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21 Mar

Technology that Would Make Politicians Tell the Truth?

President Barack Obama CREDIT Ron Sachs/CNP/CorbisWhat do lying politicians and cataclysmic collisions between Earth and a large asteroid have in common? (Don’t be fooled; it’s not the start of a joke – unless you want it to be.)  People who pay attention to things find both phenomena deeply disquieting, but also tend to simply accept it as an immutable reality.  The problem with this attitude is that while space rocks big enough to cause mass extinction events only strike the Earth every 50 to 100 million years on average, candidates for, say, the U.S. presidency inflict widespread devastation upon the truth with far greater frequency. 

So what if there were some technology to immediately detect when political candidates are lying and alert listeners — or better yet, a method to prevent them from lying in the first place?

If you want to get a sense of the high incidence of lying in politics, check out this analysis from the Houston Chronicle's website. It utilizes the vetting of politicians' statements by The Chronicle found that the most consistently truthful candidate, incumbent Democrat Barack Obama, had an factual accuracy rate of just 65 percent.  The second most truthful candidate, Texas GOP Congressman Ron Paul, made true statements 58 percent of the time; and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was close behind at 57 percent. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum got things right about 49 percent of the time, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came in last with 42 percent. Collectively, that's a rate of verity that would embarrass professional poker players. It's even more sobering when you filter out half-truths, exaggerations and misstatements, and look at instances of what PolitiFact terms "Pants on Fire" statements — that is, outright glaring falsehoods.

Politicians even get caught in the act of lying about things that they've previously gotten right. If you enjoy sock puppeteering, you'll like this video produced by the Sierra Club, in which Romney's shifting statements on the issue of climate change are juxtaposed, so that he appears to be having a debate with himself. 

Mitt Debates Mitt on Climate from Sierra Club National on Vimeo.

Lest you assume that I'm picking on Romney just because I'm a minion of that insidious liberal cabal that controls the news media, here's the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, chiding President Obama for falsely claiming that late-19th century President Rutherford B. Hayes couldn't see the usefulness of the telephone. In fairness, it should be pointed out that Obama was parroting an earlier shading of the truth by President Ronald Reagan. That goes to another problem: Once a lie is uttered, it often goes viral, until it becomes what Norman Mailer called a "factoid" — a statement that takes on the appearance of truth, because it has been so often repeated.

Sen. Jon Kyl CREDIT Brendan HoffmanHere's a fascinating Psychology Today piece by Ronald Riggio, a researcher who has studied deception, why politicians are able to get away with mendacity, and what motivates them to take liberties with the truth. Riggio focuses on a particular whopper by a non-presidential candidate, Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, who claimed in a speech on the Senate floor that over 90 percent of Planned Parenthood funding goes to pay for abortions (the actual number is three percent). A Kyl staffer later defended his untruth by saying that it was "not intended to be a factual statement," which subsequently became a popular satirical hash tag on Twitter.

Is there a way to change this culture of mendacity? Back in 2008, two challengers to then-Indiana Democratic Rep. Baron Hill actually offered to have a debate with him in which all three would be hooked up to polygraphs. There was a certain irony to Hill being the target of this solution, since as this Good blog post points out, Hill actually was one of the most outspoken truth-tellers in Congress about climate change. Regardless, using an early 20th century technology — and one whose operating procedure would restrict the candidates to yes or no answers — still doesn't seem highly effective.

But what if debate organizers utilized cutting-edge technology that takes advantage of new insights into how the human brain functions? Advances in neuroscience and psychology have revealed that lying is a much more complex activity than previously believed — one that is more cognitively demanding than truth-telling. Telling falsehoods not only triggers physiological responses, such as increased blood flow to the brain, but it also alters the composition of the brain itself. In this recent study — explained in lay language here — researchers discovered that habitual liars have 22 to 26 percent more white matter (the transmitting material that forges links between information) in their frontal cortex. And while liars may not appear physically different to the unaided eye from honest people, we also know that they exhibit subtle involuntary facial muscle contractions called micro-expressions, which now can be detected by analytical software developed by Oxford and Oulu University researchers.

It might be possible to utilize some combination of these tools to scrutinize candidates.

On the other hand, it might simply be possible to outfit candidates with a simple headset device that would prevent lying altogether. According to this article in the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, Estonian researchers found that applying a magnetic field to the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of subjects resulted in them answering questions more honestly. 

But that leads to another question: All of this is based upon the assumption that it's harmful for politicians to lie. What if lying, to some degree, is actually an essential part of the political process? I've been perusing a fascinating book by University of California-Berkeley history professor Martin Jay, entitled The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics. Jay makes the point that lying, rather than being an obstacle to good governance, may actually be essential to enacting wise policies: "The politician who doggedly follows his moral convictions...may ultimately do more harm than another who practices a Verantworthungsethik (ethic of responsibility)," he writes. "Conviction, after all, is an ambivalent virtue when compromise and flexibility may better serve the common good."

What do you think? Express your opinion below.

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