“Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
This familiar courtroom oath unpacks some of the subtleties of truth-telling. Making true statements is not all there is to it. What one says may be true, but what is omitted in the telling may present a false picture. And one may tell the truth, but that testimony may be distorted by the commingling of some untruths.
True statements come embedded in a matrix of linked propositions whose truth value we often cannot personally vouch for: Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Oswald killed Kennedy, and quarks come in six flavors are good examples of such claims. Many true beliefs are built upon claims we must take for granted as foundational, typically based on authority or on what those around us believe to be the case. A false statement, told willingly and with foreknowledge of its falsehood, is how we define lying. But we can be misled by a simple and straightforward claim – especially if we are motivated to believe it – when some of its many underlying claims are distorted or manipulated for the purpose of dissembling.
When it comes to liars, the subtleties deepen. It is often said that “pathological liars” believe the lies they make up, and this is what contributes to their lying and their effectiveness as liars. We hear people ask: “Did Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos know she was lying or were her claims merely wishful thinking?” Of the many notions, large or small, expressed by liars, how many are directly contradictory to their firsthand awareness of the facts on the ground and how many based on flimsy premises only dimly considered or validated? How many of these premises are highlighted out of proportion to other known facts or elided entirely just to make their case?
There are numerous psychological and neuropsychiatric studies of liars, confabulators, and sociopaths. Tales of fabulists – Baron Münchausen perhaps the most well-known – make for popular reading just because each liar is unique, and the vicissitudes of their wishes and dreams present a thrill-ride of impending disclosure. The variety of “tangled webs” give some indication of what makes these tales so fascinating. Our panel today will be analyzing these many facets to what liars do when they are lying.