No Reason to Lie

Pinocchio_ViaJean-EtienneSometimes, in the course of a debate or discussion, a secondhand statement comes under consideration. The actors in the debate must then evaluate how relevant that statement is to the their discussion. This happens in media during interviews, in class discussions, on the internet, with friends and family, and beyond. Wherever it happens, you are as likely as not to hear a particular phrase—“no reason to lie.”

“Look, he has no reason to lie.”

“Why would he lie?”

“She doesn’t get anything out of lying about this—she has no reason to.”

However it arises, the implication of the argument that someone “has no reason to lie” is that having no reason to lie is, itself, evidence for truth.

And our understanding of logic and evidence is so bad that we often accept that.

Let’s set aside the most obvious point here—that someone with no reason to lie may lie anyway. After all, people in the habit of lying about things will often do so without a reason. But that’s a minor element in the wrongness of this argument.

Much more significantly, this argument presumes that we have a good understanding of the reasons other people might lie about something. This assumption is part of an underlying psychological bias (which also happens to be wrong): we assume that other people basically think the same way we do. We are shocked when they don’t. Even though this happens regularly, we treat each tedious instance as a surprising outlier rather than recognizing and changing our assumption.

So when we say someone has “no reason to lie,” the “no reason” part of that equation is based on faulty reasoning. We do a little guesswork and we can’t think of a reason we would lie in that circumstance, so we assume another person must not have one, either.

That assumption that we know how others think leads into last part of the equation. This piece, often the biggest piece, is that we always seem to reduce the options to a false dichotomy: what someone says is true, or that person is lying. In that blindingly foolish presumption we sweep away the single biggest component in any argument: people are just wrong about things.

Depending on how you look at it, we are wrong about things more than we’re right. Our brains are a sea of biases, heuristics, and mental shortcuts that collapse the world down to intelligible pieces. Often those pieces match the real world well enough for us to get by, but just as often they fly completely in the face of evidence and reason.

Conspiracy theorists recently freaked out about chemtrails when a report noted that airplane exhaust is harmful. They believe the government is mind-controlling people with chemicals sprayed out the back of jet engines. They treated this report as evidence of their belief. They are monumentally wrong. They are wrong on most every count. And yet, they have no reason to lie.

Or consider Brian Williams, respected news anchor, whose story of his reporting in Iraq grew over time from having been embedded with troops (which was true), to having been there when a helicopter was hit by an RPG, to having been in the helicopter when it was hit. He had no reason to lie about that—in fact, lying about it was objectively foolish, since the military records, the other people who were there, and his own past statements could and did contradict him.

But it was a story he had been repeating over time, and that’s what happens to our memories over time: when we remember them, we change them. When we tell stories about them, we embellish. When we tell the next story, we remember the embellishments from before as part of the original, and the story grows. We all do this, with almost everything we remember—it’s just that usually, the things we remember aren’t so significant that they are contradicted by a body of collectively compelling evidence.

Williams may not have lied about his memory. He may actually have remembered being in that helicopter, even though he wasn’t. But he did lie when he got caught—just as so many of us do when our beliefs run into reality. We don’t have a good reason to, but we do anyway. Instead of just accepting that we’re wrong, we spin some confusing story to explain (often to ourselves) why we said or thought something wrong. We try to convince ourselves that this, too, is an outlier.

Of course, being wrong about things isn’t an outlier. It’s baked into the foundations of everything we think and do. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we write that possibility out of consideration with phrases like “no reason to lie.”

After all, we’re just wrong about that, too.

 

Image Credit: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

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