Thursday, 7 July 2016

Policy of untruth

It was surely pure coincidence that, on the day that Chilcot finally released his report into the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub hosted 'Secrets & Lies - our quest to uncover them'. Blair's not the only high profile politician who's been caught telling fibs lately. A small coterie of them have done untold damage to the social cohesion of Europe, to this country's place in the World, and to trusting public figures in general.

You wouldn't know Britain was in crisis to look around Greenwich last Wednesday evening though. Dolled up college leavers boarding pleasure boats, couples strolling the riverside hand in hand, pubs spilling out in to the street, and Seal (yes, that one) fans relaxing in deck chairs outside the naval college waiting for their hero to take the stage. Despite everything my head was happy (my heart was insane).

I had half a mind on the Wales Portugal game playing out in the public bar but luckily the speaker, Dr Gordon Wright from Goldsmiths, was engaging enough to keep my mind focused on events in the function room. In fact, he was more than engaging. He was a gifted public speaker. Interspersing his talk with enough quips to keep the audience on side but not so many that it looked like he was auditioning for a comedy gig.

He'd been working in the fields of lying and deception for a while so he knew what he was talking about (or could at least fake it). He asked the audience how often they lied a day. Oddly shy, they didn't really have an answer but he said on average people lie, if they're communicating, about 2-3 times per hour. So it's quite a lot. And we're not just talking about career bullshitters upping the average here.

Asked if we could think of examples of famous recent lies I think 99% of the room immediately pictured a red bus emblazoned with a promise to give £350,000,000 to the NHS per week. Others who are notorious for being economic with the truth include Bill Clinton, Lance Armstrong, and of course Tony Blair and his imaginary WMDs.

These are, on the whole, particularly egregious lies. Mostly self-serving and, more often than not, damaging to others. To the point of an astronomical death toll in the final case.

Most of our 40 or so lies per day are of a much more innocent nature. At the other end of the lie spectrum. From "the cheque's in the post" and "I'm stuck in a traffic jam" to "your hair looks lovely like that". A lot of the time when people lie to us we know they're lying and we're not that bothered. In fact I know of people who've got themselves into bother by telling the truth when a lie may've served all concerned better.

The reason lying is able to prevail to such a degree is that we're all really terrible lie detectors. Clearly if you meet a man in a bar and he tells you he's just got back from a holiday in St Lucia with Brad Pitt and once fought a bear with bare hands it's pretty obvious. But your common or garden lies not so. A lot of us like to think we're good at detecting lies, in the same way we like to imagine we're good judges of characters, but tests have shown that on average we only know people are lying 54% of the time. So we may as well flip a coin.

But (there's always a but) there are a minute group of people who've been given the rather rubbish name of lie wizards who are said to be able to instantly tell when people are telling porkies. Gordon showed us a film of a particularly scary lady working her magic. It was, it has to be said, inconclusive. Possibly the only foolproof method of spotting a liar is if you find out they're a card carrying member of the Tory party.

Regardless or not of the validity of lie wizards there are small tells that give away a lie. Not so much small as infinitesimal. Lasting a fraction of a second and pretty much invisible to the human eye. If you feel you've got a particularly sharp eye look out for dilated pupils as that's the big one.

But then pupils are said to dilate when we're high. Or in love. Perhaps that's why liars are so lucky in love. Their quarry confuses the signals. Or maybe not. I digress.

Affairs of the heart, job interviews, getting out of trouble, and winning referendums are amongst the main reasons people lie. The big liars are known as the dark triad. These are Machiavellians, narcissists, and psychopaths. I think I know one of each (although thinking about it it might all be the same person). Practise doesn't make perfect though as those in the dark triad are no better, or worse, liars than the rest of us.

One guy who reckons he's made significant advances into lie detection is Dr Paul Ekman, an American psychologist who has done pioneering work into facial expressions and how they relate to emotions. He's actually advised Pixar on making their creations seem more human. Where our speaker feels Ekman has fallen down, however, is with his work relating to lying which has so far not been proven to work.

He's provided the science that's formed the basis for US airport security policy. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on employing people to hang around American airports with a checklist, either actual or mental, of potential triggers. Tick enough of these boxes and you may be making intimate acquaintance with a burly security guard and a rubber glove.

Some of the triggers are obvious. Some are ridiculous. Sweaty palms and bulges in clothing are two. So if you're a nervous flyer but you're excited about catching up with your girlfriend be careful next time you're in LAX.

More seriously the problem is that if all this money is being spent on identifying liars and the science behind it is completely flawed then that's money not going towards serious terrorist prevention measures. Some of the methods used have even been employed when judging whether or not sex offenders were safe for release. The potential pitfalls of that don't need spelling out.

So, in terms of lie detection, we're not even close. We're a long way from polygraphs or, my favourite, telling criminals that a photocopier is a lie detector and getting them to put their hand in it (some were so scared they told the truth) but we're still just not sure most of the time. Luckily, most people are nice. Most people have a truth bias and trust what people tell them. Where it falls down is when people start telling you lies you want to believe. Which brings us back to Brexit.

Hopefully Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage's campaign of unreconstructed, undisguised, and unapologetic bullshit won't lead us, as people, down a path of further untruths or even down a path of never trusting anyone again. Though, of course we should never trust them again - and never should've done in the first place.

After all the anger of the last couple of weeks it was great to walk through the thin night air of Greenwich feeling motivated and with a head full of ideas. Laser guided mudlarks scoured the banks of the Thames as an incongruous cruise ship sat just upstream of the Cutty Sark. The night air felt bittersweet. I felt complete again. I saw the pop star Seal leaning on a barrier and then he went on stage and sang Kiss From A Rose. It was the best song I'd ever heard in my li(f)e.

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