And the Lies Go On

Lies are alive and well and circulating among us. In case anyone thought my recent posts about the seductiveness of lies were an abstract exercise, current events prove otherwise.

The Washington Post reported this month about a Ponzi scheme that allegedly swindled $500 million from unsuspecting investors. (A Ponzi scheme is a type of financial scam.)

A key point of this scam–similar to all Ponzi schemes–is that the investors believed the lies told to them by people they knew and viewed as having some authority on the investment. These lies were flattering and played to their desire to help others while getting rich.

One person who lost money is quoted as saying “We were a little nervous, but we trusted him. Because we were friends and belonged to the same church, the red flags were heart-shaped. I was like, ‘Wow. We are really lucky to be involved in this investment.’”

It was falsehood with just the right amount of truth to make it believable.

These lies, as lies often do, defrauded many for the personal benefit of the few. And such lies will continue for as long as there are people willing to fall for them.

Dust off and recycle some old lies. Serve them up again. People fall for them. They want to believe them.

What solutions are there? I can think of several. Comment below and I will share some of them with you.

Lies – A Conclusion

People will believe lies. People will go so far as to destroy their own lives and the lives of others for a lie.

People are more likely to believe a lie from someone they view (rightly or wrongly) as having authority.

Conversely, people are less likely to listen to and believe someone who may be telling the truth but who does not in their eyes have authority.

Generally, people have a moral and ethical obligation to promote truth basically because there are real-world consequences for not doing so. By truth, I mean objective, verifiable fact, and not some clerical or political interpretation.

The First Amendment of the Constitution has been interpreted to mean that the government cannot prohibit a particular point of view. It does not matter if the point of view the government is prohibiting is true or not; it is barred from infringing on speech.

The position the Supreme Court has taken is that the cure for a proliferation of lies is to flood the “marketplace of ideas” with other points of view.

Unfortunately, many times the lies are more attractive, more comforting, and feel more “right” than the actual, albeit inconvenient, truth. And people believe them for a lot of very real reasons.

To be clear: an unintentional untruth is a mistake; an intentional untruth is a lie.

Lies do not qualify as “legitimate differences of opinion” or “political dialog”; they are scams, intended to mislead. Falsehood with just the right amount of truth to make them believable.

And the lies spread because people want to believe. They need to believe because often it goes to their very identity. Without those lies, they would lose their sense of self. Simply being given more information, or better information, will not overcome the deeply held need identify as a particular kind of person.

So, what is our moral and ethical obligation at this point, as a society? How to we approach situations where lies are being marketed as truth? How much do we owe to ourselves and to our family, friends, and neighbors to stand up to the lies, to call them out for what they are? How do we keep functioning and avoid descending into violence and chaos?

Freedom and liberty are good things, but an overabundance of individual freedom is essentially anarchy. I for one am not in favor of anarchy.

But that’s not really what’s going on, is it? What is going on is people with an agenda and a platform and a megaphone are feeding people untruths they identify with, the desired end result being more and more power to fewer and fewer people.

I am not in favor of fascism either.

The Seductiveness of the Lie, Part 3

There has been a lot of talk in recent years in the United States about “free speech,” much of it misinformed.

It has gotten so bad that elected officials, and not just the fringe ones, and lawyers–people who ought to understand the law–are promoting a theory of protected speech that is unsubstantiated by the legal framework of this country.

Protest march in Washington, D.C. in 2017 past the text of the First Amendment

The term “free speech” or “freedom of speech” derives, as best I can figure, from the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech….”

What that means specifically has been interpreted by over 200 years of Supreme Court decisions. The key bottom line for me is two things:

  • Citizens and noncitizens are not free to say literally anything in the US. The government can put restrictions on speech that would lead or does lead to violence, cause mass panic, or is used to intimidate or threaten others.
  • The “abridging the freedom of speech” part of the First Amendment applies only to the government. Not private employers. Not your neighbor. Not media outlets that are not controlled by the government. Again, only the government.

In other words, when some idiot is yakking about how suspending someone from Twitter is taking away their right to free speech, that is outright bullshit. Twitter is a private company, not the government.

No one has a Constitutional right to use Twitter. Or to comment on web pages owned by private companies. Or to say anything they want to at work, when the employer is a private enterprise.

What about bald-faced lies? Yes, in the US you have the freedom to say, and believe, lies. The government is not allowed to stop that (unless it involves some of the above mentioned circumstances). But anyone who is not the government can have policies and procedures in place to put a stop to deliberate falsehoods, hate speech, and advocating violence, if applied with equality and with consideration to protected classes of people.


There is another long-standing legal concept of the “reasonable person standard.” This is where judges and juries consider what would be acceptable or unacceptable to a hypothetical reasonable person, when deciding whether to rule for or against someone in court.

This assumes there is agreement and understanding held in common and widely shared of what “reasonable” means. The events of recent years, when people form their opinions based on the intentional falsehoods of celebrities such as Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and Tucker Carlson, makes me wonder if that will continue to be the case.


The position the Supreme Court has taken is that the cure for a proliferation of lies is to flood the “marketplace of ideas” with other points of view. The gist is that the more ideas that are circulating, and the more varied those ideas are, truth and a shared concept of reality will ultimately win. (See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York (1980), United States v. Alvarez (2012).)

Unfortunately, many times the lies are more attractive, more comforting, spoken more loudly and with more fervor, than the actual truth. I worry that facts cannot keep up with the constant output of lies.

