Updated: Jun 8
What's a lie, and what to do about it?
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that there must be four things present to make a lie: a statement is made, that statement is untrue, the statement is told to someone else, and there is an intent to deceive by the speaker. To its credit, the same source cautions that there are plausible objections to all these conditions. Even a statement being made as a precondition for lying is up for debate: any action that willfully encourages misinformation can stand in for a stated lie... or even inaction that prevents the truth from being known.
A cleaner, albeit broader, definition is found later in Stanford’s treatise:
“To deceive [is] to intentionally cause another person to acquire a false belief, or to continue to have a false belief, or to cease to have a true belief, or to be prevented from acquiring a true belief.”
The full truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us all.
Differences Between a Lie and a Not-Truth. If getting a working definition of lying seems challenging, applying it to the real world is even more bewildering. The following are some of the basic types of lying and near-lies.
Lie of Commission. You say the dog is black when you know very well that the dog is white. But perhaps you had good intentions? You know that the owner asking about his dog mistreats his pet: the intention to do good is honorable but it doesn’t erase the lie. The intent of the speaker to deceive matters.
Lie of Omission. You're asked if you saw the neighbor's missing dog and you say nothing, including that you've decided to keep the dog for yourself. This one is a classic for most small children: if I just don’t say the lie then I haven’t lied. But our working definition covers a lot more ground. By allowing your neighbor to continue to believe the dog is missing the lie reappears, like an unwelcome rabbit from a magician’s hat. One variant is the “short-sell:” if the liar keeps going to the next link in the chain of the argument it would weaken their position, so they intentionally stop short of the truth. “I saw your pup yesterday” is the truth unless the continuation is “…and today in my backyard.”
Not-Truth of Ignorance. You said you saw the dog but later found out it was a fox. Before the invention of a clock that could operate reliably at sea, mariners died by the thousands because the only means available of determining longitude (like dead reckoning) weren't precise, and as a result their ships were dashed on the rocks they thought were miles away. The navigator believed the ship’s location was here but it was actually there - although it’s missing the "intent to deceive" element necessary for a lie. Cold comfort to the sailor’s families.
Lie by False Equivalence. You saw the dog but instead choose to tell the owner about other times when you had seen the dog off-leash or digging up your garden, implying that they shouldn’t even be asking about their mischievous dog. This lie is usually facilitated by the petitioner’s willingness to connect dots that shouldn’t be connected and by repeated exposure. By repeating claims that this (2020) or that (2000) federal election was invalid because of a few incorrectly cast ballots, an air of doubt descends over the entire practice of voting. A variation is the “dog-whistle” which says one thing but connotes something else supporting a different goal, like making voting procedures more secure against immaterial threats in order to dissuade entire segments of the population from voting or citing that illegal immigration was a leading cause of pandemic-spreading. Tidbits of truth are there, but because they aren’t divulged, placed into a proper context, and allow a false perception to continue it’s a lie.
Not Truth of Perception. Modern forensics has helped overturn hundreds of criminal convictions in the United States. A majority (69%) of these cases were based in part on eyewitness testimony. This error of judgment can be partially explained by a famous experiment that presented viewers with a video of two sets of people in different-colored shirts passing a basketball. Those watching the video were asked to count the number of times each color group caught the ball. Over half the participants were so focused on counting that they failed to see a person in a gorilla suit walk across the floor, thump its chest, and walk off. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-winning psychologist-economist, has termed this phenomenon as "fast” or “System 1” thinking. When told about the missing gorilla, the people that didn't see it often expressed disbelief and sometimes anger. This part of the experiment may sound like the culmination of a political discussion you had during Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago, but unless there was an intent to deceive this action doesn’t meet the qualifications of a lie.
The Truth is Out There…but Do You Want It? With our faulty faculties and the many liars or near-liars out there, how can we support honesty at the individual or societal level? If we want to increase the level of honesty in reporting, tweets, and candidates it’s heartening to remember that while we have characteristics that make us vulnerable to lying we also possess traits that make powerful allies against it, like asking questions and the unalloyed satisfaction of proving someone wrong.
First, check the source - where did this statement originate, what's their / its reputation, has the source a record of retractions and corrections (that’s a good thing), and is there motivation for the source to be less than completely honest? Going a little deeper should reveal tools that the source employs to verify its work, and how it reacts to negative criticism. National Public Radio (NPR) employs a Public Editor / ombudsman to publish independent reviews of its stories with the intent of making the work better. This position attracted national attention over flaws it revealed in a 2011 series on South Dakota’s questionable practices placing fostered Native American children. The conclusion of the story was mostly true, but the storytelling was biased and contained inaccurate information. A New York Times reporter committed blatant acts of journalistic fraud for years and was ultimately fired. The Times acknowledged the reporter’s intentional deceits, citing it as a low point in their 152-year history; NPR assumed a more defensive posture but did keep their Public Editor.
Second, dig - if it's a study, how many subjects were tested, how representative are those subjects of the whole population of affected people, has the result been replicated, who reviewed it, and is there credible counterevidence? One rule of thumb is that the more outlandish the claim - Jewish-owned companies sponsoring space lasers that cause wildfires - the more validation should be required to substantiate it. In order to deal with the issue of the time needed to substantiate a story, the infographic-addicted periodical Delayed Gratification promotes “slow news” by researching important stories for three months before it publishes them.
