Why Lying Liars Lie

      42 Comments on Why Lying Liars Lie

I wrote about this before, but it deserves another mention, given the topic of this post. Back in December, Morgan Spurlock made a public #MeToo confession, admitting he’d sexually harassed a female employee and is very, very sorry now and will become part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Yeah, whatever. Given who is, I suspect Spurlock learned he was about to be named publicly and decided to get out in front of it. Or he just figured the confession was good P.R.

What I found interesting was that he blamed his behavior, at least in part, on being an alcoholic. In fact, Spurlock said he’d been drinking since age 13 and hadn’t been sober for more than week in decades.

Surprisingly, hardly anyone in the major news media put two and two together and wondered if perhaps Spurlock’s confession also means Super Size Me is a load of bologna.

The Wall Street Journal and The Daily Wire did finally ask the question recently. The WSJ article is behind a paywall, so let’s look at some quotes from the Daily Wire article, which also quotes from the WSJ article:

McAleer [of the WSJ] rightly asks: “Could this be why his liver looked like that of an alcoholic? Were those shakes symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?”

Indeed, one of the doctors asks Spurlock in “Super Size Me” if he abused alcohol, to which Spurlock replied no.

“Any alcohol use?” the doctor asks at the outset. “Now? None,” he replies.

I guess “Now? None” means I’m not drunk at this particular moment.

So the audience is presented with the image of a healthy young guy who doesn’t drink. And then he eats just three meals per day at McDonald’s, and by gosh, everything goes haywire, including his liver. (I explained in Fat Head that Spurlock couldn’t possibly have eaten three typical meals per day at McDonald’s, given his calorie totals, but that’s what we were told.) This review is pretty typical of what the film’s fans took away from it:

In just a month, Spurlock gains 25 pounds, his cholesterol increases sharply, and he suffers severe liver damage. In the last few days, the doctor tells him that his liver resembles an alcoholic’s and if he continues the diet much longer, it could entirely wipe out his liver.

Hmmm … his liver resembles an alcoholic’s. And now we know he was an alcoholic, and had been one for decades. And yet Morgan Spurlock was happy to have the world believe that just a single month of eating at McDonald’s trashed his liver. An interview with Spurlock about Super Size Me in The New York Times was titled You Want Liver Failure With That? – and again, Spurlock blamed the fatty food he ate at McDonald’s for turning his liver into pate.

So the question is: why would he do that? Why would a guy who knows damned good and well  he’s a heavy drinker decide it’s okay to blame McDonald’s for a liver that resembles an alcoholic’s? In words, why do lying liars lie?

I believe the answer is related to what I’ve written previously about objectivists vs. subjectivists. An objectivist thinks like this: If it’s true, I’ll believe it. But a subjectivist thinks like this: If I believe it, it’s true.

Subjectivists have a fuzzy relationship with the truth. That fuzziness allows them to believe that it’s okay to stretch, twist, or otherwise abuse the truth if they are serving a larger and more important truth. Call it little truth vs. Big Truth. It’s okay to abandon little truth if Big Truth is advanced in the process.

My guess is that Morgan Spurlock told himself it’s okay to blame McDonald’s for damaging his liver because McDonald’s sells unhealthy food. Little truth: I’m an alcoholic, and that’s why my liver is trashed. Big Truth: McDonald’s is an evil corporation that’s making people sick, and if people believe eating their food damaged my liver, maybe they’ll stop eating there. I’m doing them a favor.

Spurlock is a gimmicky filmmaker. We’re talking about a guy who paid people eat dog turds and worms on his MTV show. But even reporters for the national news media make the little truth vs. Big Truth tradeoff.

In the 1980s, I was working at a small health magazine and wrote an article on AIDS, which was very much in the news. The conclusion (quoting a researcher more or less verbatim) was that if you’re a heterosexual and don’t shoot drugs with used syringes, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to contract AIDS. (As a single man at the time, I was quite relieved.)

