Remember When People Told the Truth?

From Donald Trump to shady Philly pols, blatant dishonesty is having a moment. What happens in a world where you can’t trust what anybody says?

Photos by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images Sport (Irving); Pool/Getty Images News (Trump); Associated Press (Williams); Chris Goodney/Bloomberg/Getty Images (Conway)

Daniel Langleben has a terrible sense of timing.

The Penn neuroscientist and psychiatrist was the proud lead author on a scholarly treatise published last November in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showing that MRIs are superior to traditional polygraphs at detecting when people are lying. Five days later, Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States, and lying didn’t matter anymore.

Trump’s election, and the litany of claptrap he and his administration keep spouting, is what spurred Time magazine to ask on a recent cover: IS TRUTH DEAD? But the President is only the most prominent prevaricator in our midst. Last year, Volkswagen became the best-selling automaker in the world — hot on the heels of a scandal in which the German company lied for years about its diesel emissions. Kevin Deutsch, a veteran reporter whose work has appeared in publications as august as the New York Times, Newsday and Newsweek, is the most recent writer pegged for lying about sources, in the grand tradition of Stephen Glass, Jonah Lehrer and Janet Cooke. (Deutsch disputes the allegations.) Syria swore six ways to Sunday it got rid of all its chemical weapons.

Welcome to the world of “post-truth,” the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2016.

It’s a curious place, this craven new world. No less than FBI director James Comey can announce to a Congressional committee that there’s no corroborating evidence whatsoever for Donald Trump’s charge that President Obama wiretapped him, and Trump’s fans don’t care. For years Trump rode, hard, the canard that Obama had been born abroad and thus wasn’t eligible to hold his office. Yet he can one day announce, “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period,” and his followers don’t bat an eyelash. (Stranger yet, they’re still not convinced Obama’s presidency was legitimate.) Sean Spicer tells the media the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was the biggest ever. Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway is so notorious for making shit up that respectable news shows won’t have her on. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who’s covered every president since Jimmy Carter, recently marveled to Politico about the Trump administration. “I have never seen anything like this where people just flat-out lie.”

Speaking of flat, Kyrie Irving, the NBA star who once played at Duke and presumably knows better, says the world is flat. People believe him. Didn’t Shaquille O’Neal say the exact same thing? (Who understands astrophysics better than pro athletes, right?) George W. Bush built an entire war on lies about Nigerien uranium. Seth Williams, Philly’s DA — the district attorney! The guy who enforces the freaking law! — allegedly lies and steals thousands of dollars. From. His. Mom. Really, wtf?!?

Here in Philadelphia, we’ve always had a special relationship with the truth. The Quakers who founded us steadfastly refuse to take oaths; their (quaint) viewpoint is that to swear you’re telling the truth at any given time is to imply that at other times you’re not, and they’re not down with that. This righteous attitude didn’t stop William Penn’s sons, John and Thomas, from conning the Lenape Indians out of their land by using a misleading map to delineate the Walking Purchase, then compounding the swindle by paying the three fastest runners in the colony to “walk” as far as they could in a day and a half. Seth Williams is just the latest Philadelphia pol in a long, crooked line.

If truth isn’t dead, it’s sure taken one hell of a beating. Still, our Quaker ground zero — the birthplace of the nation, and the adoptive hometown of Ben Franklin, who famously declared “Half the truth is often a great lie” — seems as good a place as any to go looking for what truth is and whether it still matters in our present-day society of liars and friends.

For something that everybody talks about so much, truth seems kind of elusive. When Daniel Langleben goes looking for it, for example, he does so via its opposite: lies. Langleben first became interested in deception a few decades ago when he read a study that linked telling the truth with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (He treats mostly drug addicts and people with ADHD.) According to the study, kids with ADHD have trouble inhibiting routine responses. Since the human instinct is to tell the truth, Langleben reasoned, that should mean they’d have trouble lying. Or, as he puts it, “Truth is the baseline; a lie is a derivative built on some knowledge of the truth.” Lies don’t just spring up out of nowhere. They’re based on a foundation of what’s real, what’s true.

In order to tell a lie, we first have to realize the truth, then suppress it, then construct a plausible falsehood on its scaffold. Which means the brain should have to work harder when it’s lying than when it’s telling the truth — a difference that ought to show up, Langleben theorized, on the brain-scanning technology known as magnetic resonance imaging.