Third, ask if this is a one-off story that is being told many times over to conceal a different objective, like repeated stories of the "welfare queen" (a false-equivalence lie based on one person whose worst crime may not have been stiffing the welfare system in the 1970’s) used to score political points and successfully slashing basic support that millions of people depended on. The infamous “pizzagate” case in 2017 was the culmination of one lie told many times. A North Carolina man believed so strongly the stories he was told repeatedly of a child slavery ring being operated from the basement of a Washington, DC pizza parlor that he traveled out of state to the restaurant, heavily armed and ready to mete out some vigilante-style justice to kid slavers. Not only did he not find any child slaves, he didn’t find a basement. If the potential damage a lie causes is one metric for how vigorously its credibility should be checked before repeating it, then this story should meet any standard: child slavery and forced child labor are very real and tragic concerns, and their seriousness is diluted when it is used for the base purpose of discrediting political opposition.
Lastly, we could demand that popular information sources present basic validation tests alongside the information their platform is communicating. Thanks to social media outlets, automated “bots” (or just roomfuls of poorly paid fake ratings trolls) that repeat a false message thousands of times across social media sites and the willingness of political figures to benefit from such claims, repeat messaging has become a conveyor belt of lies. Cross-checking sources and scoring their credibility (think of ratings like those given to Uber drivers) while far from perfect could help avoid multi-faceted smear campaigns like those sponsored by Russia during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. Such rating schemes also sidestep the difficulty of self-censoring content, a feat that social media platforms struggle to pull off. Maybe Elon Musk will place honesty on the same pedestal as free speech in his new vision for Twitter.
Lies for the People. People need fiction, not just for entertainment but in everyday life. A dollar bill in our wallet or the number in a checking account has value because we all agree to go along with a fiction. We don’t know how the bread or meat got to the table, and we don’t really want to know the truth of the thing because we think it’s likely to be boring, irrelevant, or disgusting. Generally, these fictions are beneficial, or at least neutral. Hannah Arendt, the Nazi-era philosopher, reminds us of the power of fiction to do harm.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
She notes that even when a populist leader is proved to have openly lied, the fanatic follower will cover for them by falling back on cynicism and mockery of those who honor honesty, facts, and integrity. Reading Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, written in 1951, often creates an eerie sense of familiarity with modern populist movements.
Better recognition of reporters and organizations that do the tedious work of great journalism is important, since it’s hard to get agreement on how, or even if, information outlets should self-censor their content. One day we may watch the “Truthy Awards” where little crossed-arm statues are handed out for the Lifetime Fact-Checker Award, Most Promising New Editor, and Best Supporting Source.
Even more important is to do what your teachers and parents probably told you to do a long time ago: admit when you lie. To that bromide I would add correcting damage done by the lie. Take back the tweet, edit the erroneous Reddit post. If a statement seems fantastic and the source suspect, keep it to yourself for a while. If a falsehood about a tree falling in a forest is told to no one, then the lie didn’t occur.
Confessions of past lies would be easier if the public reaction was to congratulate the confessor for their (belated) courage for coming forward, but more often the result is ridicule and dismissal. But a confessed liar knows that they will be scrutinized closely going forward, must work harder to regain trust, and be more motivated to check their sources. Perhaps the first step on the road to honesty begins with a single lie.
Mahon, James Edwin, "The Definition of Lying and Deception," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/lying-definition.
Sobel, Dava. 1995. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. New York: Walker.
Robb, Amanda. “Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal.” Rolling Stone, November 16, 2017, https://www.rollingstone.com/feature/anatomy-of-a-fake-news-scandal-125877.
Kahneman, Daniel, 1934-, Olivier, Sibony and Cass R., Sunstein, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment. New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2021.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
Brockell, Gillian, She was stereotyped as ‘the welfare queen.’ The truth was more disturbing, a new book says. The Washington Post, May 2019 https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/05/21/she-was-stereotyped-welfare-queen-truth-was-more-disturbing-new-book-says (accessed May 3, 2022) reporting on a book authored by Levin, Josh, The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group. May 2019.
Hananoki, Eric, “Marjorie Taylor Greene penned conspiracy theory that a laser beam from space started deadly 2018 California wildfire: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has done little to stop Greene’s ascension in the Republican Party,” Media Matters for America, January 28, 2021. www.mediamatters.org/facebook/marjorie-taylor-greene-penned-conspiracy-theory-laser-beam-space-started-deadly-2018.
Folkenflik, David, “Ombudsman Differ On S. Dakota Indian Foster Care Series,” National Public Radio, All Things Considered, August 12, 2013 (accessed May 15, 2022). www.npr.org/2013/08/12/211386932/npr-ombudsman-differ-on-s-dakota-indian-foster-care-series
Dan Barry, David Barstow, Jonathan D. Glater, Adam Liptak and Jacques Steinberg. Research support was provided by Alain Delaquérière and Carolyn Wilder, “Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception,” New York Times, Correcting the Record, May 11, 2003 (website accessed May 15, 2022). www.nytimes.com/2003/05/11/us/correcting-the-record-times-reporter-who-resigned-leaves-long-trail-of-deception.html.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.
Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election. Volume 5: Counterintelligence Threats and Vulnerabilities. www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/documents/report_volume5.pdf (accessed May 23, 2022).