This to me raises the issue of how long our modern civil society can tolerate this festering subculture of lies. Just being passive is, increasingly, not an option, in my opinion. Rather, those who are still able to identify the truth need to speak, speak loudly, and not assume that one can appeal to people’s reason, compassion, or sense of community.

The risks are real.

The Seductiveness of the Lie, Part 2

In August 2019, my family visited Auckland, New Zealand. We took a direct flight from Chicago to Auckland. It was a long flight, a distance of about 7,123 nautical miles, but modern aircraft are amazingly comfortable.


One thing about long distance flights is that, in order to navigate and reach your destination safely, the pilots and navigators of the aircraft must take into account the curvature of the Earth.

Just rolling out a flat-Earth map and charting a course won’t do. What looks like the shortest distance between two points is, in reality, not. To illustrate, using navigation that treats the Earth as a sphere (known as Great Circle Routes), the distance from Buenos Aires to Beijing is 10,433 nautical miles. If one were to take the route that appears as a straight line on a flat map, the distance is 10,730 nautical miles, or almost 300 nautical miles longer. [These data taken from here.]

There are serious consequences to being off by 300 nautical miles. Fuel could run out, the plane could crash into mountains or the ocean.

In other words, if the pilot of our aircraft to Auckland believed and planned the route as if the Earth was flat, we likely would have crashed into the Pacific Ocean instead of arriving safely.

This is just one example of the real-world consequences, to yourself and others, of understanding what is true and verifiable fact. Sure, if you are someone spouting nonsense on the street corner about the Earth being flat, then there’s no real harm in that. If you pilot an international airliner, that’s another matter.

But for various reasons, lies have become accepted as modern currency, permeating politics and religion–where we expect to have a certain amount of everyday lying going on–but also spreading to the press, business, and health care.

And the weird thing is that many people are okay with this. They like the lies, perhaps because they are more attractive, more comforting, and feel more “right” than the actual, albeit inconvenient, truth.

And again, that’s fine when one is only putting oneself at risk. But to put others–dozens of others, scores of others–at risk is unethical and, I would argue, immoral.

Especially if the one producing the lies is doing it for their own personal financial or political gain or egotistical self-interest. Then the lies become fraud. No one likes a fraudster.

Honesty Is Not Always the Best Policy


When I was 18, I was naïve about many things. Prominent among those things was how to behave around girls. While most boys were busy learning the social rules, I blundered along in my ignorance. So the day when a pretty girl in my grade offered to give me a back rub, with my shirt off, I accepted without reading anything into it. Sometimes a back rub is just a back rub.

She had me lay face down and, using some lotion, she began the massage. Honestly, I wasn’t enjoying it much. I was having trouble relaxing as I wondered what to say when she was done. I’d had better massages before and I’ve had better since. I decided that I should just be honest.

“How was that?” she asked as she sat back.

“It was okay,” I said.

“Okay?!” she said, with a look of amused surprise, and perhaps a trace of hurt.

In hindsight, I should have lied. I should’ve said it was great, fantastic even. Anything but what I said. But I said what I was thinking. And I’ve regretted it for decades.

I guess that, sometimes, honesty is not the best policy.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating deliberate deceitfulness. I’ve been around enough liars and truth-benders to know that it’s never a sustainable way to be. What I want to consider instead is the value of sticking to unvarnished honesty at all costs. Perhaps there is room for a place that exists somewhere between a hurtful lie and the brutal truth.

My dictionary defines honesty as “truthfulness” and truth as “honesty,” but perhaps it’s not as simple as all that. Gandhi understood that there exists a distinction between truth and full disclosure. “Who can say how much I must give and how much omit in the interests of truth?” he wrote in his Autobiography. To focus overly much on bald-faced honesty ignores that there are more subtle forces involved.

The Biblical Ten Commandments include the following: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” All my life, this has been interpreted for me as “never lie.” Strictly speaking, this would require unvarnished honesty at all times. Under this scheme, the so-called “white lie” is still a lie and should not be tolerated.

Technically, though, the commandment is less universal than that, requiring only that no “false witness” be used against your “neighbor.” What about when talking with your husband or wife, for instance? If you tell them you are happy to be married in a moment when you are not entirely convinced of the truth of that statement, is that false witness? What about with your child? When you tell them their popsicle stick collage “art” is beautiful, is that false witness? Maybe an occasional dishonesty is okay, even in the eyes of God.thou-shalt-not-lie

In the farcical movie Liar, Liar (1997), Jim Carrey plays a man condemned to always tell the truth. Quickly, it becomes apparent that all honesty all the time leads to awkward situations and hurt feelings. Even when people say “be honest” they often don’t mean, literally, honest. The story implies that a little dishonesty once in a while acts as a type of social lubricant, easing the friction of our daily lives. Take that away and we are faced with the loss of a measure of civility.

Does this suggest that we will all descend down the slippery slope as we abandon honesty? I don’t think so for a few reasons. For one, with the exception of young children and those with mental health problems, people normally understand when a small lie cross the line into more sinister territory. As long as we have some kind of value system, we can maintain a distinction between the two.

For another, many people frequently find themselves in situations where they feel they have to “fake it.” As the author Susan Cain points out in her book Quiet, this is often true for introverts. It also can be true for those stuck in an unsatisfying line of work or difficult family situation. The trick is not mistaking a surface level of feeling false for a deeper-rooted inauthenticity. The inner compass should remain true, despite of moments of uncertainty.

Truth, honesty, lies, and deceit—there’s plenty of all of them to go around. So what is the best policy? In the end, I suggest a better guide is “Be polite and be authentic.”