Photo: Danny Ngan
I'm going to take a week-long break from blogging as of today, because I'll be away on honeymoon in Italy, and far from the madding web.
1. God. In the story of the Garden of Eden, it’s the serpent who gets the blame for lying. But does he really deceive anyone? He just leads Adam and Eve towards the apple of sin. God, however, warns the happy couple that if they eat the fruit they will drop dead on the spot. Well, they do - and they don’t. God was being disingenuous, to say the least.
2. Odysseus. The protagonist of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, Odysseus was a peerless sailor, warrior and lover. He was also a brilliant liar - a “master deceiver among mortals”. Odysseus lies in the pursuit of victory and love, sending a Trojan Horse into Troy, and telling fibs to the goddess Athene, his wife Penelope and Penelope’s aged father, Laertes. Homer contrasts him to Achilles, who hates all liars. But it’s Odysseus who is the true hero of the story, despite - or perhaps because of - his talent for deceit.
3. Titus Oates. In 1679 England was seized by anti-Catholic fervour in response to allegations of a French-backed plot to murder Charles II, replace him with his brother James, and restore England to Catholicism. The House of Commons condemned this “damnable and hellish plot”. Crowds took to the streets to burn effigies of the Pope. Many Catholics were arrested, and some were executed. It later turned out that the whole plot was the invention of a virtuoso liar called Titus Oates who had earlier feigned conversion to the Catholic church with the aim of wreaking havoc on it. Oates was convicted of perjury and put in the stocks.
4. George Psalmanazar. In 1704, the hottest book in London was a description of life on an island near Japan. Entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, its author was one George Psalmanazar, a “native of said island”. The book’s lurid descriptions of polygamy, human sacrifice, cannibalism and infanticide made it a sensation and its author a celebrity, courted by Samuel Johnson and other luminaries of the day. But Formosa didn’t exist. Psalmanazar had made it all up, and invented an identity for himself (he was actually from France). His true name remains unknown today.
5. Anna Anderson. In 1918, the year following the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks executed all surviving members of the royal Romanov family, to ensure that no campaign for restoration could rally around a surviving heir. There were soon rumours that at least one of the royals had survived, and several people came forward to claim royal lineage. The most celebrated was Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, and pursued her case through the German courts. Anderson became a celebrity, supported by many who believed her story. She did bear a resemblance to Anastasia. But, long after her death, DNA tests on a lock of her hair proved beyond doubt that her claims had been false.
6. Kim Philby. Shortly after the outbreak of the second world war, a British journalist called Kim Philby joined his country’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. His recruiters were unaware that Philby was a communist sympathiser, friendly with Soviet intelligence agents. Philby rose to become head of the agency’s anti-Soviet section, running operations against the Russians while passing secrets to his Soviet minders. He came under suspicion after his colleagues Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean fled to the Soviet Union, but he convinced the British of his innocence. At a press conference, he declared, calmly and confidently, that “I have never been a communist.” Philby became a Soviet citizen in 1963. That’s the trouble with spies: if you hire someone to lie for you, you can hardly be surprised when they end up lying to you.
7. Jonathan Aitken. After resigning from Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet to fight a libel battle against the Guardian, Jonathan Aitken declared: ‘If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight. The fight against falsehood and those who peddle it.’ The case, which stretched on for over two years, involved a series of claims made by the Guardian about Aitken’s relationships with Saudi arms dealers, including meetings he allegedly held with them as their guest in the Ritz Hotel in Paris while a government minister. As Aitken knew when he delivered his stirring battle-cry, the key allegations made by The Guardian were true. He lost the case, which destroyed his reputation and his career. Some of the lies Aitken told at his trial were entirely superfluous. He may have experienced what deception experts term “duping delight” - pleasure in deceiving others. Aitken has since become a reformed character who campaigns for better prison conditions.
8. Bill Clinton. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Clinton famously lied to the world - and his wife - about the nature of his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He was pretty convincing too, employing all the extraordinary communication skills he used in pursuit of more noble goals before and since. Perhaps more than anyone else, Clinton embodies the way in which lying comes bound up with our best characteristics as well as our worst. Contrary to stereotype, great liars tend to be highly intelligent, sociable, charming and empathetic.
