Perhaps THE fundamental question today is, “How can I tell if someone is lying to me?” Are they trying to rip me off, manipulate me, sell me a bill of goods? Have they themselves been sucked into an entire movement built on lies, and are they unwittingly trying to seduce me into their house of cards? Are they giving me the truth, or “fake news?”
It’s really not rocket science. Here, as a public service, is a short list–a dirty dozen dependable ways to tell a liar–a set of tips that anyone can use in any situation, no matter which side of any political or cultural divide you find yourself on:
- First: Don’t be mentally lazy by simply siding with your allies. Liars can come at us from all sides. Your mom was right, people who look like good friends might just be forming a parade heading headlong into a murky lake or over an unhealthy-high cliff. Parades like that are thrilling for only a very brief moment.
- Second: Don’t be mentally lazy and go with the flow. The best liars can easily line up a majority behind them. A whole world thought war was glory in August, 1917. Remember, that graffiti was right to warn, “Eat sh__! Ten million flies can’t be wrong.”
- Third: If the person talking tries to win arguments with lots of personal attacks (what Latin lovers call ad hominem, or “aimed at the person rather than the idea,” then that person doesn’t have truth on his or her side. If they did they would use it. So consider them liars.
- Fourth: Of course the giant, economy-sized personal attack is the lie of dehumanizing. If you hear someone talk in sweeping generalities about “those people” who are so bad that they can be thought of as worthless swamp creatures, that person is lying BIG TIME. Billions of people through the ages have been oppressed and even killed because someone wanting power or plenty spread the lie that “those people” don’t think or feel the way we do.” And other people believed it.
- Fifth: The flip side of ad hominem is the liar whose main argument is, “I’m the only person you can trust.” This argument, of course, goes hand-in-hand with the generalizing dehumanization. “Those others” are the monsters, but I’m the messiah. If you hear any fast talker saying, “believe me, trust me, and follow me because all the people I disagree with made a terrible mess and I’m the one you can trust to fix things,” run. Run far and fast away from such a huckster, whether he or she is selling you a house or selling you a political idea, because the paradise they are selling will certainly turn out to be a graveyard.
- Sixth: Keep questioning as you listen, “How do you know this to be true?” If the evidence offered is flimsy or non-existent–if it consists only of a few juicy stories or anecdotes, but no real evidence that provides a big picture, or demonstrates a genuine trend, then it’s just a lie. A murder in Chicago is tragic, but it might happen while the overall murder rate there is declining. A million dollars poorly spent sounds terrible until you learn that as a portion of the federal budget it amounts to barely a fraction of a percent.
- Seventh: Keep questioning, “But what is the CAUSE?” Perhaps the most common thing that throws a monkey wrench into clear, correct thinking is the tendency to accept that since one thing follows another, it must be the cause. Again there is a fancy Latin phrase for this mistake: post hoc ergo propter hoc. Every single business day a pundit will tell you if the stock market went up or down. Then they will almost always throw in some simplistic idea about why share prices went up or down. Of course these are no better than guesses or they would all be billionaires buying low and selling high. Of course they would never last long predicting whether the market will be up or down tomorrow. There are as many reasons stocks sell high or low as there are traders and trading software programmers. But professional liars in any field will keep making up their own stories about cause and effect to sell you on something. They will keep over simplifying. They will keep twisting the facts to flatter themselves and their causes. So, if you hear the simple causes for the complex effects, know it is a liar you are listening to.
- Eighth: Remember “there are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.” Liars love to throw out numbers. Statistics tend to convince because they sound so irrefutable. But who gathered the statistics? Are those presenting them cherry picking the ones they love and ignoring the rest? Is a 25% rise in car thefts as alarming in a town that only had four last year as in an entire state or region where there are thousands? Statistics can be important only if the research is sound, unbiased, and only if we are not comparing apples with artificial apple flavoring.
- Ninth: Liars work to get you to say “yes” as many times as possible, so that they can then slip you the fatal, false, forced alternative. Door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen used to ask you if you love your children, if you want to provide a good home, if you value education, etc. Then they would work you into a corner where if you didn’t agree to buy an expensive encyclopedia you felt like you were denying your children a future. So too all liars keep repeating feel-good slogans and build up to false alternatives: either you support my proposals or you hate freedom, security, the flag, motherhood, Western civilization and the sanctity of life.
- Tenth: Liar’s soften us up with fear. The more fear the better. If we can be convinced ruin is around the corner we will fall for just about any garbage.
- Eleventh: Liar’s do not go to the trouble of arguing against opposing ideas stated well. They argue against absurd, extreme caricatures of ideas.
- Twelfth: Fluff or BS. The professional liar is a fast talker. She or he avoids specifics because specifics can be tested for accuracy and honesty. The liar instead piles on all sorts of warm and fuzzy “virtue words” such as freedom, security, prosperity, greatness, and extra value for lower cost and lower taxes. The liar takes us into the great blue beyond of etcetera but says nothing that we tell is a lie. Our heads are spinning and we get taken for a ride before the big crash.