Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Truth, Lies, and Misrepresentations

We are learning a lot lately about how people purposely lie and mislead on social media. Especially sad is how people fabricate news stories to the delight of friends who they know will spread the lies multiple times. The term urban legend has been around a long time. I understand it to mean a fictional account that has been circulated enough so that many people believe it to be true.

It worries people that soon we won’t know the difference between fact and fiction. Information will exist but its validity will be suspect. Whether it is evidence about global warming or about the color of the skin of a murderer, most of us will just shake our heads and wonder if the latest story has any truth to it. Information will (already has) become entertainment and persuasion.

We have been dealing with fact and fancy for a long time. In physics, we learn that the very fact of observing a phenomenon can bend its result. Does a tree that falls in the woods make a sound if we are not there to hear it? These ideas titillate the mind. Complicated phenomena (like poverty, economic growth) must be observed and interpreted, and there is room for two different observers to come away with two very different observations and conclusions.

Thus it is reasonable to think of truth as being subjective. And therefore it is possible that you might think one person is lying despite his or her very ardent attempts to be truthful. But when it comes to most things, this element of subjectivity is pretty minor. Many things are very clear. What goes up usually comes down. One final JD has predictable effects. A person high on crack may commit horrible crimes. Too much pollution makes for illness and discomfort. It it other more complicated phenomena that cause the consternation about truth or fiction.

I want to split a hair about these complicated issues. Yes, there is more than one interpretation. There is more than one intelligent view of the truth. But that does not give one license to intentionally lie and mislead. I am often critical of economists who intentionally distort issues by leaving out critical facts that they know to be true. They probably do not admit to their families that they tell whoppers, but surely they appreciate the back slaps, promotions, and high-paid speech opportunities that come with wowing their followers.

Sadly, misrepresentations are hitting new levels. Let me list below some of the ones that have been spouted in the last week by very prominent people.

Federal Reserve interest rate increases will lead to the next recession.
Any attempt to reform Obamacare will be tantamount to pushing grandma over the cliff.
Because Boomers are retiring, it is impossible to have strong employment growth in the US.
Consumer finance deregulation will lead to predatory lending and hurt loan customers.
Tax rate reductions that are part of tax reform will worsen poverty.
Deregulation of the financial sector will lead to excessive leveraging and lead to another financial disaster.
Any attempt to regulate abortions will cause irreparable harm to women’s health.
Infrastructure proposals with strong private sector participation/ownership will lead to rampant corruption.

No, I am not going to take each of these and bore you with a complete analysis. But be honest. The people who are now saying these things (and more) are misrepresenting truth. The people who say these things get wealth, power, and popularity by misleading you or providing ideological fodder for your predilections.

Could any of the above statements be true? Of course they could. But they might also never happen because they are each based on excluding things we know to be true. We know that regulations introduced in the last eight years were not all perfect. We know they have had severe unintended effects. We know that today we have major economic and social policy challenges. 

Policies and regulations can easily be represented by a meter or a dial. In some years the needle moves to the left. In other years it moves back to the right. Arguing about these shifts and changes is normal. Screaming bloody murder when the next team gets power is normal too. But making up stories is not and should not be tolerated. 

Let’s decide a position for the needle in the coming years based on honest and open discussion of the fullest possible set of facts. It might not amount to absolute truth but it will get us a lot further than a bunch of sad distortions. 


  1. Dear LSD. The new normal is democratization of sources (mainstream, cable, social media, etc.) of information and data—some of which is legit newz and fact—which we will have to endure for a long time and consequently be unable to discern fact from fiction from outright lie. Add to that the blurring of facts, partial facts, intended misrepresentation, and the outright disagreement about the interpretation of “facts” and you have a stinky gurgling stew of data/information that will thwart any effort to be a credible source of facts, data, and information.

    The democratization of sources combined with the 1st Amendment will ferment the stinky gurgling stew and we’ll wind up intoxicated by gobs of gobbledygook and in a constant state of information disequilibrium, vertigo, and conflict. Heck, you won’t know if you’re intoxicated via misinformation or JD. We won’t know left from right (maybe a good thing?) or up from down.

    I’ll favor a dial that lets me turn up the volume (Yea, more misinformation!) or down (Yea, less misinformation!) or that lets me control the flow of JD. Nirvana will finally have arrived.

    Honest and open discussion is a fine ideal but will (and does)crash and burn when confronted with facts—real, imagined, or just made up—‘cause each will have his/her own interpretation thereof.

    Did she lie outright, or just slightly a wee bit, or not at all—just once, sometimes, or all the time?

    1. It makes no sense to put up with or excuse this nonsense. Why not buy a scale that tells you whatever weight you want? Why not have a speedometer that shows you a speed below the speed limit no matter how fast you go? The reason this sounds like nonsense is that it is. We need honest facts for many reasons. Mostly so we can make good decisions. Once you have people saying whatever they want about the truth regarding actual phenomena, you lose your ability to make good decisions. It is as simple as that. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

  2. We do have people saying whatever they want about truth (facts)--and they are the ones allegedly investigating and checking . . . yet they are not held accountable . . . they are called TV anchors, media reporters, and (hey-hey) journalists . . . oh, and let’s not forget our politicians and top govomit officials.

    Who will be the authority to step up and declare for all to see/hear nationally that this stuff has got to stop, that it’s nonsense, and that he/she is mad as hell and won’t take it anymore—without getting skewered and tarred/feathered by the 1st Amendmenters and mostly all media? Who will be the uncontested arbiter?

    My bathroom scale does adjust to my desired weight and my mirror lies . . . . I’m under-weight, young, fit, and handsome . . . with a full head of hair. I like the new normal.

    Ah-h-h-h-h-h yes . . . truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder . . . someone said that sometime somewhere I think.

    1. The ultimate authority is the Bloomington Faculty Council. No, that's not right. The ultimate authority is us. When we realize that lies and distortions are not good for us we will clean up our act. The process is slow and imperfect but it sometimes works...something about the emperor who wore no clothes?