Lying Without Lying?

Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Book Review, Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments

In my recent post Lies and Damned Lies I ran into the problem of defining a “lie”, meaning an untruth, and “lying” meaning a deliberate spinning of an untruth. The difference here is not a small one, and it is one worth exploring.

If an untruth is spun, where the person doing the spinning is unaware of the untruthfulness of the proposition, is the person actually lying, or is it something else? Can someone be called a “liar” if they do not know any better? And what part does ignorance play in this?

With all this talk about lies on my blog, it may come as no surprise to you that I just finished reading Sam Harris’ essay “Lying“. A short piece, not really a book as such but rather a long blog-post on 54 pages, an easy 20 minute read, but packed with ideas about lies and lying. In it, Harris proposes “Two Types of Lies”:

Ethical transgressions are generally divided into two categories: the bad things we do (acts of commission) and the good things we fail to do (acts of omission). We tend to judge the former far more harshly. The origin of this imbalance remains a mystery, but it surely relates to the value we place on a person’s energy and intent.

This covers off situations where we willingly lie to cover ourselves or others, and times where we do nothing in a situation where we could prevent an outcome. I propose a third kind of lie, as I have said; the act of telling an untruth without knowing that it is actually untrue.

This kind of lie, though often not the fault of the one lying, comes from bad education, from religious indoctrination, from suspicions about the world backed up by crackpots and cranks, from the media spin on situations, and a combination of these. The lies that come from people subjected to this kind of misinformation cannot really be blamed on the one spinning the lie, not if thy person is ignorant of the alternatives.

For instance, if a child is brought up being told of the restorative powers of the local faith healer, sees the “miracles” with his or her own eyes, and lives in a remote community which only comes in contact with people in the same situation, is it any wonder that this child will grow to believe in the restorative powers of this healer? If a child is brought up in Afghanistan, and is told during their upbringing that women should be considered second-class citizens, and be covered head to toe in cloth to avoid “temptation”, is it any wonder that this child grows up to defend this misconception?

At this point I think it’s safe to say that there is in fact a fourth kind of lie, a much more insidious and dangerous lie. This lie treads the ground between real belief, denial, cognitive dissonance and willful ignorance. This is the kind of lie that Creation Ministries spin, the “truths” that are extrapolated from the bible conflated with cherry-picked science, and the lies of the “Intelligent Design” movement (“Intelligent Design” is simply a marketing tool used to sell creationism in a faux-scientific package). And not all lies of this type are religious either. For example, as Harris illustrates in “Lying”:

Consider the widespread fear of childhood vaccinations. In 1998, the physician Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. This study has since been judged to be an “elaborate fraud,” and Wakefield’s medical license has been revoked.

The consequences of Wakefield’s dishonesty would have been bad enough. But the legacy effect of other big lies has thus far made it impossible to remedy the damage he has caused. Given the fact that corporations and governments sometimes lie, whether to avoid legal liability or to avert public panic, it has become very difficult to spread the truth about the MMR vaccine. Vaccination rates have plummeted—especially in prosperous, well-educated communities—and children have become sick and even died as a result.

The people who are bamboozled by the claims of the anti-vaccination movement do so from fear; fear of government, fear of “big-pharma”, fear of misinformation. Yet they fall victim to the very fear they try to avoid, because this kind of misinformation thrives on fear, and uses fear to create an environment where facts are replaced with “gut-feelings” about situations.

Remember the 3 Premises of Charles P Pierce’s “Idiot America“?

1. Any theory is valid if it moves units (rating, and making money).

2. Anything can be true if it is said loudly enough.

3. Fact is what enough people believe (the Truth is what you believe).

The lies become facts in the minds of the people who subscribe to them, so can we blame these people for their misconceptions about the world? Can we really blame someone who truly believes a false position?

I think we can, to some degree, because this kind of ignorance can be changed, through education. In my piece “Africa Needs God? Like A Hole in the Head!“, I outline how education from a secular basis could provide a self-sustaining African culture, where instead of overwriting one set of superstitious dogma with another, the dogmas are replaced with the sound foundations of our understandings of the universe. We can make changes to the way people believe, what they believe, and what they take as fact and truth. This needs to start at an early age, because any belief held for a lifetime is harder to exorcise than new information.

I think Harris’ book-ette is a great introduction into the complexities of truth, facts, misinformation and lies, but much more can come from this conversation. This is a topic I may revisit again soon.

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  1. Lying without lying (when done intentionally) is called prevarication – a deliberate mis-representation of the truth.

    Lying without knowledge is called ‘ignorance’. It should be amended, not condemned.

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  2. A lie without a liar? What next; a creation without a creator? ;)

    It often seems unfair to call the teaching of misinformation a “lie” (of omission) when it’s more a mistake.

    When it comes to changing minds about science, the social sciences are actually undermining the “information deficit” model. Chris Mooney et al.

    Yes education profoundly compells the public into agreement, HOWEVER in rare instances it polarizes the public. In that polarized context, it turns out that you’re very unlikely to change my mind with education, information, facts. I’m more likely to dig me heals in.

    Worse, if I’m knowledgable and a critical thinker then I’ll be better at “reasoning”, lawyering, doubling-down. And in a public debate you probably cannot control the “framing” of an issue (like you can do in an experiment) to make me more receptive to changing my position.

    What this suggests is that to change minds we need targetted messages, not simply a better educated public.

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