A Philosopher's Blog

Facts & Lies

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on April 28, 2010
Still Using Those Same, Tired Old Lies?
Image by nyominx via Flickr

It is a generally accepted truism that politicians lie.  What is interesting is that this view does not generally result in a healthy skepticism on the part of most people. Instead, people tend to assume that the liars are the politicians they disagree with and that the folks they agree with are speaking the truth.

For example, there are folks who believe that Obama is lying about his nationality and insist on proof for his being an America. Some of this same folks simply accepted the claims about death panels without even pausing to consider the credibility of the claims. Folks on the left are also guilty of this. Interestingly enough, people have very strong views about matters yet they rarely bother to critically consider the key claims. Fortunately, the folks at FactCheck.org seem to do a decent job of actually checking on the facts. Sadly, the facts often seem to have little political weight.

One interesting question is why politicians make false claims. The obvious answer is that they think that lies will work. In many cases, they seem to be right: telling people what they want to believe often works far better than the truth.

There is also the possibility of honest mistakes. After all, merely being wrong is not the same thing as a lie (a lie requires an intent to deceive). Being a professor, I am well aware that most people are not that great of keeping track of the facts. As an obvious example, most people get about 70% of the exam or quiz questions right on material they have actually studied. As such, it is hardly a shock when someone makes a factual error.

People often seem to simply fail to listen to what is being said, thus leading them to say and believe things that are not true, even though there is no intent to deceive. To use a specific case, for the past few weeks I announced(and wrote on the board) that my last office hours would be Thursday April 22 from 3:25-4:25. As always, shortly after I said that people would say things like “so, your office hours are 3:00 to 4:30…so can I take my make up test at 3:00?” or on April 22 they would say “Okay, I’ll come in on Friday during your office hours to talk about my grade.” If people can be honestly mistaken about something as simple as when my last office hours are, then it seems easy enough for people to be mistaken about more complex and contentious matters.

In some cases the idea of a mistake does not fit. After all, when the false claims consistently match  the person’s ideology or are in accord with her political ends then something else is likely to be at work.

One likely explanation is bias-people tend to see the world through the filters of their political ideologies. As such, a person will tend to “process” the facts in such a way that matches her world view. In some cases this is primarily a failure to be a critical thinker rather than being deliberately deceptive. To use an analogy, a parent will see her baby as beautiful even when the baby is, in fact, wicked ugly. As with the parent, people who tell (and buy) political lies might truly believe the claim.

Another likely explanation is that the lie is just that-an intentional act aimed at deceit. Historically the Greek sophists argued that there is no objective truth and what mattered is success. It seems likely that we still have contemporary sophists who take that view: it is not the truth that matters but merely winning.

The cure for errors and bias is, of course, learning critical thinking skills and learning the facts. Of course, learning to be critical is much harder than simply believing whatever matches a person’s ideology and prejudices. However, if we prefer truth over lies then this is something we must do. We do not have to tolerate the lies of politicians-we can call them on this and make sure that there are consequences to such deception. This requires being critical of all politicians, including the ones that share a person’s specific ideology. This is, I admit, a hard thing since it is so very tempting to believe that what we like is what is true.

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3 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on April 28, 2010 at 7:51 am

    Why no mention of Plato’s Noble Lie?

    In politics a noble lie is a myth or untruth, often, but not invariably, of a religious nature, knowingly told by an elite to maintain social harmony, or the social position of that elite. The noble lie is a concept originated by Plato as described in The Republic. However, the concept has far greater scope and has been used by many commentators to talk about much more modern issues in politics (see Modern views, below). A noble lie, although it may benefit all parties, is different from a white lie since a white lie does not cause discord if uncovered whereas noble lies are usually of a nature such that they would do so.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 28, 2010 at 12:16 pm

      The noble lie is relevant. So, it should be added that perhaps the politicians tell some lies for the greater good. I am inclined to be against noble lies for two reasons 1) lying seems to have an inherent negative value (which can, however, be overcome) and 2) the negative consequences of even a noble lie seem that they would generally outweigh the positive.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on April 28, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Good post. I was thinking about this same issue myself just this morning. I was thinking that, in this day of Nietzschean “ethics” (i.e., will to power) it’s become more a matter of winners and losers as opposed to right and wrong or truth and lies. Sadly, many people today embrace this nihilistic approach to truth (= power).

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