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.