I’ve been thinking about lies and liars since reading an article in the New York Times, about software scientists are working on to detect lying in speech.
Though I abhor a liar, I have to admit to having lied in my life. My mother was fond of reminding me about the tangled web one had to weave in order to deceive. Nonetheless, there have been lies. What kind of lies? There’s the sorry, I’m busy that day lie; the okay, have it your way lie; and of course, the lies I tell myself, like, I’ll never again drink more than two glasses of wine in a day. As a child, of course, I lied to avoid getting into trouble. Doesn’t everybody?
It turns out that the answer is yes. Everybody lies. Some psychologists posit that children begin lying at around five, and that they lie to avoid punishment, fit in, or exert control over their environments. Others say that lying in children is an early indicator of intelligence, and therefore, a good thing. Here’s what mark Twain had to say about children and lying: George Washington, as a boy, was ignorant of the commonest accomplishments of youth. He could not even lie.
There are small, innocent lies, and there are egregious lies, like the ones told by people in power. Some credit Richard Nixon with popularizing the ends justifies the means paradigm in politics. According to an article in Mother Jones, Richard Nixon told his chief of staff on Easter Sunday, 1973, “Remember, you’re doing the right thing. That’s what I used to think when I killed some innocent children in Hanoi.” What?
Not that Nixon was the first liar ever elected, or the last. Remember weapons of mass destruction?
Though the software isn’t ready for prime time use, we can dream about how we’d employ it. Let’s start plucking out liars with every televised political speech made by candidates for office. During presidential debates, the audience would receive a signal each time someone on stage lied. Better yet, the word liar would flash on a big screen with every lie. It would be more entertaining than the movies.
Once we’ve weeded out all of the liars-in-training, we could turn to congress, home of accomplished liars. Then we might confront the legal system. Next up would be bankers, executives in insurance and pharmaceuticals, and corporate magnates. Are we having fun yet?