9. Bernie Madoff. In 2008 Bernie Madoff confessed that his investment firm was “one big lie”. He had conned about $50 billion out of investors by pretending to invest their money while in reality using it to pay out ‘returns’ to other investors, and of course keeping some of it for himself. The scheme collapsed when he ran out of new dupes. Madoff had borrowed from Charles Ponzi, who had come up with the scam in the early 20th century, though Madoff took it to a whole new level. On one reading, Madoff was a man who practised a little dishonesty but then found himself caught up in an ever-expanding web of lies. In another, he was a psychopath with no sense of right or wrong, and planned the whole thing from the beginning. We may never know for sure.
10. You. We hate liars, and lying. But lying is something pretty much all of us practice, and on a regular basis. The psychologist Bella De Paulo asked her subjects to keep a diary of their interactions on a daily basis and concluded that everyone tells between one and two lies a day. This may be conservative: another psychologist found that strangers will tell three lies within ten minutes of meeting each other. We lie about how we’re feeling, about the meal we’ve just been served, about whether we’ve already sent that email. Of course, we think our lies are ‘white lies’ - but then, so does everyone else. It was the strange contradiction at the heart of our attitude to lying that led me to write ‘Born Liars’.
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There is a superb report in the FT on the influence of statistical analysis on football. The use of data by clubs to make decisions about players was pioneered in this country by Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, over a decade ago, but it's now reaching a whole new level of sophistication:
I recently toured several actors in football’s data revolution, and was struck by how far it had progressed. “We’ve somewhere around 32 million data points over 12,000, 13,000 games now,” Mike Forde, Chelsea’s performance director, told me one morning in February in the empty stands of Stamford Bridge. Football is becoming clever.
Stats are by no means an infallible guide to judgement:
In August 2001 Manchester United’s manager Alex Ferguson suddenly sold his defender Jaap Stam to Lazio Roma. The move surprised everyone. Some thought Ferguson was punishing the Dutchman for a silly autobiography he had just published. In truth, although Ferguson didn’t say this publicly, the sale was prompted partly by match data. Studying the numbers, Ferguson had spotted that Stam was tackling less often than before. He presumed the defender, then 29, was declining. So he sold him. As Ferguson later admitted, this was a mistake. Like many football men in the early days of match data, the manager had studied the wrong numbers. Stam wasn’t in decline at all: he would go on to have several excellent years in Italy. Still, the sale was a milestone in football history: a transfer driven largely by stats.
Mistakes like that, say the sceptics, spring from a crucial difference between baseball (where stats have long been crucial, as documented in Michael Lewis's Moneyball) and football: one is digital and one is analogue. Baseball is a series of events; it can be measured pitch by pitch. Football is a more 'fluid' game - 22 men kicking a ball about for 90 minutes - which makes it difficult to model accurately. But the data-nerds are getting better and better at doing so, and their science - or art - is assuming a new centrality to the business of buying, selling and coaching players.
Apart from anything this story is a great counterweight to the post-Blink strain of books about the superiority of 'gut instinct' decision-making. Our instincts and intuitions about reality all too often let us down:
If you looked at Manchester City’s Yaya Touré, with his languid running style, you might think he was slow. If you looked at the numbers, you’d see that he wasn’t. Beane says, “What stats allow you to do is not take things at face value. The idea that I trust my eyes more than the stats, I don’t buy that because I’ve seen magicians pull rabbits out of hats and I just know that rabbit’s not in there.”
It's be interesting to know what the stats are on Peter Crouch.
Read the whole thing, which is fascinating throughout (if you're interested in that kind of thing).
Sam Lessin (Picture: Dave Pinter/Flickr)
This post by Ryan Tate at Gawker is actually a very sharp piece of media-sociological analysis. Its starting point is a New York Times report on Silicon Valley's hunt for 'the best talent', which leads with Facebook's recent purchase of a company started up by Sam Lessin. The NYT's point is that Facebook's primary reason for acquiring the company was to acquire Mr Lessin, a 'talented engineer'. But Tate argues that to report it this way misses out at least half the story:
If you want Facebook to spend millions of dollars hiring you, it helps to be a talented engineer, as the New York Times suggests. But it also helps to carouse with Facebook honchos, invite them to your dad's Mediterranean party palace, and get them introduced to your father's venture capital pals, like Sam Lessin did.
Lessin is the poster boy for today's Times story on Facebook "talent acquisitions." Facebook spent several million dollars to buy Lessin's drop.io, only to shut it down and put Lessin to work on internal projects. To the Times, Lessin is an example of how "the best talent" fetches tons of money these days. "Engineers are worth half a million to one million," a Facebook executive told the paper.
