Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Lie by Any Other Name

After reading his post, Not So Simple, in which Sree showed how the simple present tense is anything but simple, it occurred to me that using the simple present is a great way to lie. I then started to think about seemingly endless number of ways that people lie.

In english, the use of the simple present tense can mask any number of lies. The lies are twisted in a way that makes it hard to identify them. Yet, there's often something about a statement that nags at you and makes you think, "Hmm..."

For example, the statement "Teflon writes this blog" is simple and straightforward, but it lacks completeness and therefore, clarity. Yes, Teflon writes this blog, but is he the only one who writes it? Is he even the most frequent contributor?  Based on the simple statement, on might easily conclude that Teflon is the sole author, though he's not.

"Susan gets angry" might be true enough, but it may occur only once in a blue moon. If one were to try to clarify or contest it, the person making the statement might counter with another simple present statement, "So, are you trying to tell me that Susan does not get angry?"

As Sree pointed out, statements made in the simple present tense imply habitual activity; there's a built in always or never.

Unnecessary Dichotomy
The simple present tense makes it easy to set up a quite common form of lying, the unnecessary dichotomy, the forced yes-or-no answer so popular among television lawyers. "So Mr. Antwerp, do you or do you not get still beat your wife? Please answer the question, yes or no!"

Whenever I see this on TV, I think, "Hmm... to answer the question as stated would be to purger oneself. Why not just say, 'I took an oath not to lie. So I can't answer your question as stated."

People use unnecessary dichotomy all the time as a way to evade telling or looking at the truth.

You have to pick; you can either be happy or you can have lots of money. 

You can't have your cake and eat it.

Fish or chicken?

Sometimes the dichotomy is more subtle. Consider the statement:

It takes time to become a great musician.

This is a form of unnecessary dichotomy. Do you see it?

A more obvious version would be:

You can either take little time and become a poor musician or much time and become a great musician

The statement leaves out two important alternatives: 1) take much time and become a poor musician, and 2) take little time and become a great musician. Any of the four combinations is a valid alternative. However, the form makes it difficult to see any but one.

Localizing Experience
A great way to lie is to appeal to your someone's immediate experience. This is a favorite of advertisers and cigarette companies. If someone says, "Smoking causes cancer", you say, "Hey, I've been smoking for five years and I don't have cancer."

If someone says, "Look, to really play well, you need to work with a metronome daily", you say, "Charlie down the block plays really well and he's never used a metronome."

It won't matter that you get cancer next year just as long as you don't have cancer now. It won't matter that Charlie can't hold a candle to anyone in the next town just as long as he's the best guitar player in your town.

Cause and Coincidence
A lie popular among PhD's, lawyers and news pundits is the confusion of causal relationships and coincidental relationships. Two things occur at nearly the same time; therefore, 1) they are related, and 2) the first to occur caused the second. This form of lie is best perpetrated on oneself.

You start sneezing. You notice that Harry just walked into the room. You conclude that you're allergic to Harry. You ignore the fact that about twenty minutes ago Fred opened the window.

You get nervous before playing. You make fewer mistakes. You believe you played "better". You ignore the fact that you also didn't attempt to play anything the least bit challenging or interesting.

The fact that two things occur in rapid succession or simultaneously may or may not have any bearing on whether or not one caused the other.

Going to Extremes
A secret weapon of liars who feel cornered is to state the extreme opposite of what's being tested. This form is used frequently by those who struggle with various forms of "addiction". You suggest to someone that not everything is "happening" to him, that he could start to take responsibility for how he feels and how he responds to things.

He recognizes that what you're saying might be right, but doesn't want to deal with the responsibility, so he says, "I'm not some kind of robot who can control every little emotion!"

He morphs taking a step towards personal responsibility into a task that not even the Dalai Lama could undertake.

Drown Them with Detail
A favorite of those with lots of knowledge but limited skill is to provide an "exhaustive" response. When confronted with a question you don't want to answer, respond with so much information that your audience falls asleep or commits suicide before you actually get to point of answering the question. If asked to get to the point, insist that the background information is critical to fully understanding it.

True, but So What
The best liars never actually say anything that is untrue. Instead, they simply say truths that are utterly irrelevant to the current question. The may use a lot of connecting phrases to make it appear as though what they said was relevant. They make use keywords that match those found in the question so that the same google search would pull up their answer and your question. Nonetheless, they never actually answer what was asked.

Wether you want to become a better liar or simply want to become better at spotting lies, any of the above can go a long way to getting you there.

Happy Tuesday,

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