The 15-Year Fallout From One Man's Lie About Vaccines

Thirty-eight percent of encounters among college students contain lies; 10 percent of communication between spouses is deceptive. How and why it's never okay.

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"Ordinary language is an accretion of lies," Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1980. "The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression."

Unlike in literature, however, lies in life create rather than shatter "psychic oppression" -- especially in a culture where the deadly fear of being wrong drives an exponential tragedy of cover-up lies after even the most benign of errors, a culture that then takes noxiously gruesome pleasure in devouring its fallen stars with far too little intelligent reflection.

In Lying (free on Amazon until Sunday, August 5th) neuroscientist Sam Harris explores the nature and conditions of lying -- defined, in most basic terms, as "to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication" -- as a complex psychosocial phenomenon, rather than a simplistic categorial imperative.

The intent to communicate honestly is the measure of truthfulness. And most people do not require a degree in philosophy to distinguish this attitude from its counterfeits.

Harris offers a basic taxonomy of lying:

Ethical transgressions are generally divided into two categories: the bad things we do (acts of commission) and the good things we fail to do (acts of omission). We tend to judge the former far more harshly. The origin of this imbalance remains a mystery, but it surely relates to the value we place on a person's energy and intent.

Doing something requires energy, and most morally salient actions require conscious intent. A failure to do something can arise purely by circumstance and requires energy to rectify. The difference is important. It is one thing to reach into the till and steal $100; it is another to neglect to return $100 that one has received by mistake. We might consider both behaviors to be ethically blameworthy -- but only the former amounts to a deliberate effort to steal. Needless to say, if it would cost a person more than $100 to return $100 he received by mistake, few of us would judge him for simply keeping the money.

The moral arrow of repercussions, researchers have found, goes both ways:

At least one study suggests that 10 percent of communication between spouses is deceptive. Another has found that 38 percent of encounters among college students contain lies. However, researchers have discovered that even liars rate their deceptive interactions as less pleasant than truthful ones. This is not terribly surprising: We know that trust is deeply rewarding and that deception and suspicion are two sides of the same coin. Research suggests that all forms of lying -- including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others -- are associated with poorer-quality relationships.

Harris admonishes even against the socially sanctioned "white lies":

But what could be wrong with truly 'white' lies? First, they are still lies. And in telling them, we incur all the problems of being less than straightforward in our dealings with other people. Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding -- these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.

And while we imagine that we tell certain lies out of compassion for others, it is rarely difficult to spot the damage we do in the process. By lying, we deny our friends access to reality -- and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.

[...]

These tiny erosions of trust are especially insidious because they are almost never remedied.

Lying, says Harris, perpetuates itself through a downward spiral of failed "mental accounting":

One of the greatest problems for the liar is that he must keep track of his lies. Some people are better at this than others. Psychopaths can assume this burden of mental accounting without any obvious distress.

[...]

Lies beget other lies. Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality. When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of. The world itself becomes your memory, and if questions arise, you can always point others back to it. You can even reconsider certain facts and honestly change your views. And you can openly discuss your confusion, conflicts, and doubts with all comers. In this way, a commitment to the truth is naturally purifying of error.

And what about integrity? "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself," Richard Feynman famously said on the subject in his timeless 1974 Caltech commencement address, and Harris furthers this insight:

What does it mean to have integrity? It means many things, of course, but one criterion is to avoid behavior that readily leads to shame or remorse. The ethical terrain here extends well beyond the question of honesty -- but to truly have integrity, we must not feel the need to lie about our personal lives.

To lie is to erect a boundary between the truth we are living and the perception others have of us. The temptation to do this is often born of an understanding that others will disapprove of our behavior. Often, there are good reasons why they would.

Perhaps most dangerous of all, however, is the subconscious attrition of truth that lies, even after corrected, inflict:

Consider the widespread fear of childhood vaccinations. In 1998, the physician Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. This study has since been judged to be an 'elaborate fraud,' and Wakefield's medical license has been revoked.

The consequences of Wakefield's dishonesty would have been bad enough. But the legacy effect of other big lies has thus far made it impossible to remedy the damage he has caused. Given the fact that corporations and governments sometimes lie, whether to avoid legal liability or to avert public panic, it has become very difficult to spread the truth about the MMR vaccine. Vaccination rates have plummeted -- especially in prosperous, well-educated communities -- and children have become sick and even died as a result.

An unhappy truth of human psychology is probably also at work here, which makes it hard to abolish lies once they have escaped into the world: We seem to be predisposed to remember statements as true even after they have been disconfirmed.

Harris concludes with a look at the broader social implications of lying as a violation of both collective conscience and individual autonomy:

As it was in Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Othello, so it is in life. Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies....

Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.

By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make -- and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to.

Slim but potent, Lying comes on the heels of Harris's Free Will, published earlier this year.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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