We'll let you in on a few things the Times left out: Lessin is not an engineer, but a Harvard social studies major and a former Bain consultant. His file-sharing startup drop.io was an also-ran competitor to the much more popular Dropbox, and was funded by a chum from Lessin's very rich childhood. Lessin's wealthy investment banker dad provided Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg crucial access to venture capitalists in Facebook's early days. And Lessin had made a habit of wining and dining with Facebook executives for years before he finally scored a deal, including at a famous party he threw at his father's vacation home in Cyprus with girlfriend and Wall Street Journal tech reporter Jessica Vascellaro.
Tate's point is not to denigrate Lessin's achievement. It's more that Lessin's wealth probably has as much or more to do with his social network (in sociological terms, his 'social capital') as his raw talent - yet the Times reports his advancement as if it were only about the latter. This is indicative of a wider media bias towards ascribing people's advancement to their own agency and ability rather than to luck and inherent advantage. The result is that we get a distorted idea of how our societies work which - if you want to get all Marxist about it - is one way that inequality entrenches and sustains itself.
Here, as in the States, the polygraph never made it into court, because it hasn't been judged reliable enough to substitute for or complement human judgement. The debate over such techniques has now being revived by the advent of brain-scanning technologies, such as fMRI, which some scientists believe offer a route to more reliable lie detection.
The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) provides MPs with independent, reliable information on scientific issues pertaining to public policy, and it recently issued a report on the latest developments in lie detection. It found that fMRI testing can attain 70% or 80% levels of accuracy. This sounds pretty impressive until you consider - as the report does - that such results are obtained under highly artificial conditions, the most artificial of which being that the subject cooperates. In most criminal cases, of course, you can expect the subject to try and fool or confuse the technology - and fMRI is highly vulnerable to the most banal countermeasures. Simply moving a finger or toe or - very slightly - one's head can completely baffle this expensive machinery, by muddling the results of the scan.
The report also notes that the Ministry of Justice is to carry out a pilot of old-fashioned polygraph testing on sex offenders released on licence. The UK government wants to ascertain “whether use of polygraphs increases the disclosure offenders make under supervision". The answer of course, is yes, but mainly because suspects tend to believe that such machines can read their minds - and so they preemptively 'fess up. The polygraph's effectiveness as an interrogation is itself based on a lie - the lie of its own infallibility. Which raises interesting questions about whether that's a legitimate reason for the government to use it, and whether it might induce as many false confessions as true ones.
The scene above, from The Wire, was based on something David Simon witnessed for real when he shadowed the Baltimore police force in the 1980s, and it shows how pretty much any machine can stand in for an actual polygraph, as long as the suspect is credulous enough to believe in it. (If you're short on time, start about 1"50 in).
(Hat tip: neuroethics and law)
This week there will be an extract every morning at 9.45, which is repeated at half-past midnight that night. And of course it will all be on the iPlayer.
A lifetime's ambition accomplished, I am now deciding how to spend my retirement.
In Born Liars I discuss the stereotype of politicians as inveterate liars who spout untruths whenever they move their lips. It seems to me that politicians probably lie less than the rest of us, on average, because their statements are under such scrutiny, and the penalty for being found out is so high. We love to point the finger at them and scream 'liars', though, perhaps as a way of displacing any discomfort we feel with our own dishonesties. It's always comforting to think that other people tell lies.
On the other hand, there is something in the accusation. There's no doubt politicians devote a lot of energy to, well, avoiding the truth. But perhaps that's because we force them to. We don't like it when politicians tell us the unvarnished facts. When Alistair Darling, as chancellor, predicted that the country was facing its biggest recession in sixty years he was pummelled by the press - not to mention his own prime minister's spin doctors - because he was doing something unconventional: he was being honest. The journalist Michael Kinsley's definition of a gaffe is when a politician speaks the truth by accident. The underlying reason for this is that we - the voters - deceive ourselves about what's possible and about what our attitudes are. Politicians know this, and play to what we really feel rather than what we say we believe. Well, the smart ones do, anyway. Most voters say they are willing to pay higher taxes for a better NHS, for instance - but woe betide the politician who takes them at their word.
Then there's immigration, where - if this American study is remotely applicable here - the attitudes of voters may be even more conservative than the polling already discloses. The author of the study, a social psychologist called Alexander Janus (an almost unbelievably apposite name) contends that pressures of social desirability lead many respondents in polls on immigration to pretend they're in favour of it, when in reality they're not. He designed a questioning technique to separate what people say they believe from what they really believe, and concluded:
About 6 in 10 college graduates and more than 6 in 10 liberals hide their opposition to immigration when asked directly, using traditional survey measures.
