Tom Pittman's WebLog

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2007 August 13 -- Living in Crete

Cretans are always liars -- Epimenides
Philosophers might think the Cretan Epimenides meant that as some kind of joke, an impossible sentence meaning essentially "I am lying when I tell you I am lying." St.Paul quoted him and broke the paradox by pointing out that even lies can contain elements of truth. My friend Phil, the military intelligence agent, responding to (and denying) my query about possible CIA involvement in 9/11, repeated the same insight:
Propaganda is the "skilled mixing of 99% truth with 1% deception to produce an overwhelmingly convincing message that is 180 degress opposite of the truth."
In other words, the lie is the intent of the whole utterance to deceive, not whether any individual component is true or false.

When I was younger, I was willing to split that semantic hair, convincing myself that I was not "lying" if what I said was literally true, even when it (intentionally, of course) gave an impression contrary to fact. However, working in Bible translation and being exposed to a particular linguistic theory called "relevance theory" helped me to see that the intended and communicated message is what is the lie or truth, not how you split the semantic hairs. Phil got it exactly right.

A policy of absolute honesty (never intending to deceive) has its downside. I tend to project on other people my own values, despite that I live in a modern version of Crete. Diogenes was not the only person who could not find an honest person -- not in Athens, and also not in the USA. I try to believe in their honesty, but sometimes it just doesn't add up. I have a pretty robust "BS Detector" that tells me when somebody is giving me a line, but I cannot tell whether they know it (so it's a lie), or just ignorantly repeating "urban legend." I am not very skillful at distinguishing lies from ignorance. Ignorance can be corrected, but the function of lies is thwarted when they are corrected, so the liar gets very unhappy (aka "not-angry") at my efforts. Again, not my intent.

My BS Detector

It turns out there are some incidental phenomena that liars often forget to account for, which sometimes helps:

1.  I call this one the "Moses Test" in honor of its first proponent [Deut.18:22]. Once you catch a person in a lie, nothing they ever say can be trusted. In a smaller context, the same principle applies in debate or when somebody is trying to sell an idea or product: if some of the reasons contradict each other, then they are all lies. The same applies if they tell you about lying to some third party, whether it's true or not, you cannot trust them not to lie to you.

2.  My undergraduate major was mathematics, which is essentially the study of things that are absolutely true. One of the most astounding insights I got from that is that no matter what calculation you use, if you don't make any mistakes, you always get the same answer. If it doesn't add up, something is untrue. Scientists use this methodology all the time in deducing the facts of science, and it's a large part of my "BS Detector". Nobody is smart enough to make all facets of their lies add up, it can't be done. In fact, if all the parts added up, it would be the truth. So all you need to do is check for consistency. Liars don't worry about little failures, they just try a different lie; people who made an honest mistake recognize the problem and withdraw their claims -- or else work with you to find the problem. Contradictions, even in the reasons given, is a robust pointer to a hidden (that is, dishonest) agenda.

3.  People invest in what they believe. Talk is cheap, and flattering lies come easily to people with Feeler values or who want favors. However, they will commit a personal investment only in what they believe -- in other words, the truth. This is what makes the stock market a more effective predictor of the future of the economy than the prognostications of a "think tank." To get past flattery, look for what the person is willing to spend their own money on.

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