On Friday, the autism blog Left Brain Right Brain, highlighted an article that appeared in The Atlantic, titled The 15-Year FalloutFrom One Man’s Lie About Vaccines. The Atlantic article was actually a precis of several of the points Sam Harris outlined in his book, Lying, but the article’s title focused on one point Harris made towards the end of the book; the corrosive effect on vaccination rates of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study of the MMR vaccine.
Lying was listed as free in the Amazon Kindle store so I downloaded it. At only 26 pages it’s a tiny book, more like a long essay really. Harris defines what he means by lying and outlines some of the different ways in which we do it. He then lists what he sees as the major impacts lying has upon us as individuals, our relationships with others and society as a whole. Overall, the message of the book is simple and clearly explained:
“by lying to one person, we potentially spread falsehoods to many others – even to whole societies. We also force upon ourselves subsequent choices – to maintain the deception or not – that can complicate our lives. In this way, every lie haunts our future. There is no telling when or how it may collide with reality, requiring further maintenance. The truth never needs to be tended in this way. It can simply be reiterated … Lies are the social equivalent of toxic waste – everyone is potentially harmed by their spread.”
In discussing Wakefield, Harris mentions a psychological trap which many people often inadvertently fall into. Most of us tend to remember the statements we first hear on any given topic, even if those statements are subsequently shown to be untrue. A really astonishing aspect of this predisposition is that a majority of people will remember ‘facts’ as true, even when they first hear about them in the context of their debunking.
Reading this book brought me back to ideas I have been mulling over since my prior post, How do you tell if someone might be conning you? The Aurora shootings and their aftermath added another layer of complexity to this issue for me. For those of us who are interested in ascertaining the truth of any given situation, how do we sort out the wheat from the chaff? How do we determine if something we are told is true and protect ourselves from misinformation and lies? I have a few suggestions and would love to hear if you have any to add.
Avoid 24/7 breaking news with respect to certain events
I shared on Facebook the following YouTube video as an explanation for why I wasn’t watching the news in the aftermath of the shootings in Aurora:
In a great book about another Colorado tragedy, Columbine, Dave Cullen outlines why pretty much everything most people ‘know’ about what happened is in fact untrue. I often mention this book because it is compellingly written and researched exhaustively – Cullen spent 10 years writing it and has updated it when additonal information came to light. He shows that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not bullied or friendless, the shootings had nothing to do with jocks vs. goths and there was no ‘trenchcoat mafia’.
This is why Joe Scarborough’s speculation that James Holmes was on the autism spectrum (or ‘autism scale’ as he bizarrely termed it) has been so damaging. Scarborough may retract his statement but it’s looking increasingly unlikely. Even if he does however, in a way it doesn’t matter because the damage has been done. There are thousands, potentially millions of people, who will now ‘remember’ that James Holmes is autistic, a ‘fact’ that is probably completely false.
Cultivate a culture of truth in your personal relationships
The overriding message from Sam Harris’ book is: don’t lie. He persuasively argues that even ‘white lies’ have the potential to be corrosive. I happen to agree on that point and it’s one of the reasons why my children have not been told that Santa Claus brings their gifts. When they lose their baby teeth I won’t be telling them that the Tooth Fairy took their teeth. They know who Santa is of course but in our home he’s a fictional character from books and tv, no more ‘real’ than The Cat in the Hat or Dora the Explorer.
Not only should we not lie, we should make it as easy as possible on others to be truthful to us. Women are often guilty of asking questions we don’t want answered directly. If you ask someone ‘Does my bum look big in these jeans?’ are you really asking for reassurance that you look good? It can be tough to tell what question you are asking, let alone what the answer should be. Ask the question you want answered in a way that makes it easy for someone to be truthful in answering you. If you really do want to know if your bum looks big in those jeans then ask: ‘Do these jeans flatter my figure?’
Be responsible when you share information via social media
How many of us share articles based on their headline or opening paragraph? Do you always read everything in an article before you share it? Is it from a responsible source? Protect your online reputation and only share information that you feel confident in. For those of us in the autism community, this is especially vital with respect to those ever-present autism studies.
Autism and other scientific studies: go to the source
I never share information on autism studies that comes from a newspaper or other general news organization. Why? Because the headlines often summarize the study incorrectly and are inflammatory or misleading. The British media shares responsibility with Andrew Wakefield for falling vaccination rates. Their reporting of his fraudulent MMR study was sensational, irresponsible and credulous.
I’m not a scientist so I have no way of verifying whether studies have been done well but I can check the abstract of the study to find out its scope. If the study examined only 12 children then by itself it proves nothing. Often the abstract will actually state this – that the sample size was small and indicates the need for a larger study to take place.
Trust people rather than organizations
We all know that governments and corporations have lied to the public. Trusted news sources like The New York Times and The New Republic have had their reputations undermined by writers like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass who plagiarized and fabricated stories. How do we consume information and avoid being gullible on the one hand or a tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist on the other?
My solution is to trust individuals rather than organizations. There are reporters, scientists, authors who have proved themselves reliable – they fact check, cite sources and correct information that was inaccurate when initially provided. They tend to be sceptical thinkers who don’t jump to conclusions but reserve judgement on issues until more information is available.
Would love to hear what you all think – do you believe lying is ever justified? What methods do you use to protect yourself from false information?
*Justin Barber designed the Truth & Lies posters used in this blog post.