Why would people lie in an anonymous survey?
Some people worry about offending the interviewer. … Other people are concerned with how their information will be used by a survey research organization. They worry about the privacy of their data, which can be a legitimate concern. They want to give a response that would be appealing to their community if it was ever revealed.
Most important, surely, is that people are out to convince themselves of their own self-image.
Link to report on study.
Link to study.
Link to Born Liars (still half-price from Amazon).
This will be brief because I didn't actually watch the first major televised debate of the GOP nomination race. I couldn't bear to. There will be plenty more chances to endure one.
So, in short, what seems to have happened is this:
- Mitt Romney did well. Whatever his faults, Romney is a fiercely competitive candidate and a diligent self-improver, so it shouldn't be a surprise that his debating style has improved, or that his answers were well-prepared and fluent, even on that difficult question about how he can oppose Obamacare when it looks very much like the Romneycare he introduced as governor in Massachusetts. But the pundits and the GOP establishment (ie the only people really paying attention at this stage) were somewhat surprised, and suitably impressed. Romney's frontrunner position has solidified. This was helped by the fact that...
- Tim Pawlenty was deemed to have bombed. He reverted to type - bland, inoffensive, verging on invisible - at precisely the moment he should have been punching through. Crucially, he failed to attack the frontrunner, Romney, on healthcare or indeed anything else. If not now, when? Pawlenty is acting like he's the frontrunner, when he needs to scrap like hell if wants to even be a strong challenger. This is making people think he may not have what it takes.
- Michele Bachmann did very well. She announced that she'd filed papers for her run - a neat way to steal the moment - and performed with confidence throughout, making her comparatively junior political status (she's in the House of Representatives) sound relatively substantial. As Nate Silver has remarked, Bachmann is what Palin should be by now if she is going to be a serious challenger. Unlike Palin, Bachmann seems to have put in some work on the policy front, and thought hard about how to make herself more than just a rabble-rouser. What's more, she is rapidly closing down any remaining space for Palin to enter this race.
- The others are sideshows. The only other real players are those who haven't announced their candidacy yet. Huntsman does so next week. He may feel encouraged by Pawlenty's weakness, which means there's more space for a moderate anti-Romney (though how on earth he squares the circle of working-for-Obama to running-against-Obama is still a mystery). Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, is rumoured to be on the verge of jumping in. Perry, a hardline conservative, is brash, charismatic, has great hair, is very...Texas. His plan will be to be the anti-Romney of the right.
So there you go. Best report/analysis of the night is - as usual - Nate Silver's.
Rachel Sylvester has a thoughtful column on Ed Miliband's difficulties in the (paywalled) Times today. It contains lots of 'advice' to the leader from his own front bench (how he must love that). For me the best point is this one:
“Ed ran his campaign against David — whatever David did, he went a bit to the left — so now David’s gone he’s lost the tracking point. It’s like Gordon Brown, who was brilliant at defining himself against Tony Blair but couldn’t find the centre on his own. Ed’s got to grab the leadership and say ‘this is mine, this is why I wanted it’.”
I think this captures something that lies at the root of Ed's poor performance to date. He ran against his brother first, and for the the leadership of the Labour Party second. He didn't do so out of rancour or resentment (although I expect that David can be an infuriatingly patronising older sibling) but because challenging his brother offered him a clear role and definition, politically and personally. Now David has gone he's like America after the collapse of the Soviet Union, no longer able to rely on an antagonist for his identity. By conference time that will all be a year in the past. But I suspect that's too short a time for Ed to work out what he really wants to do with the leadership of his party. Such things take time.
I watched a great BBC programme about writing for TV a few years ago, in the course of which one writer - I think it was Graham Linehan - remarked that the reason many potentially good ideas don't see the light of day is that the writer starts on them too soon, and by doing so kills them off before they've been allowed to develop into something good. The best thing to do when you have the sniff of an idea, he said, is let it simmer, making notes of further thoughts as they arrive, until the pressure builds to the point where the idea simply has to committed to paper and then shown to the world.
The political equivalents here are, on the one hand, Tony Blair, who spent over a decade as an opposition MP, working through his ideas about where the party should go, his frustration and confidence growing in tandem - until, when his chance came, he had to go for it, because he knew exactly where he wanted to take his party. On the other, we have William Hague and Ed Miliband, who spotted an opportunity to lead without having the spent time working out why they should take it - and took it anyway.
