From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Lie-to-children is a phrase used in the book The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Jack Cohen, and Ian Stewart to describe a simplified explanation of technical or complex subjects as a teaching method for children and laypeople.

Because some topics can be extremely difficult to understand without experience, introducing a full level of complexity to a student or child all at once can be overwhelming.[original research?] Hence elementary explanations are simplified in a way that makes the lesson more understandable, though technically wrong. A lie-to-children is meant to be eventually replaced with a more sophisticated explanation which is closer to the truth.[citation needed]

Such statements are not usually intended as deceptions, and may in fact be true as a first approximation or within certain contexts.[citation needed] For example, Newtonian mechanics is less accurate than the theory of relativity at high speeds and quantum mechanics on small scales, but it is still a valid approximation to those theories in many situations.[original research?]

The concept of a lie-to-children has been compared to Wittgenstein's ladder,[1] named after the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.


The term "lie-to-children" appeared in the book The Science of Discworld (2000),[2] co-authored and partly based on ideas created by Terry Pratchett, and in The Collapse of Chaos (1994) and Figments of Reality (1997), both by the other two co-authors of The Science of Discworld, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen.

The definition given in The Science of Discworld is as follows: "A lie-to-children is a statement that is false, but which nevertheless leads the child's mind towards a more accurate explanation, one that the child will only be able to appreciate if it has been primed with the lie".[3] The authors acknowledge that some people might dispute the applicability of the term lie, while defending it on the grounds that "it is for the best possible reasons, but it is still a lie".

The reference to children seems at first to be literal, as the authors use different phrases for cases that involve adult audiences (for example they say of themselves "we belong to another, equally honorable profession: Liar-to-readers"). Later in the book, however, the term "lie-to-children" is used to include all examples of the pedagogical strategy, without reference to the age or composition of the audience. This inclusive usage can be understood as a metonymic extension of the literal sense, or as a self-demonstration, the early definition being a lie-to-children itself, implicitly refined to the "more accurate explanation" by its broader use later.

Related concepts and aspects[edit]

The boundary is fuzzy between widespread misconceptions versus lies-to-children.[original research?] One significant difference is that genuine misconceptions are resistant to further instruction, and are often believed firmly (sometimes passionately) by adults.[original research?] On the other hand, students will easily recognize and discard the lies-to-children as more advanced concepts are acquired. Another significant difference is that a lie-to-children will tend to have some degree of truth in a limited context (e.g., "You cannot find the square root of a negative number"[notes 1]) while a misconception will often simply be wrong (e.g., tongue taste map, coriolis-in-the-bathtub).[original research?]

The Buddhist version of Wittgenstein's ladder is Upaya (translated "expedient means").[original research?] Plato's version is the noble lie.[original research?] While Upaya or the Noble Lie can be (as in Wittgenstein) teaching devices or stratagems to be superseded at a later stage; in many cases the laity only ever learns the exoteric doctrine, with only the elite ever learning the true esoteric version.[original research?]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This statement is true if one only considers the real numbers familiar from elementary education, but false if one considers the complex numbers.


  1. ^ "Netanyahu’s narrative: how the Israeli PM is rewriting history to suit himself". The Conversation. 27 October 2015. Retrieved 4 February 2016. 
  2. ^ Pratchett, Terry; Stewart, Ian; Cohen, Jack. The Science of Discworld. ISBN 0-09-188657-0.  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  3. ^ Kastens, Kim (26 October 2011). ""Telling Lies to Children"". Carleton College. Retrieved 4 February 2016.