Lies and Belief

Lies are quick and easy, truth is slow and laborious. Lies are fun and sticky and quick, truth is complicated, counterintuitive and boring.

What is a lie? What is belief?

I think we know why people have the feeling we call “belief” — either a statement conforms to what we already believe (confirmation bias), or believing it somehow profits us (motivated thinking); we tend to believe things that are easier to remember (availability bias and the illusion-of-truth effect); we believe statements by people who resemble us (need citation); we trust and believe people whose names are easier to pronounce (need citation). We believe thing that create adherence to a group to which we belong. None of these have anything to do with a belief being what eggheads call “true.”

True, sometimes we believe statements after checking them against other statements that have passed a gantlet of tests. That’s much of science and scholarship. Nobody can know everything, so one relies on a body of credentialed individuals and an accepted body of knowledge; and we might know enough to judge whether a bit of knowledge is crazy or believable, even if we don’t understand all the details. But this is a niche definition of belief, mostly used for academics. I was going to say, for “business and academics,” since you’d think that business decisions would be driven by concern for adherence to what we like to call “facts,” but my speculation is that this is a sometime thing.

There is a belief about business that, due to the profit motive, everyone is somehow on peak performance and efficiencies are optimized. But the point isn’t to maximize to an ideal degree, but to surpass competitors. And anyone who thinks there’s not a ton of loafing and goldbricking in successful companies hasn’t worked for one. Even, maybe especially, in the C-Suite.

But anyway. There are flavors of “belief”, so when Don Jr says things about the “Democrat governor of Texas”, many people will believe that and repeat it. How many I don’t know. Would be interesting/horrifying to find out.

The power of the lie is that it is quickly made with little effort. Liars will apply a heuristic evolutionary algorithm, which is just fancy talk for come up with many lies, one after the other, with no concern for consistency, and some of them will die on the ground where they fall, and others will sprout and reproduce, like Dawkins’ memes or mustard seeds. If you only get one in a hundred or one in a thousand to take off, they are so cheap to do that this can be a successful tactic.

Telling the truth can be complicated and counter-intuitive and take energy. Telling a lie is instant and easy. See the old cliché, A lie goes around the world before the truth can put its boots on.

Just as there are people with an uncanny ability to remember and tell jokes or to tell stories in an entertaining, memorable way, there are those who are better at lying than others. Look at #45 — here is a compendium — and the various flavors of lie. Simple statements of exaggerated numbers, when few people know the real numbers. Or memorable fables of strong men weeping tears of gratitude. Compare that with Don Jr’s ham-fisted lie about the “democrat governor of Texas”.

What about the most recent Big Lie about Biden shutting off power to Texas? Where did that originate? How many people believe it? What would be actually involved in doing that?

But maybe you don’t need to be a good liar any more. Just a liar.

There is an element of religion in this acceptance of lies, as there is in the Qanon phenomenon. If you go to a religious service, and the leader of the congregation makes a statement about, say, the sea parting, it would be a serious breach of protocol to raise your hand and ask, Really? How do you know that? When the congregation is supposed to “repeat after me,” they just do; to do otherwise would be hideously disrespectful.

When I was little, my parents would send me to a friend’s house (the Kemps, if you must know) for Seders. I remember, during the ritual, asking if the story of the Exodus actually happened and everyone stopped and looked down as if I had farted. They kindly explained to me that that was not the kind of question one should ask. The question of “truth” was a rude question. Being a polite and cowardly little boy, I knew when it was time to shut up. But I didn’t understand why I had been rude for many years.