Langleben was at Stanford at the time and didn’t have access to MRI equipment. But he tucked the idea away, and a few years later, in 1999, he came to Penn. It had a great MRI facility and wonderfully accommodating technicians. Granted, nobody thought Langleben’s notion to test whether lying showed up in the brain was serious. But he walked a few blocks to Drexel, where he bought some software a techie had rigged up, and he got free MRI time from Penn, and he ran his trials, and eventually the math whiz who was helping him with the analytics said, “You know, I think it’s actually working out!”

For a guy who once started an academic paper with the depressing observation “Deceit is ubiquitous in humans,” Langleben is laid-back and droll as he explains his theories in a conference room littered with leftover Dunkin’ Donuts from an earlier class. (“You have to get them to sit through three hours somehow,” he says.) It’s true that when he started this work, a lie-detection machine already existed — the polygraph. But it isn’t particularly accurate — its results are only rarely allowed in courts, for example. (It is used for security clearances for some government jobs.) Langleben says that’s not surprising. Though the polygraph measures different bodily effects of lying — including spikes in blood pressure, pulse and respiration rate — mostly it measures electrodermal response, or the production of fluid by sweat glands. An MRI shows a lie as it’s being formed inside you, through pictures of the brain itself. “It’s one step less removed,” Langleben explains.

For his experiment, Langleben administered what’s known in the fabrication field as a “concealed information” test: He told subjects to write a number between three and eight on a piece of paper, tuck it away, and answer “No” to all the questions that followed. Then he put them into MRI machines and asked: Did you write the number four? Five? Six? In the most recent study, neuroscientists with no prior lie-detection experience who looked at the resulting MRIs were 24 percent more likely to be able to pinpoint when subjects were lying than professional polygraph examiners looking at polygraph recordings of the subjects taking the same test.

Lie detection matters in Langleben’s work because some of his patients freely, um, misrepresent the truth. “I once asked a patient if she’d ever been on bipolar medication,” he tells me. “She said no. I said, okay, let’s try you on this one, then. She said, ‘Oh, no, I had a terrible reaction to that.’” Addicts will lie about using drugs even when it’s not in their best interests to do so. “To try to force people into knowing when they don’t want to know,” says Langleben, “is very hard to do.”

That’s because humans are experts at self-delusion. We can lie and not even realize that we’re lying. Langleben once wrote about a case in which a patient accused her therapist of sexually abusing her. The therapist denied the charges. The patient and the therapist each took lie-detector tests. The results showed that both women were telling the truth.

Or, rather, the tests showed there was no deception. And deception, according to St. Augustine, the influential fourth-century philosopher who wrote copiously on the topic, is a necessary aspect of lying. Augustine lays this out in a way that’s eerily similar to Langleben’s experimental thesis:

[T]he heart of him who lies is said to be double; that is, there is a double thought: the one, of that thing which he either knows or thinks to be true and does not produce; the other, of that thing which he produces instead thereof, knowing or thinking it to be false.

Which raises the question: Is truth subjective, or objective? Personal, or universal? Is it the same for a starving Syrian child and for my well-fed son as he sits in air-conditioned splendor playing video games? These seemed like questions fit for a philosopher, so I found one: the aptly named Gerald Vision, on sabbatical this year from Temple University, where he teaches, among other things, a course that’s called “Theories of Truth.”

The home of a philosopher, in Vision’s case, is a snug brick twin on a small street in Narberth. There’s a bowl of clementines on the dining room table, along with a plate of oatmeal cookies and my mug of tea. I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever talked to a philosopher before, and hoping I’ll be able to keep up my end of the conversation, or at least fake it. Might as well start with a simple question: “What is truth?”

Vision laughs. “As Pontius Pilate asked, right? For me, to say that something is true, in the propositional sense, is to say that it corresponds to the world. To reality.” I sip my tea, letting that sink in. He allows, though, that in his field, “There’s disagreement as to what things are true and what sorts of things make them true. Put 10 philosophers in a room and you’ll get 10 opinions. There’s no Académie Française for philosophy.”

I’m starting to think that’s a pity. There are some epistemological theories, Vision explains — he mentions Heidegger and Rorty — in which “truth and knowledge get mashed up together. I think the two are different. The way I see it isn’t epistemological, but metaphysical.” My eyes must look a little wild, because he sighs and says: “Think of it this way. Suppose I say, ‘The hairs on my head are even in number.’ That could be true; that could be false. I have no way of knowing. But it has to be either true or false. That truth has nothing to do with knowledge.”

