Lies and Untruths

Big lies are pretty much the same on all ends of the political starfish. I am more interested in persistent white lies and in the mechanisms of collective self-delusion. I think they are more common on the Left. In fact, I believe they underlie liberal thinking to a large extent.

Although I have been living most of my adult life with these kinds of untruths, in academia, I am only now trying to gain a precise understanding of the relevant psychology. It takes leisure time and some perspective, I suppose. I have spotted two big sources of half-involuntary mendacity, so far .

I have frequent conversations with a young liberal I chose deliberately because he is thoughtful, curious and he seems intellectually honest. (I don’t waste time on older people and I don’t waste time with liars; they are almost always boring.) We have had several exchanges on the reality of global warming. He sent me a long email explaining why he believed it was real while admitting he did not understand the science behind the claim and did not try to. I don’t try either; I don’t understand it either; I don’t have to. I know a liar and a fabricator when I see one. If your cause or your theory is good, you never have to lie about it. The last sentence of his last email stated that he had to go, on this issue, with the “majority” of scientists. I heard a click go off in my brain. This sounds oddly familiar though I have not heard it said so clearly.

The concept of numerical majority is useless except in two ways, one big and one small. The big way concerns ethics. When a group must make a decision about which it is divided, it may let any subgroup who can muster half of the votes plus one make the decision. This practice minimizes in a small but decisive way the absolute number who don’t get their way. It’s a minimalist way to be fair in a situation where many will be displeased with any decision. It’s an ethical solution to a bad problem. It’s also an ethical last resort. It’s better to arrive at a compromise. Incidentally, a good compromise is one from which everyone walks off pissed!

Majority rule may also be a little bit useful to harness the power of numbers. Other things being equal, given one hundred stakeholders, 51 will out-muscle 49. However, things are rarely or never equal. Furthermore, the argument becomes much less compelling as the number of stakeholders grows. It’s really not obvious that 100,000,001 are ever stronger than 99,999,999. (Yes, Mary, the first number is a majority of the total! The total is 200,000,000.)

My young radlib friend adopts a majority rule rule of thumb to solve a problem he cannot technically solve by himself. (And neither can I.) This is psychically quite beneficial. It subtly saves him from exercising ordinary skepticism by making the decision an ethical decision, a moral decision.

This practice involves self-deception, of course, for two reasons. First, I am sure my friend knows that neither Galileo nor Darwin had a majority for quite a while. For twenty, perhaps fifty years following Darwin’s belated book, the majority of those who were educated about such matters squarely voted against evolution through natural selection. Second, in a narrow area of endeavor involving esoteric measurement techniques, costly data gathering, large government grants, and few players, one has to guard against the possibility of a self-interested and willfully deceitful majority. One has to be especially prudent and mistrustful when the matter at hand inspires religious fervor, as climate change does. (I tend to dismiss conspiracy explanations in general. It does not mean that they never happen. They do, under specific conditions.)

I hear liberals who are nice people do this all the time: Changing the subject so that morality, or presumed morality, takes the place of a critical examination of the facts and of the relationship between them. I will tell you about the second mechanism of liberal deception and self-deception in a short while. Stay in touch.

PS  I forgot: I am not dealing here with the untruths of politicians, pundits or other professionals in the political arena but with those of the rank-and-file, regular people who also have a brain.

2 thoughts on “Lies and Untruths

  1. Lies are an integral component of the political toolbox regardless of party affiliation and so long was policy is built upon a foundation of falsehoods, it will be doomed to failure.

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