Lies, Damned Lies… and Political Lies

The famed British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is reputed to have said "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." His wry comment (later quoted by Mark Twain) was intended to call attention to how easily we can be misled by spurious precision.  Perhaps this is what inspired Darrell Huff’s classic small book, How to Lie with Statistics.

Some lies are useful, of course.  White lies, by definition, are falsehoods that are motivated by kindness, or a desire not to offend someone.  (Well, some can also be a bit self-serving.)  Then there are the lies that serve some high purpose.  As Winston Churchill famously put it, "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

But now we are experiencing a category of lies that deserves its own distinct label: Political lies.  These are lies that are intended to build public support for a leader and his/her political agenda.  Donald Trump didn’t invent political lies.  Adolph Hitler is still the role model and modern-day master.  What Hitler characterized as “the big lie” in Mein Kampf was (among other things) used by him to demonize Jews -- to stigmatize them racially, to blame them for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and the economic depression that followed, and to create a rationale and readiness in the public mind for what ultimately became the Holocaust.

Donald Trump’s lies do not sink to this level of depravity, but he is without precedent in a modern democracy as a wanton political liar, and he has set some records for manipulating the truth.   At year’s end, the Washington Post had counted up over 2,000 of them since the 2016 election.  Some have been used to inflate his public image.  Others have denigrated political opponents.  Some have been designed to exert political pressure on other public officials.  Some have been used to undermine the influence of the media and its messages. (The chutzpah of so many fallacious claims of “fake news” by the man who is himself a fountainhead of fake news is historic in its irony.)  Some lies have been contrived by Trump to try to discredit the investigation into his possibly illegal behavior.  And some have been used as smoke-screens to advance policies that were either wrong-headed or had a nefarious hidden agenda.

All this matters a lot because political lies undermine the connection between the electorate and the actions of their leaders, and the ability of the citizens to exercise control over them – the very essence of a representative democracy.  They are a kind of camouflage.  We are ultimately to blame for this disconnect from truth-telling.  We elected this man and should have known better.  Once upon a time, not so long ago, a single significant public lie was enough to end a political career.  But when political lies are shrugged-off or even rewarded, they are likely to metastasize and multiply.  There will be no end to them.  Only if we call out the liars and punish them for their transgressions will we be able to re-inoculate our political discourse.  It’s not too late to get started on this task. 



Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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