Truth may seem highfalutin and theoretical, he says, but it’s really quite concrete. “As humans, we’re thrown into an indifferent world that’s not particularly made for us. How do we navigate around it? What are our cognitive devices for doing this? We have beliefs — true ones.” We believe, for example, that if we walk off a cliff, we’ll fall to our deaths. “We eat oranges, not arsenic,” says Vision. “That’s a true belief. Our ancestors who didn’t hold that belief didn’t reproduce. We don’t want to be eaten or poisoned or walk off cliffs. Evolutionarily, truth and belief are critical.”

But they’re also different. “There are no ‘alternative facts’ in philosophy,” Vision says emphatically of Kellyanne Conway’s infamous phrase. “Some of my students are reluctant to acknowledge this. They say, ‘Well, it’s true for me.’ That’s just a fancy way of saying, ‘It’s something I believe.’ The world exists objectively outside of what we believe.”

Nowadays, with our cultural emphasis on individual experience, we tend to be indulgent of that notion of experiential truth; we say white people can’t understand African-American truth, or straight people that of gays. In a recent open letter, students at Pomona College responded to their school president’s statement that its “mission is founded upon the discovery of truth” by declaring, “The idea that there is a single truth — ‘the Truth’ — is a construct of the Euro-West,” calling the idea a “myth.” But truth, for Vision, is eternal and immutable and utterly unaffected by our belief in it. No matter what Kyrie Irving says, the world won’t be flat.

While truth doesn’t change, how we respond to it does. Last century, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about one of his pupils who faced the dilemma of whether to go to war — his duty to his country — or stay home with his ailing mother — his duty to family. Antigone — Sophocles’s classical Greek tragedy, written two and a half millennia earlier — hinges on exactly the same question, Vision says: “If Antigone buries her brother, whom the state has declared a traitor, she’ll be put to death. But it’s a duty she owes him as his sister.” Which duty we believe is paramount changes with cultures and over time: “But that’s not truth shifting. And acceptance of one choice or the other isn’t a question of truth or falsity.”

I find myself taken aback that to a philosopher, truth is so clear-cut, so … practical. But that’s exactly why philosophy matters, Vision says: “Because, as Aristotle said, we’re not stones. Because we’re stuck here in this indifferent world and want to know about it: What is reality like? And what sorts of things should one do?” There are ways to shun philosophical exploration; you can be a Bible literalist, for example. “But if you’re not going to accept somebody else’s authority — your religion, say, or a political leader — I don’t see how you can avoid philosophy.”

I’m 60 years old, and so far, I’ve managed to avoid philosophy pretty well. But back in March, an Internet entrepreneur named Chris Dixon wrote an article for the Atlantic called, “How Aristotle Created the Computer.” I was reminded of Vision’s postulate about the number of hairs on his head when Dixon laid out the set of basic axioms Aristotle used to form his system of logic:

• An object is what it is.

• No statement can be both true and false.

• Every statement is either true or false.

Later philosophers and mathematicians, Dixon writes, expanded and expounded on these truths: Euclid turned them into geometry, Descartes translated them to algebra, Newton and Leibniz transformed them into calculus. And in the 1930s, an MIT engineering student named Claude Shannon mapped them onto electrical circuits, transferring logic from the mental into the physical world. Every statement is either true or false. A circuit is open or not open. Philosophy lies at the root of the binary code that rules our existence. Who knew?

Also in March, on 60 Minutes, CBS News anchor Scott Pelley interviewed Mike Cernovich, the right-wing blogger/journalist who has, as Pelley said in introducing him, “become a magnet for readers with a taste for stories with no basis in fact.” One of their exchanges:

Pelley: These news stories are fakes.

Cernovich: They’re definitely not fake.

Pelley: They’re lies.

Cernovich: They’re not lies at all. One hundred percent true.

Pelley then confronted Cernovich about a story he’d written that claimed Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease, countering that Clinton actually had been suffering from pneumonia:

Cernovich: How do you know? Who told you that?

Pelley: Well, the campaign told us that.

Cernovich: Why would you trust the campaign?

Pelley: The point is, you didn’t talk to anybody who’d ever examined Hillary Clinton.

Cernovich: I don’t take anything Hillary Clinton is gonna say at all as true. I’m not gonna take her on her word. The media says we’re not gonna take Donald Trump on his word. And that’s why we are in these different universes.

