The Collected Lies of Boris Johnson” would be such a heavy tome that it would need to be issued in two volumes. And when mendacity emanates daily from our head of Government it’s hardly surprising that it becomes ubiquitous across our society. Indeed the distinction between truth and fiction, between fact and fable, is so blurred it is often hard to detect at all.
The step from a lie to a conspiracy theory is a small one. Donald Trump was not the only public figure to promote lies which became conspiracy theory about Barack Obama. Most people didn’t believe them but if enough did to make an electoral difference there was a problem.
For two years now some commentators have spread preposterous untruths about COVID, about vaccination and about treatments. Some of these scare-mongerers have platforms in various credible media and even the BBC felt it had to give the anti-vax brigade a platform which implied equivalence with genuine medical science.
But, of course, the biggest lies of all came from the “Leave” campaigns in 2016 and from Brexiteers ever since. The “Benefits of Brexit” , in contrast to the assault on truth that is Boris Johnson, wouldn’t require a book or even a pamphlet so thin would it be. But then some people believe what they want to believe tendentious though it is, especially if it gels with their prejudices.
When telling the truth becomes a fetish for a tiny minority society as a whole begins to lose its morality. And lying normalises when everybody does it. Those who communicate with us cannot automatically be believed especially when politics trumps science. Remember when Michael Gove said “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts” ? This is a paean to anti-intellectualism. Raising the common man to the level of the knowledgeable academic.
Truth is science and science is truth. Of course in science there are borders where challenge is rife. But if we ignore the margins of uncertainty the hard truths contain pretty much unchallengeable facts. They will still be challenged though and always be given a platform on social media. Conspiracy theories deviate from the scientific method. The latter observes, collects information and data, evaluates and concludes. As it does so it records the areas of certainty and of doubt. The scientist will often say “The evidence suggest this and we can conclude with a 95% level of certainty that it is true”, or similar. The conspiracy theorist has no such uncertainty – that’s often a clue !
Life is for some a search for truth – often a frustrating one. That’s one reason why religions can be comforting. They allow “faith” – something based on spiritual conviction rather than proof. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” says Hamlet – a good check on our certainty, and acknowledgement that there is always doubt.
Doubts may illuminate and perhaps challenge the expert to seek further proofs. But probability can help us here. “I think that it is (highly) probable” is analogous to the legal construct of “reasonable doubt. “Beyond” reasonable doubt, required for conviction in criminal cases, ups the ante a bit further. Nobody will go to jail if it is just “probable” that they committed a crime. It requires more to convict and potentially deprive someone of their liberty.
Truth has many faces and my truth, biased by factors such as religion and personal experience, may not be the same as yours. But lies and distortions committed deliberately to give the liar personal advantage are often transparent. Civilised society requires that we are true to ourselves and to those we interact with.
Whether it was Mark Twain or Jonathan Swift who first said “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” ( there is doubt !) is less important than the inate truthfulness of the saying. We are especially unwilling to confront a truth when it upsets or disadvantages us. Maybe that is why populist politicians like Johnson or Trump lie to us. To be the bearer of bad tidings is much less attractive to the voter than telling them comforting lies.