How Lying Works

>Whatever I know or think I know about earthquakes, nuclear reactors, climate change, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Middle East uprisings (among other matters) is tentative knowledge acquired secondhand. I choose my sources of expertise and information and can only hope I choose them wisely and that skepticism and reason provide some defense against being regularly deceived. The fears, fantasies, and falsehoods that accompany what seems like a permanent state of global emergency require eternal vigilance.

Consider the power of political lies that exploit partisan biases and loyalties, left or right. People will often believe a lie disseminated by a source they trust or with whom they want to identify; policy positions on matters of fact as well as belief, from climate change to abortion rights, become ideological badges of belonging. Attack the accuracy of a foundational, ideological "fact," try to expose a political lie, and its believers will resist your critique of it or they'll dismiss the significance of the truth. A recent New York Times profile of New Jersey governor Chris Christie illustrates the dynamic.

People will often believe a lie disseminated by a source they trust or with whom they want to identify.

"Christie's Talk is Blunt but Not Always Straight," the headline declares. Statements "at the core" of the governor's attack on public sector unions, like the claim that state employees don't pay for health care insurance, are "inaccurate" -- in other words, they're flatly untrue. But who's to know? A political scientist quoted by the Times observes, "Clearly there has been a pattern of the governor playing fast and loose with the details. But so far, he's been adept at getting the public to believe what he says."

It's not surprising. As a general rule, the general public doesn't have the time, energy, resources, or inclination to delve into details. And when a New York Times reporter does the delving and presents the governor's supporters with pesky facts that directly contradict his claims, the public may dismiss the contradictions as reflections of an elite, liberal bias (if they regard the Times the way I regard Fox News). Or they'll follow the lead of Christie communications director Maria Comella and resort to the truthiness defense: When questioned about the governor's misstatements, she boasted that he was "engaged directly with the people of New Jersey" while the Times was engaged in a story that "splits hairs."

Comella's response captures the cynicism of political operatives for whom there's less than a hair's difference between a truth and a lie. When they're caught lying, who's to care? But I don't mean to denigrate the failure of many lay people, focused on their own lives and their own mishegas, to sort out the details of policy disputes. The tangled web of deceptions we were once warned not to weave conceals the truth much more often than it exposes a lie, because so few people are willing or able to unravel it. You can see this dynamic at work in complex white-collar cases, in the efforts of federal prosecutors to clarify alleged economic crimes.

Consider the Galleon insider trading case against hedge fund billionare, Raj Rajaratnam, now underway. The Times reported that the prosecutor tried to simplify the case in his opening statement, while the defense attorney outlined its complexities:

The styles and strategies of the two lawyers during opening statements were markedly different. Mr. Streeter, the prosecutor, zeroed in on just a few instances of alleged insider trading by Mr. Rajaratnam. Though there are more than 100 potential witnesses and more than 50 companies whose names could come up at trial, Mr. Streeter, who spoke for an hour, mentioned only a handful, focusing on what the government most likely considers the strongest evidence of insider trading.                                

Mr. Dowd used the government's uncluttered approach against it. "Unlike Mr. Streeter, I'm going to tell you about the entire case," he said. He did not disappoint. The defense lawyer's opening statement named dozens of companies in a presentation that clocked in at one hour and 40 minutes.                                                                                                  

While Mr. Streeter used no visual aids, Mr. Dowd posted more than 30 pages of memos on an overhead display in the courtroom. Each focused on a company in which Mr. Rajaratnam is accused of trading on illegal tips. Mr. Dowd took the jury through each trade...

The jury can't make an informed judgment about the merits of the government's case against Rajaratnam without hearing the details, obviously (and not knowing the details, I offer no opinion on his guilt). But as this report suggests, an exhaustively detailed account is likely to favor the defense; confusion sows reasonable doubt. The prosecution, I assume, wants to present the jury with an outline of the forest; the defense wants it lost amid the trees -- where most of us wander, dependent on the guides we choose to lead us out.