a "Jesus fish."  Huh?  There are Republican yard signs everywhere in my neighborhood.  Our state school board has immense power over the education of my children, and they use it in nefarious ways.  How do you try to change minds in an environment like this?  Very, very carefully.

At a minimum, everyone should agree: if science is promoted with Paul Farmer's finesse, the promoters aren't liars!

UPDATE:  Just to avoid misunderstanding-- (1) I'm not saying that Myers would disapprove of Farmer, though he'd have to say he lied to the mother, because he hid the fact that he believes there's no such thing as sorcery.  Maybe he'd think it was a case of excusable lying.   (I think Farmer didn't lie at all.) (2) I'm not saying that Paul Farmer talking to the mother is exactly analogous to science educators talking to religious people in culturally fragmented places  (like Texas). There are some similarities, though, which strike me as illuminating.


amos said...

I can give so many instances when hiding the truth is not lying.

Doctors may not tell someone, especially a small child, that he or she has a fatal illness. Is that lying?

If my woman friend asks me if she looks fat in her newly bought dress, I will tell her "no".
Is that lying?

If a small child asks me if I like his finger painting, I will inevitably say "yes". Is that lying?

I could go on, but Myer's affirmation is so simplistic that I don't find it necessary.

RichardW said...


You're conflating accommodation "in the every day sense" with accommodationism. What does your example have to do with PZ Myers? Do you really think he believes one must always blurt out the truth on every occasion, even in one-to-one counselling of a troubled person? Unless you do, the example is irrelevant to your argument (though an interesting story in its own right).

I'm beginning to see a pattern in your criticism of New Atheists. Interpret their words in the most uncharitable way possible, all the better to criticise them. Now, sure, I sometimes see that from the New Atheists too. But don't you want to be better than they are?

Anonymous said...

you might enjoy this


it looks like lying is saying something you know to be wrong + the intent to deceive.


There is no universally accepted definition of lying to others (Kagan 1998, 113). The OED definition of lying is as follows:

To lie "to make a false statement with the intention to deceive."

Jean Kazez said...

RichardW, I think "accommodationists" in the science/religion sense actually do wish to "accommodate" in the ordinary sense. They are trying to do with religious people essentially what Paul Farmer does with the Haitian woman--change her mind on one thing, without challenging her whole perspective.

So I'm not conflating anything, not changing the meaning of words. I plead not guilty.

Wayne said...

amos- I have to disagree with you on the two latter examples you give, I think those are clear examples of lying. I think the first example you give is really the problematic one. He didn't say anything that isn't true, but rather withheld the truth. In my book that amounts to lying. If I were cheating on my wife, and I didn't tell her, and she didn't ask, that would be lying.

I think what the problem here is that many people want to say that lying is universally wrong when its simply not. So we don't want to call cases in which we lie, lying, because we're not committing a wrong.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, I think there are tons of counterexamples to "hiding the truth is lying," but in all fairness, he is really making a claim about something accommodationists do, so it made sense to me to look at accommodation.

Farmer is accommodating, but not lying. There is a subtle bit of misleading, though--Farmer implies that he believes that sorcery is real, when he doesn't. There may often be that sort of misleading when scientists urge religious people to accept evolution, without openly saying there may be a conflict between the two. Subtle misleading, but not lying.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, This post is about using words correctly, so let's be careful here (sorry, I sound like a schoolmarm).

Deception takes many forms. Lying is not the only one. If you cheat on your wife and don't say anything, you haven't lied to her! You've kept a secret, you've allowed her to believe false things, you might have said things to mislead her, but to lie, you must actually say something false, knowing that it is false.

amos said...


It seems to me that lying is not telling the truth with the malicious intent to deceive. That is, "lying" is a term like
"murder": not all killing is murder and not all instances of not telling the truth with the intent to deceive are lying.

Why do I say that? Because to say that someone lies has a huge negative connotation in our culture, a negative connotation that the non-accomodationists play on and use to manipulate.

So, I think that it would be more accurate to use another term than "lying" to refer to situations such as telling a child that his finger painting is beautiful, even when it isn't.
Maybe it's an instance of diplomacy.

amos said...