In Mike Cernovich’s universe, Hillary Clinton runs a pedophile ring out of the basement of a pizzeria. But the thing is, there aren’t different universes. There’s only one that’s real and true. Which brings to mind a New York Times Magazine article that Gerald Vision recommended to me, written back in 1986 (it was later turned into a book) by a philosophy professor at Princeton named Harry G. Frankfurt. It’s called “On Bullshit,” and in it, Frankfurt concurs with the notion that a lie requires an element of deception. He distinguishes, though, between lies and bullshit. He illustrates the difference with the example of a Fourth of July orator “who goes on bombastically about ‘our great and blessed country, whose Founding-Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.’” The orator isn’t lying, exactly, Frankfurt notes:

He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and the mission of our country, who … is sensitive to the greatness of our history. … ”

Perhaps this reminds you of someone you’ve heard of — someone whose motto is MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

Frankfurt points up the difference between a liar and a bullshitter using language that, again, echoes Langleben: “The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.” The bullshitter “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” Liars and truth-tellers are on opposite teams, but they’re in the same game; bullshitters don’t play by any rules. Which could be why poor Sean Spicer keeps getting himself twisted into knots: The President’s press secretary still has a toehold in reality.

Sitting at Gerald Vision’s dining room table, I read a statistic to him: According to Politifact, 70 percent of the statements Trump made in the presidential campaign were false. That right there tells you the President is a bullshitter and not a liar, Vision declares. No liar would get so much wrong.

If you look up “lie” on Wikipedia, you’ll find a lengthy alphabetical list of different kinds of lies: the barefaced lie, the contextual lie, the cover-up, the half-truth, the jocose lie, the noble lie, the pathological lie, the white lie … Then there’s this headline from mid-April: WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR SAYS TRUMP PROMISE TO ELIMINATE DEBT WAS JUST ‘HYPERBOLE.’ Philosophers and theologians have debated since Adam and Eve whether there are lies that can be ethically justified. St. Augustine said there weren’t. To which I say: St. Augustine, if your child had terminal cancer and asked if you would still be with her after she died, what would you tell her? I don’t happen to believe in an afterlife, but I’d assure my child: I’ll be there.

And there’s a good chance she’d believe me. In a recent study, people trying to decide if other people were lying about being in pain proved to be lousy at it, scoring no better than random guessers. Training them in how to distinguish fake expressions of anguish improved their accuracy rate … to 55 percent. A computer vision system that measures facial movements and runs a pattern recognition program, meanwhile, was 85 percent accurate in pinning down fake pain. One of the great human frailties is our longing to believe.

That study reminded me to ask Daniel Langleben about dunking, a method of lie detection based on a theory elucidated by Pliny the Elder around 70 CE: Witches are so light in weight that they can’t be drowned. If you asked witches if they were witches, they lied and said no. Thus, some other detection method was required. So for centuries, suspected witches were tossed into water; the guilty floated, while the innocent sank. Isn’t it possible, I asked the neuroscientist, that one day we’ll look back on both the polygraph and the MRI as being that primitive? Langleben pooh-poohed the idea. “The gap between the polygraph and floating witches is huge,” he told me. “From the polygraph to the MRI is much less. The distances are narrowing as we go. From here on out, we’ll be focusing on: Is there a better way to look at the brain? A faster way? But it won’t be drastically different.”

That may or may not be true, but it’s definitely his belief.

Ever since November’s election, a large portion of the American population has been fixated on when and where and by how much Donald Trump is lying. At times, the clamor sounds like medieval philosophers debating how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. We’re no longer an especially religious people. We know that politicians and advertisers and PR people spin stuff all the time. What is it about Donald Trump’s bullshit that gets us so worked up?

Perhaps it’s because for us peons, so much of daily life is predicated on telling the truth. When we borrow money to buy a car, we promise to pay it back. We sign our tax returns to say: What we wrote here is true. When we marry, we vow to be faithful. We pledge allegiance to the flag. We take oaths of citizenship. In court, we swear to tell the whole truth (remember Ben Franklin?) and nothing but the truth. When Donald Trump was sworn in as president, he promised, on two Bibles — one of which belonged to “Honest Abe” Lincoln — to faithfully execute the duties of his office. Truth is serious business. It’s the underpinning of civilization as we know it. How could you possibly Make America Great Again by spouting piles of crap?

