Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Gullibility and Lies

I am a bad liar. I don't like lying, and as a result, I don't do it very much. This creates a virtuous circle - because I don't lie, I don't get practice at it, and so I'm bad at it, so I don't have any incentive to lie, since I won't be believed. I'm happy with this, because I have ethical reasons to avoid lying that aren't worth detailing here.

But it also means that I am generally bad at detecting lies.

This isn't because I can't recognise the signs of someone being shifty, or analyse where a story appears unlikely. When I'm primed to detect lies (negotiations with people I don't know, excuses for bad behavior), I'm fairly good at it.

Instead, I'm bad because my default presumption is that people are telling the truth. This is the mind projection fallacy at work - I can envisage that people might lie when cornered, or for some material advantage, such as to gain a sale.

But the idea of just casually lying about something, when there aren't large incentives to do so, is rather baffling to me. I guess that's why I get taken by surprise by it.

It turns out that Barack Obama admitted to lying in his autobiography, 'Dreams From My Father'.  He describes a girlfriend, which it turns out is actually a 'composite of several girlfriends'.

[See update at end - apparently he acknowledged doing this at the start of the book. The rest of the post is as it was written without this in mind]

Huh?!? Exactly what kind of bull$*** is that? Is this an autobiography, or an embellished work of fiction roughly based on the life of Barack Obama, written by Barack Obama?

The claimed defence is the following:
“It is an incident that happened,” [Obama] said. But not with her. He would not be more specific, but the likelihood is that it happened later, when he lived in Chicago. “That was not her,” he said. “That was an example of compression. I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them. So that was a consideration. I thought that [the anecdote involving the reaction of a white girlfriend to the angry black play] was a useful theme to make about sort of the interactions that I had in the relationships with white girlfriends. And so, that occupies, what, two paragraphs in the book? My attitude was it would be dishonest for me not to touch on that at all … so that was an example of sort of editorially how do I figure that out?”"
In other words, the classic 'fake but accurate' defense. It would be dishonest to not touch on the theme, so I just made stuff up. Which really is the higher truth, no?

I can understand not wanting to talk about girlfriends specifically. I can understand leaving it vague, or not mentioning who was who. I can understand leaving out names, or stories, or even the whole question of girlfriends altogether.

I cannot understand making up an entirely bogus composite character, and never mentioning that this is what you're doing.

I have only two modes with which I evaluate the truth of people's statements.

Initially, I give people the benefit of the doubt about their statements being true, unless I have a circumstantial reason to suspect that the person has a clear incentive to lie. I'll evaluate whether they might be mistaken, obfuscating or avoiding. But I generally assume  an absence of a level of bad faith sufficient to deliberately make statements that are known by the speaker to be false.

Each person, however, gets only one chance to lose that presumption. Once it's gone, every statement they make gets evaluated in the cold and cynical light of whether there is outside evidence to confirm its likelihood, and whether they might have any reason (however small) to lie.

Half Sigma notes that once you start evaluating the rest of the Obama biography in this light, there's plenty of other stuff that doesn't add up:
The story in Obama’s memoir about how he arrived in Manhattan with no money and no place to live seems rather weird. Wouldn’t Columbia make sure a promising affirmative action admit would have a dorm room? I’ve attended several colleges, and never was there not a place for me to live. I suspect that Obama just made that up to make the memoir more interesting. In reality, people’s lives are boring. I suspect that most of the best memoirs are works of fiction.
More fool me.

It's hard to express exactly why this story disgusts me so much. A politician lied? News at 11! A few paragraphs in a book you've never read are false - what's the difference?

And yet, I cannot shake the notion that for elected leaders to be so utterly shameless and unapologetic for lying over such a trivial benefit? It profits a man none to trade his soul for the whole world, but for a slightly more exciting memoir?

I cannot think this is a small thing.

The great Alexander Solzhenitsyn had something to say about living by lies:
So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood--of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one's family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies--or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one's children and contemporaries.
And from that day onward he:

  • Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.
  • Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people, neither on his own behalf not at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, not in a theatrical role.
  • Will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.
  • Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.
  • Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand not raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.
  • Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.
  • Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question.
  • Will immediately talk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.
  • Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed.

But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.

And he who is not sufficiently courageous even to defend his soul- don't let him be proud of his ``progressive'' views, and don't let him boast that he is an academician or a people's artist, a merited figure, or a general--let him say to himself: I am in the herd, and a coward. It's all the same to me as long as I'm fed and warm.

If we are too frightened, then we should stop complaining that someone is suffocating us. We ourselves are doing it. Let us then bow down even more, let us wail, and our brothers the biologists will help to bring nearer the day when they are able to read our thoughts are worthless and hopeless.

And if we get cold feet, even taking this step, then we are worthless and hopeless, and the scorn of Pushkin should be directed to us:

``Why should cattle have the gifts of freedom?

``Their heritage from generation to generation is the belled yoke and the lash.''

Words to live by.

Update: VarianB in the comments points out the update to the article that noted that Obama apparently noted at the start of the book that some of the characters are composites. I still don't understand why you'd want to write a not-quite-autobiography, but it's not dishonest to do so if you let people know. The implications of dishonesty are thus unfair, and retracted. I still like the rest of the post, so perhaps take the point in the abstract.


  1. Um, you'll want to read the Editor's Note at the top of the article you linked to from Politico.

    In the introduction to the book, Obama says he is making composite characters. The quote is "For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology."

    Also, "With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the names of most characters have been changed for the sake of their privacy."

    In other words, it was never a history, never a literal reporting.

  2. Okay, that makes more sense.

    I still don't get why you'd want to write an autobiography this way, but that's a separate question. If you make it known to readers that that's what you're doing, then caveat emptor. 'Live not by lies' is different from 'live not by storytelling that is identified as such'.

    On the plus side, my faith in politicians is partially restored.

    On the humbling side, I seem to have done Mr Obama a disservice with the implications of the post. Let the record be corrected.