If I make a false statement, your response — and your evaluation of me — will depend, in part, on the nature of the statement in question.
I’m speaking here of false statements about matters of fact, instances in which the evidence all points to an undeniable conclusion — false statements that are falsifiable, that are demonstrably false. We’re not talking about opinions, matters of taste, or adherence to theories or tenets of faith. String theory, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the statement “Bieber rules!” all may be wrong. Or not. But those aren’t the kinds of statements I want to discuss here.
Let’s consider three examples — three statements, all of which are demonstrably false. Each is an example of a different kind of false statement. We can classify these, in turn, as innocent, interested and intriguing:
1. “Philadelphia is the capital of Pennsylvania.”
2. “You owe me $423.”
3. “The secret conspiracy of Chimerians is attacking all that is good and pure and true.”
The first example seems like an innocent mistake. Innocent mistakes can be easily corrected. You might gently say something to me along the lines of, “While Philadelphia is the largest city in the state, and was once the capital of the nation, it’s not the capital of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg is.”
And then you could refer me to some authority — an atlas or Google — that could confirm this for me. I would, presumably, accept that authority and that correction. I would probably also be grateful to you for helping me to replace bad information with good.
The second statement is more interested and therefore more interesting. While this is again a simple assertion of fact, that assertion seems to be an attempt to gain advantage through what may be deliberate dishonesty. I stand to gain from this claim while you stand to lose. My interest in this false claim demands that my motives be considered here. The situation requires that you consider that I might not be innocently mistaken, but that I might be lying.
Unlike the first example, my claim that “You owe me $423” cannot be easily checked against some agreed-upon authoritative source like an atlas. Google probably won’t help us sort this out. So it’s likely we’ll end at an impasse in which I am unable to prove that you are obliged to give me money and you are unable to prove that you’re not. And that’s where things will stand.*
If somehow you could prove that you do not owe me $423, you will again have done me the favor of helping me to replace bad information with good. But in this situation I’m less likely to be grateful for this gift of the truth and more likely to grumble that the lousy truth is walking off with what should have been my $423.
The third example above I’m calling an “intriguing” false statement because that word applies in two different senses. The statement is so strange that it may intrigue you. And the statement invites you to cross over into a world of intrigue. In some cases, false statements like this claim may resemble the first example — they may be innocent cases of misinformation. But such conspiratorial claims are often closer to the second example — they are interested claims that seek advantage through a kind of dishonesty.
Your response to my false statement about the Chimerian conspiracy will thus depend in part on what you know about me as a person. If you know me to be somewhat naive and incurious, but basically honest, then you may suspect that I’m just passing along something I heard somewhere and credulously accepted. In that case you might start by saying something like, “Remember how we talked about Coast to Coast AM not being a news program? Well …”
The key thing here will be my response to your response. If I’m innocently mistaken, then — as with the Philadelphia/Harrisburg example — I will be grateful to learn the truth. If I’m not grateful — if I refuse to accept any contrary evidence and become angrily defensive — then you can conclude that I am not innocently mistaken. That anger and defensiveness is an indication that I am invested in this false claim.
The nature of that investment isn’t as obvious as it is in the second example, where I have a clear interest of precisely $423. My interest in the Chimerian conspiracy probably isn’t monetary, but emotional.
“The secret conspiracy of Chimerians is attacking all that is good and pure and true,” I tell you. And just like that I have positioned myself on the side of all that is good and pure and true, and thus convinced myself that I am good and pure and true. That convincing is based on unsubstantiated assertion, so it requires reinforcement. This reinforcement is part of what I’m seeking from you by telling you about the conspiracy.
In this case, I’m not asking you to give me $423, I’m asking you to confirm that I am good and pure and true. If you’ll agree to confirm this for me, then I’ll agree to confirm it for you.
As with the false statement “You owe me $423,” I’m seeking an advantage here, but it’s not an entirely zero-sum advantage in which I take something from you and make it mine. In a sense, I’m inviting you to share with me so that together we can bask in our righteous contrast to the sinister forces of the Chimerians.
In another sense, though, I am seeking advantage at your expense. I’m trying to initiate you into the secret mysteries of those who are enlightened about the Chimerian threat. That gives shape to our relationship, making me the intiated and you the initiate. In the realm of fantastical conspiracies, authority is currency, and by bringing you on board I can increase my share of that authority. All conspiracy theories and all Gnostic forms of mystery religion work a bit like Amway or any other multi-level marketing scheme — the more people I am able to recruit, the greater my influence and share of compensation.
That this compensation is mainly emotional and intangible doesn’t diminish the fact that I am seeking advantage for myself from my false claim about the Chimerians. Just as with the false claim “You owe me $423,” I have an interest in convincing others to accept this claim. And that interest, again, demands that my motives be considered here. It again suggests that I might not be innocently mistaken because I have a potential motive for lying. I may be lying to myself as well as to you, but that’s still lying.
In real life, these three distinct, separate categories of false statements — innocent, interested and intriguing — aren’t always so obviously separate or easy to distinguish. They tend to blur and overlap. Someone making a false statement that coincides with their own interests might still be innocently mistaken. Someone who seems innocently mistaken may have a hidden interest in promoting that falsehood.
For me, the bottom line is always the response to evidence that contradicts the statement. How does the speaker react when faced with the atlas or the Snopes.com page some other piece of evidence demonstrating the falsehood of their false statement? A person who is innocently mistaken may be embarrassed initially, but ultimately they will be glad to know the truth because, being innocent, they prefer truth to falsehood.
A person who is not innocently mistaken prefers the falsehood to the truth because the falsehood serves their interests. Their response to evidence or to correction will always be anger and hostility.
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* Unless I’m powerful enough that my simple assertion doesn’t require any proof to be quasi-legally binding. If, for example, I’m a bank, a utility, a wireless provider, or Sallie Mae — then I may simply be able to take your money on the basis of nothing more than my own false claim. And if so, I may well have a long and well-established track record of doing just that over and over again to thousands of people. Such a history would again demand that my motives be considered, because the pattern points toward the conclusion that, in this hypothetical example, I am both a liar and a swindler. You might not be able to prove that, but you’d be a fool not to suspect it. And you’d be a fool not to band together with all those thousands of others I’ve swindled and demand your money back.