If you're near a TV this afternoon and you like tennis you'll probably try to catch at least some of the Queen's final, as Andy Murray - in fine form - takes on Paul Tsonga, weather permitting (and the weather is looking very permissive at the moment). If you're busy, however, you may end up catching the highlights this evening, or watch it in recorded form on your Sky Plus box. But it won't be the same, will it? There are all sorts of reasons for this, and many of them are discussed, highly entertainingly, by the American writer Chuck Klosterman in this piece for Grantland. For instance:
Recording gives me too much control: This seems backwards, but it's probably common sense. The most reassuring thing about television is that it's a passive experience — it's one-way entertainment. You sit motionless and watch what's happening, and it's totally acceptable to surrender your agency. But if you're watching a game that's already happened, you're constantly forced to decide whether or not it's worth the investment of your time. You suddenly have too much agency. You know you could just walk over to your computer and learn everything important in seconds (i.e., who won, what the highlights were, what the takeaway is), so the play-by-play action needs to be more entertaining than every other life option you have at that moment.
Watching a recorded game also means you miss the (irrational but palpable) sense that simply by watching, screaming at the TV etc, you are affecting its outcome. And then there is the fact that if something truly amazing had happened you'd have found out about it, somehow:
What I've come to accept (and this is both good and bad, but mostly bad) is that — for the rest of my life — I will never not instantaneously know about any marginally insane event. There's just no way to avoid the information. The world is too mediated and interpersonal relationships are too connected. Because most adult relationships are now predominantly based around new technologies, it's almost as if there's a built-in responsibility to immediately distribute whatever interesting information we acquire.
I would add something that I think applies to all TV, and explains why event shows like X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent are so huge: we enjoy that intangible sense that thousands or millions of others are watching the same event at the same time as we are. This sense is enhanced by social media - particularly Twitter - these days. But it doesn't rely on it. There's something in us that likes to feel connected, somehow, to others beyond our front room. Recorded TV can't capture that.
The Duke of Edinburgh, ninety today, is my favourite royal. I didn't realise this until I watched the BBC's pleb-on-the-wall documentary about the Queen a couple of years ago. The Queen was much as you'd expect: perfectly self-controlled, sharp-witted, a little dour. But Philip was a revelation. At each stiff and tedious royal event he was irrepressible, like a child smirking at a funeral. You could see the royal minders were used to wondering where the Duke was and how to corral him back to the narrow path that royals are compelled to tread through the day. He would duck under the rope to shake hands with people who couldn't reach. Not out of a desire to shake hands, particularly, but because he didn't like the rope.
As I watched, the Duke's reputation as the master of the gaffe suddenly made sense to me. He makes gaffes, not out of arrogance or carelessness, but because he is in a constant struggle with the straitjacket of protocol and propriety, a struggle whose inevitable byproduct is the occasional blooper. The gaffes are the overspill of his still-bubbling sense of mischief, which ultimately represents a powerful determination to remain himself. Fifty years of scripted conversations and guided tours would turn many people into robots or monsters. But not Phil. He has the life force.
If you're not persuaded, then read this, my favourite Phil story. It's from an interview with Lynwood Westray, a White House butler who retired in 2009. Westray worked at the White House for 32 years, serving eight presidents. An African-American, he retired just as the thing he feared would never happen - the election of black president - came to be. Anyway, here's the story:
When reflecting on his fondest memory, Westray talks about a time in 1979 when Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited the White House. After dinner, Prince Philip went into the Red Room, next to the state dining room. Westray and his buddy were serving liquor. Westray says he was carrying the tray and glasses.
"The prince was in there by himself, which was odd, because everybody else had gone down to the other end of the building," Westray says. "I said, 'Your Majesty, would you care for a cordial?' He says, 'I'll take one if you let me serve it.' What do you do? I didn't do all that because I had the stuff in my hand. And he says, 'If you let me pour it, I'll have one with you.'
"... So he poured it, the one he wanted, and we took the same thing that he had. And we had our drink there together and had a little talk while we were there. He told us if we were ever over there in London to stop at Buckingham Palace and see him. Can you imagine the prince serving you? I enjoyed it. You know, we're not supposed to drink and carry on at that time. We're not guests. It was just the three of us in the room, so nobody knew what happened. And I drank my little cordial, we all drank, and had a little conversation. But that was one thing I'll never forget, having been served by royalty."
Link to interview.