We probably waste too many recycled electrons on those complete wastes of sperm and egg, but our defense is this: we can’t help it. First, they frequently make claims to awards or attainments that we & friends risked life and health, and exhausted ourselves even in our young prime, to earn. Second… in today’s networked world, it’s just not possible that a John Giduck or Dick Blumenthal could get away with his fake hero claims forever.
The same is true about phonies in other fields, like “Clark Rockefeller” or Jayson Blair, and economic journalist Megan McArdle, whose once-popular blog apparently still exists in the wasteland that is The Daily Beast, shares our fascination. Without even mentioning stolen valor or a single case of a military phony, she asks some questions, and makes some speculative stabs at the answers. It’s worth the effort to go to the Beast and Read the Whole Thing™, because this is only a taste:
I am fascinated by liars.
I don’t mean ordinary, boring liars, like employees who call in sick because they want to go to the beach, or insurance salesmen who tell you that it is a good idea to buy whole life insurance. I mean people who tell high-test, dry-aged, technicolor extravaganza sort of lies. The kind of lies that are very, very hard to tell without eventually getting caught. Like making up a girlfriend who died of leukemia right before a big game.
Those certainly sound like our kind of wannabes, don’t they? But McArdle has other BS artists in mind:
Journalist Stephen Glass fabricating companies whose threads were spun out of his fertile imagination. People who pretend to attend law school or medical school, fooling their families for years. Scientists who fake Nobel-caliber research.
The morality of this is not very interesting: what they’re doing is terrible. But the psychology is fascinating. What all these lies have in common is that eventually, there is a 100% chance that you will get caught, and that your lies will destroy you. How do people decide to tell them?
Personally, we’ve seen a change from outlandish and easily-disproven BS (POW and Medal of Honor phonies) to more modest (and less-well-documented) claims over the last twenty or so years. She sees a difference between the big phony and the smaller one:
I’m not talking about folks like Mike Daisey, who might conceivably have imagined–wrongly–that China was so very far away that no one would be able to check up on his fabrications. Or even Jonah Lehrer, whose fabrications were trivial details that he might have imagined were too small to attract notice. (As they were, until he made the mistake of fabricating a Bob Dylan quote. In his not-exactly-defense, I wouldn’t have known how rabid Dylan fans, either.) I mean people who were telling lies that could not possibly go on forever without being exposed.
We think the difference between Glass and Lehrer, like the difference between the 1990s “my two Medals of Honor are classified” bull-slinger and a cautious one like Giduck who tried to put his claims in others’ mouths, is simply that the newer, seemingly more modest liars are attuned to the distributed power of the internet and are trying to cover their asses. They just don’t see that, to take a very old aphorism that is ever more true in a networked world, truth will out.
Like scientists who fabricate amazing research results, something that is nearly impossible to get away with over the long term, since other labs are going to repeatedly discover that your results do not replicate.
This seems to be a poorly-studied phenomenon, in part because these sorts of spectacular, sure-to-be-detected lies aren’t all that common, and in part because the liars are not very reliable sources of information, even about themselves. I’ve read some of the interviews and first-person accounts from people who did this sort of thing, and they are wildly, profoundly unsatisfying. They don’t ever explain what I’d like to know, which is “How did you ever see this working out?”
Of course, they do get away with it for longer than you would think–dozens of news outlet broadcast details (and a photograph!) of Te’o's apparently non-existant dead girlfriend. Perhaps that encourages them to escalate: if Sports Illustrated didn’t check, why would anyone else? But that’s not satisfying either. Doesn’t it ever occur to them that every additional story makes it more likely that they will get caught?
The underlying fact pattern that she’s reporting on there is this: most journalists are hacks who suck at their jobs. They never, ever question a story that makes them go “awww,” or that lines up neatly with some preferred narrative. As she’s a reporter who tries to question her own assumptions, she just doesn’t believe how incredibly bad her colleagues are, and how the folks out here in Flyoverstan have come to discount very much if not all of what they say.
Like the song says, you can tell they’re lyin’ ’cause their lips are movin’.
Here she gets close to the heart of the matter:
A fabricated love interest who eventually dies of some heartrending fatal disease is the kind of thing that many of us heard from at least one histrionic friend in college. It is the kind of thing that you can perhaps get away with, if you are not famous. But the probability approached 1 that this would be exposed. Whether Te’o is the hoaxer behind the fake girlfriend, or was himself hoaxed, the question remains: why on earth . . . ?
First, let’s just euthanize the “was he himself hoaxed” comment which is still making the rounds of the gullible in journo-, sports-, and sports-journo circles. Kindly explain to us how somebody loses track of the facts that he has or doesn’t have a girlfriend, who is or isn’t alive. We’ll stipulate that football players tend not to be quantum physicists, but this isn’t Schrödinger’s Cat here, nobody cares about her quantum state. In Newtonian physics and Shakespearean terms, to be or not to be, that is the question. (Or to give it a Jordanian — Louis Jordanian that is — inflection, is she is or is she ain’t, period?)
Perhaps it’s just that these people do not adjust quickly enough to playing in the big leagues; they don’t understand quickly enough that the kind of lies people tell in bars cannot safely be broadcast to thousands or millions of people, and the kind of shortcuts that an unscrupulous or desperate person might safely take on a boring, low-circulation article are career suicide on a high-profile publication. By the time the danger becomes clear, it is too late.
Or perhaps we’ll never understand it. Perhaps the fabricators do not even understand it themselves.
What the phonies don’t get is that by slinging SF (or SEAL, or Marine Recon, or you-name-it) bullshit, they’re stepping on the toes of all the men that legitimately earned the right to those titles. In 1950 some guy could probably have waked around the country saying he was a D-Day paratrooper, in 1880 some guy could have said he fought on Little Round Top, and as long as he didn’t run into one of the handful of real deal guys, he would have gotten away with it. But it was always a big-league lie. What has changed is the communications world of today makes it possible to expose the lie. It makes the real equivalent of the Pickett’s Charge survivor or Easy Company platoon sergeant available instantly and easily, and it ensures that lies about his own action get routed to him.
There are no more consequence-free “lies in bars.” The guy in the bar knows somebody who knows somebody and everyone’s a tweet or email away. Go ahead, lie. It’s your ass.
The future is transparent as a lens. And wannabes are going to get burned, every time, sooner or later.