Rather, let me say that lying is telling an untruth with the malicious intent to deceive and that not all instances of telling an untruth with the intent to deceive are malicious and hence, not all instances of telling an untruth with the intent to deceive are lies. Some should be called

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, We have the expression "little white lie" for that. I don't think we want to decide whether something's a lie or not based on how malicious the speaker was. Lying is deliberately saying something you believe to be false. Some lies are excusable, some not, but yes, the word has a huge "charge". So people should be careful whey they use it, and not use it when it doesn't apply at all.

amos said...

As I said, the anti-accomodationist play on the fact that we (accomodationists) tell lies, even little white lies, and ergo, we are liars. That makes us look bad.

However, I would say that some people who deliberately tell untruths with the intent to deceive but without malice are not liars, but diplomats.

I can think of certain politic figures who tell untruths in a good cause and whom I describe as diplomats or even statesmen (or women), not as liars.

Jean Kazez said...

It sounds like you want to concede a lot more to Myers than I do. I think he's wrong that accommodationists are liars. It's not just that they're excusable "diplomats". There's no lying at all, just like in the Paul Farmer case. It's flat out false to say that accommodating is lying.

amos said...

I don't think that diplomacy in a good cause is just excusable.

Let's say that Hillary Clinton says: we are aware that the Iranian government only seeks peace. She knows that that is not true, but it's part of a plan to force Iran to negotiate its atomic energy plan and to allow Iran to save face at the same time, saving face allowing Iran to make more concessions.

Is Hillary Clinton only excusable or is she totally justified? I would say the latter.

Jean Kazez said...

Maybe, but that's another topic.

Jean Kazez said...

Returning to what RichardW said--

On further reflection, I think you must be thinking of "accommodationism" as a view about the compatibility of science and religion, whereas very often the term is used to refer to a view about how to communicate. For example, in the CfI debate I referred to, it was clearly a term for a way of communicating--which was contrasted with "confrontationism." The words are used in the same way in the NYT article. So, contrary to your allegation, there's no equivocation here and no plot against "new atheists." I'm just examining whether the accommodationist approach to communication involves lying, as PZ Myers has claimed it does (more than once). Sam Harris makes the same claim about accommodationist "lying" (in the Moral Landscape, pg. 175). It's perfectly reasonable to address this.

J. J. Ramsey said...

To be fair, there's an aphorism about a half-truth being a lie, and of course, there are lies of omission, so using the term "lie" to mean "making a deceptive statement" is hardly unusual. PZ Myers is probably using "lie" in that broad sense, and there's nothing wrong with that.

(Myers is perhaps not the best person in the world to throw stones about honesty, though, given the liberties he's taken in portraying those he's criticized/lambasted.)

Jean Kazez said...

Actually, there really isn't any such thing as a lie of omission. It's part of the definition of "lie" that it involves outright saying something you believe to be untrue. I think we generally think of lying as an especially bad way to be deceptive. Calling someone a liar is especially charged. So it's really not a good thing for people to throw the word around carelessly.

I think you also have to be careful before saying that merely omitting to say something is even deceptive (let alone lying). Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I think in some cases accommodationist communication involves no lying, no deception, just nothing at all in that ballpark. You'd need to look at cases one by one.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"I think you also have to be careful before saying that merely omitting to say something is even deceptive (let alone lying)."

Oh, I agree, but I don't see much point in insisting that "lie" only means "to deliberately tell a falsehood" when it's pretty clear that people have used the term to refer to other forms of deception as well. Calling someone a "liar" is charged not simply because deliberately telling falsehoods is usually considered bad, but because it implies that someone is willfully deceptive enough to be untrustworthy. It's the accusation of untrustworthiness, not the particulars of the methods of deception, that make the accusation not something to throw around carelessly.

I would say that PZ is being careless in his throwing around the word "lie," but it's not so much because he's using the word to indicate willful deception, but rather because he is cavalier about accusing others of willful deception, period.

Jean Kazez said...

JJ, Hmm...my sense is that "lying" is always SAYING something with the intent to deceive. Honestly, I don't think the word is used more loosely. It's a special word because there's something particularly appalling about someone who outright says "X" but believes X is false. More than other forms of deception, this violates some sort of basic trust about the use of language.

But yes, even apart from lying, dishonesty and deception are serious things. If accommodatonists were just dishonest, but not liars, that would be a big deal. But I don't even see the case for that.

RichardW said...