Ian Lustick, a political science professor at Penn, has posited that Donald Trump would pass a polygraph test despite his flip-flops on everything from Syria to NATO to Russia to China because he — well, because he thinks he’s God:

The God of Genesis speaks, and there is light. Should he change his mind, darkness would prevail. What a god said yesterday was true, and its opposite, said today, is also true, and so will the opposite of that, said tomorrow, be true. There simply are no criteria by which to judge the truth value of statements by a god. …

Trump built his brand telling, literally, tall tales. He says Trump Tower has 68 floors. It really has 58. He says the Trump World Tower is 90 stories high. It has 70 floors. But numbers don’t lie, and most of us are as binary as computers. We don’t want to be lied to. We want people who don’t tell the truth to be punished. Some part of us still stands in the Garden of Eden with God on one hand and the Devil on the other.

Oh dear. I was going to have to talk to somebody about God.

Nora Johnson is a priest at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church near 16th and Locust. She’s also a professor of English literature at Swarthmore College, specializing in Renaissance drama. I’m not at all religious, so I’m a little hesitant about approaching Johnson. I imagine that for Christians, truth must be a murky, mysterious thing. But I need to know her answer to that question Pilate posed: “What is truth?”

“I don’t know that Christianity has a separate answer to that,” Johnson replies, to my surprise. “Truth is God’s communication in the world to us. Our faith leads us to believe that reality is our teacher. What is is somehow God reaching out to us.”

For Johnson, truth “comes out of a real, deep trust that the world is communicating with us and that ancient faith has something to tell us that we can live out in the present day.” Religion, she says, operates on a moral plane the way belief in gravity does on a physical one; it keeps us from walking off cliffs. “The Bible tells us greed is bad,” she offers as example, “so we live by that.”

St. Mark’s is modeled on a medieval church; it has gorgeous stained-glass windows and Gothic arches and a high vaulted ceiling. Its founders wanted to evoke the sense of awe and reverence people felt for God in the Dark Ages, in that time before physics and calculus and journeys to the moon. Think of being a farmer, a plowman grubbing a living from the dirt while your children die of plague and your cow stops giving milk and drought strikes your crops and you’re never completely convinced that spring will come again. Now imagine walking into this soaring miracle in stone, this edifice designed to reassure you: Truth is here.

Truth doesn’t change, Johnson says, but as human culture evolves and changes, how it applies to us changes. She offers herself as an example: She’s a married lesbian priest. Asking some people to acknowledge this is “asking them to live in a theological place that doesn’t feel comfortable to them.” There can be, she says, a lot of pain in that process: “It’s up to me to be as loving and gracious and open as I can be, accept that I live in an experimental zone, and rely on God to take it from there.”

She can understand the media’s compulsive drive to pin down exactly what’s true and what isn’t in the political realm: “That sounds important and good. But I’m here to represent a messier side of the equation.” Without lies, she points out, there would be no novels, no fiction, no drama for her to teach at Swarthmore. No Shakespeare! The world would be a sorrier place.

Literary lies are meant to give us glimpses of truth. Political lies are intended to obscure it. Johnson worries for our culture, which she says has “some serious soul-searching to do.” Because we live in a time of enormous upheaval, “We’re mostly focused inward, on survival. People react to change with fear. They won’t face the truth.” Technology distracts us; you can’t see the truth if you’re filtering life through an iPhone. In a world of cheap and fast and easy, Johnson says, truth is costly: “It’s something to be honored and not taken lightly.” We need to approach it, not with arrogance, but with humility.

It’s not a good sign for truth’s prospects that in America in 2017, people felt the pressing need for a March for Science — to stand up for the reality of evolution and climate change and vaccines. Still, the priest, the neuroscientist and the philosopher — three of the smartest people I’ve talked to in a long time — agree: The truth is right in front of us, ready to reveal itself. People had been not falling off of cliffs for eons before Isaac Newton saw an apple drop and formalized this truth: Every mass attracts every other mass in the universe. …

Gravity. The word also means “a serious or critical nature” — something American culture is sorely lacking these days. “We can get ourselves into habits of not knowing the truth,” Nora Johnson cautions, “but truth still matters. It offers us something better than ourselves.” It’s up to us: We can watch the Kardashians, or we can look up at the real stars and say: I wonder …

The choice is ours. But the truth really is out there.

Published as “Remember When People Told the Truth?” in the June 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.