Lies, white lies and Dylan lies

Sorry, I couldn’t resist a second post. In the news pieces regarding the Lehrer “situation” and respective comment sections people have been wondering: if Jonah was going to put his reputation on the line, why would he do it for something like some pretty innocuous Dylan quotes? Like journalist Stuart Kelly puts it: “Although one could speculate endlessly about why Lehrer felt the need to invent the quotation (it doesn’t even add that much to his argument), the more pressing question is why he believed he might get away with it.”

I’m afraid you’ve got it backwards, Stuart. It’s precisely because what he added is nothing special and doesn’t alter our view of Bob Dylan in any respect, that Jonah (probably) thought it wasn’t that important. Well, it’s obviously important for those who make their goal in life to recite every word the songwriter has ever uttered – and they probably were excited by the proposition of some Dylan sayings in mint condition – but apart from them, not really. I don’t think he would have fabricated the results of a scientific study or something of consequence.

Somehow he got tricked – probably under great pressure – into thinking that that kind of lie wasn’t too bad. The problem is, the mindset with which the public perceives that same fact is completely detached from the lie in itself. It’s the act of deception, coming from a reputed journalist and famous science writer that pierces us. Advertisers lie, journalists don’t. We only care about advertisers lies if they hurt us. We always care about journalists lies even if the fabrication is of no consequence.

We need to trust this bearer of truth – and what does that say about us? Probably that the more we trust the professional, the more sparsely we use our own judgement and critical reasoning. But that’s part of the evolutionary package that allows us to take mental shortcuts and make fast decisions. And I’m running off topic.

The ironic thing is, now that he’s been caught lying, Jonah will probably be one of the most thorough and honest journalists out there. But since people see him as a liar – as opposed to a regular human being who’s been caught lying – they probably won’t believe him anyway. Well, since he can no longer get away with it (there’s now a small legion of fact checkers ready to disprove his every word) I certainly will.

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