I’ve been having a fascinating conversation this morning with friend and fellow writer Tom Knighton. It started out discussing the article on mouse utopias I’d used as a platform for my Mad Genius Club post today, and then it wandered as these things do into the human pysche and how it affects science. This conversation, plus a hilarious story by LawDog on the infamous Two Beers (you really ought to read it. You’ll laugh. But it’s also a piercing look at the soul of everyman), led me to thinking about prevarication and the plethora of humans in science.
Science as we know it would not exist without humans. This seems blindingly obvious, but if there is one thing I have learned in my studies, it’s that sometimes you have to state the apparent in order to work your way up to the obscured assumptions hidden in plain sight. I use the purloined letter method to hide gifts at my house. If I wrapped presents and stashed them in the upper part of my closet, the children could easily get in there, go ‘aha! Christmas is coming!’ but if I drape, say, a sheet over an antique corner gun cabinet and stash it in the garage near other furniture and oddments stored for later access, I can pull off the Christmas morning surprise no one saw coming. Really big lies use somewhat the same method. They stick it in a dusty, dimly lit corner, throw a sheet over it, and hope that no one gets curious and pulls off the cover.
Further than this, once they have obscured the reality, they begin to convince themselves that it is the truth and nothing but the truth. The human mind is nigh infinitely flexible. It can accommodate far more than we can imagine. We know this. We also know, and have studied, the phenomena that liars who lie eventually begin to convince themselves that they do not lie. So are they then truthtellers? How else can we explain the motivations of scientists who deliberately set out to perpetuate a fraud? Not the manipulation of images to sell a paper to a journal in order to stay employed/get a raise/further their career. No, the far more insidious attempts at social manipulation. Playing god to alter the world, which is the only way to describe the sheer enormity of falsehood in the work of men like Diederik Stapel and Hans Eysenck.
I was interested to read something recently on the way an actor’s brain changes while they are acting. It’s not just a superficial construct applied to the surface like cosmetics to the skin. It’s a mind-altering experience when it is done well. Lying must be the same way – which makes me think of the H Beam Piper classic Little Fuzzy, and the lie detector used in court during that story. The problem is: if they are detecting a lie, they need a baseline for what that mind looked like during the truth. It’s what the current ‘lie detector’ attempts to do, to read the differences between veracity and mendacity. It isn’t wholly successful, because human nature allows us to become convinced that a lie is the truth, so there is no elevated reaction when an accomplished liar makes a false statement.
I wrote in my MGC post that the internet is one of the great inventions which gives humanity hope and a diversion from the rat race of life. It’s a pathway to something collaborative that could yield great good. It is equally a pathway to great evil. It is very easy to lie online. Even those who can’t keep a poker face to save their life can bold-face type up the biggest porkies and hit send without a qualm of being discovered at it. The firehose of information spouting at each of us is like to drown us in mendacity on a daily basis, and it can be exhausting to verify all of it. It’s so much easier to lie down and accept it at face value, until we drift on an endless sea of memes and propaganda taking us hither and yon without any sense of direction. Humans, I will insert here dispassionately as I can, being myself human, take the path of least resistance.
I object to the saying that there’s no truth that can be discerned. I firmly believe that if we make the effort to be honest, and to seek out those who are honest as well, there are great truths that can be grasped. But as I’ve seen said somewhere, truth is a prickly thing to hold onto. Human nature yearns for comfort and ease, not to be poked and prodded. Particularly not to have one’s mind pricked by conscience. I like Winston Churchill’s quote, in a bittersweet sort of affection for the truth.
“A lie gets halfway around the world before truth gets it’s pants on.”
In the age of the Information highway, that is far more true than he could have imagined.