Big lies

Sacca pāramī : truthfulness, honesty

Today I want to briefly consider the effects of big, public lies by institutions or organisations. Because we know that people in positions of authority sometimes bend the truth, color the facts, or outright deny reality, it is not a given that we can trust the press or any other organisation.

(from Lying by Sam Harris):
Most of us are now painfully aware that our trust in government, corporations, and other public institutions has been undermined by lies.

Big lies have led many people to reflexively distrust those in positions of authority. As a consequence, it is now impossible to say anything of substance on climate change, environmental pollution, human nutrition, economic policy, foreign conflicts, pharmaceuticals, and dozens of other subjects without a significant percentage of one’s audience expressing paralyzing doubts about even the most reputable sources of information. Our public discourse appears permanently riven by conspiracy theories.

Of course, certain controversies arise because expert opinion has come down on both sides of an important issue. Some questions are genuinely unsettled. But confusion spreads unnecessarily whenever people in positions of power are caught lying or concealing their conflicts of interest.

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 This study has since been judged to be an “elaborate fraud,” and Wakefield’s medical license has been revoked.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.

An unhappy truth of human psychology is probably also at work here, which makes it hard to abolish lies once they have escaped into the world: We seem to be predisposed to remember statements as true even after they have been disconfirmed. For instance, if a rumor spreads that a famous politician once fainted during a campaign speech, and the story is later revealed to be false, some significant percentage of people will recall it as a fact—even if they were first exposed to it in the very context of its debunking. In psychology, this is known as the “illusory truth effect.” Familiarity breeds credence.
(end of quote)

For the reasons cited above, it is important for each of us to develop trusted sources for important information. For example, while they are occasionally wrong, The Economist news magazine presents data that’s as reliable as anything publicly available. Once you correct for a bias towards private enterprise, their facts are generally trustworthy. Even with organizations we have known for a long time and believe to be reliable, we should “trust but verify” before taking action based on information that we don’t know directly.

Even more important is that we filter everything we say and write with a fine mesh of truthfulness. This is the only information source we control, and it’s our responsibility to make it reliable and worthy of attention.

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Filed under Perfections, Speech, Uncategorized

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