>RichardW, I think "accommodationists" in the science/religion sense actually do wish to "accommodate" in the ordinary sense.<

You're committing a fallacy of affirming the consequent. Accommodationism is a type of accommodation, but it doesn't follow that all accommodation is accommodationism. So just because Paul Farmer is engaged in accommodation, that doesn't make him an accommodationist.

>On further reflection, I think you must be thinking of "accommodationism" as a view about the compatibility of science and religion, whereas very often the term is used to refer to a view about how to communicate.<

It's both. But it's not a general view about how to communicate. It concerns a specific question. You cited a paragraph of the NYT article. That paragraph was specifically concerned with the question, “How publicly scornful of religion should we be?”. Note: publicly. Paul Farmer was not involved in public discourse.

As in our previous discussion, you're using a vague expression (this time "way of communicating") in describing the view you want to criticise, so that you have a broader target for your criticism. But then your argument fails to apply to the original, narrower target.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"If accommodatonists were just dishonest, but not liars, that would be a big deal. But I don't even see the case for that."

Neither do I. I'm a bit surprised that not many have called PZ on the fact that he's making a huge accusation with little support. Maybe they don't want the Pharyngulite hordes spamming them with abuse?

Jean Kazez said...

RichardW, Obviously the title of the post was humorous. Obviously only the communication aspect of "accommodationism" is relevant to Myers/Harris calling accommodationists "liars." Obviously to assess that specific accusation, it's fine to look at examples of communication on many subjects. Obviously the Paul Farmer example does have relevance. Now if you think there's something about it that makes it not 100% relevant, go ahead and tell me what it is.

(Also obvious--you completely missed the point on that other thread. You were militant about a small issue and couldn't see the forest for the trees.)

Under your cloak of anonymity, you've been aggressive and arrogant. It's cowardly. If you want to pose like "the expert" give me your name and title. Let me decide if you have a right to act that way. In fact, I'm going to make that the rule. You're not welcome here unless you both change your tone and tell me who you are. As it is, you're just wasting my time.

RichardW said...


I don't claim to be an expert, just a careful thinker who has pointed out some specific fallacies in your arguments. If that's arrogant, so be it. You could have asked for my name before accusing me of being "cowardly". I'm always happy to give it if asked. I'm Richard Wein. I live in Bristol, England. Look me up if you're ever in the area. I'm nicer in person. ;)

Sure, the issues we're discussing are not very important, as I specifically acknowledged in the other discussion. And I suppose I have been very persistent. You could always have ended the discussion by saying, "Yes, I made a small error. But it's no big deal." However you seem to be one of those people who just can't admit they've made a mistake, even on a minor point.


Richard Wein said...

P.S. I've changed my blogger.com profile to show my full name.

Jean Kazez said...


Thanks for the name, but I think the arrogance continues. No, you dind't "point out fallacies"--you tried to, and failed. And no, there's no reason I should have "admitted" your point. I conceded part of it, showed what was wrong with the rest, and explained why it didn't affect the larger issue. I think this has all take up way too much time, honestly, so--peace be with you. I'm sure you're very nice in person.

Gareth Chan said...

I'm a bit late to this one, but Jean, could I ask what your full definition of 'lying' is? If lying involves saying something you believe to be untrue (which is enough to be the whole definition, IMO) then - leaving aside 'good/bad' value judgements, for the moment - isn't that what Paul Farmer did? What else is in the definition, according to which what he said is not a lie?

IMO it was a lie (in that he said something he thought was untrue) but a justified one if you agree with his goal. His goal was to produce the best health outcome for all concerned, and telling the truth might have made matters worse.
The mother in question might have had different views, of course! My guess is that if she found out what he really thought, she'd think she'd been lied to. Hmm.

Jean Kazez said...

He said "Sorcery wasn't involved in this instance." He believed that was true (and it was true), so he wasn't lying!

What you're presumably thinking is that saying this probably caused the woman to believe Farmer thought sorcery is involved in some killings. However, he didn't say that, so he didn't lie. Yes, he does mislead, but he doesn't lie.

I think "lie" is a very charged word with a very specific meaning--so it should be used correctly. Farmer didn't lie, and accommodationists don't lie when they allow others to go on thinking science and religion are compatible, even if they themselves have doubts about that.