Meanwhile, I was reading articles in national newspapers and magazines assuring us that AIDS was about to explode into the heterosexual population. Nobody was safe.  U.S. News & World Report declared that The disease of them is suddenly the disease of us.  Life Magazine ran a cover story with the title Now No One Is Safe from AIDS.

I kept thinking, Are these people reading the same research I’m reading? Where the hell are they getting this?

It was little truth vs. Big Truth. The little truth (otherwise known as the actual facts) was that AIDS was a horrible disease, but mostly confined to gay men and drug abusers using infected needles – and almost certain to remain so. But the major-media types were more interested in the Big Truth, which was that if the public believed were all in danger, it would be easier to convince politicians to spend more money on research. So they wrote articles they knew were abusing the facts.  The predicted explosion of AIDS into the heterosexual population, of course, never happened.

I’m convinced little truth vs. Big Truth explains a lot of what passes for research in the field of nutrition and health. We’ll look at some examples in my next post.

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42 thoughts on “Why Lying Liars Lie

  1. Rebecca

    “AIDS Risk Still Low” sells fewer papers and magazines than “AIDS Epidemic Imminent.” Just like “Alcoholic has terrible liver” isn’t as interesting as “Fast food kills your liver.”

    Reply
  2. js290

    Code of Hammurabi. In our current social system, there is no downside to lying.

    1. If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.

    2. If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

    3. If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.

    https://twitter.com/nntaleb/status/1002521511201312770

    Reply
          1. Tom Naughton Post author

            She conspires with HPCSA board members to go after Noakes, drags him through a four-year legal, tries to destroy his reputation, and now she thinks she’s a victim because people have pointed out her size. Talk about deluded. She put herself in the bright lights.

            Reply
            1. Walter

              She bit someone on their wooden leg and her teeth hurt. I will refrain from calling her a bitch.

            2. chris c

              And she caused her size herself. If she had half a brain she’d have noticed and done something different.

      1. js290

        Society is broken partly because there’s currently very little downside for being wrong. As Taleb says, those people should become Uber drivers.

        Reply
  3. Lori Miller

    You give Morgan Spurlock more credit than I would. If he’s a narcissist (I don’t know whether he is), I can tell you from having grown up in a nest of them that they when they don’t even need to lie, it’s such a habit for them. But normally, they lie to look good or because they won’t accept being wrong.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Yeah, I had a friend in high school for a while who would lie for no apparent reason. He just seemed to like doing it. But in Spurlock’s case, I believe he couldn’t resist the drama of supposedly trashing his liver by eating at McDonald’s.

      Reply
      1. Firebird7478

        There was a brilliant comedy out of England back in 2006-08 called “The Inbetweeners” about a group of high school friends. One of the characters, Jay, was a voracious liar and the other three friends knew it and they called him on it…and it never stopped him. I’d post clips but he’s really, really crude.

        Reply
  4. Bret

    Tom, your use of the term “bologna” in lieu of the alternatives speaks highly of your self control.

    Like 99% of media, Spurlock’s film was about emotion and entertainment, and had very little to do with facts or common sense.

    Sadly, most audiences never apply that kind of thinking to the content they are watching and, to paraphrase Penn Jillette from almost 20 years ago, waste their noblest instincts on Bullsh**.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I met a woman in L.A. whose family was slated to be featured in one of Spurlock’s “30 Days” episodes. They backed out when they learned the conclusion had already been determined and they were supposed to go along with it.

      Reply
  5. Sandy

    I call it the “if it’s not true, it should be” syndrome. A few of my friends, who usually show quite a bit of commons sense and would be quite offended if accused of sharing ‘fake news’, share things on Facebook that are just not true. I believe that they don’t check if they’re true before sharing because they wouldn’t want to find out that they’re not true.
    The first time they share something like that, I have asked them “If this wasn’t true would you want to know?” because I don’t want to flat out say it’s not true. I’ve done this 3 times and none of them have answered me…which is answer enough. I won’t ask again, because I do like them and want to remain friends, but it’s a bit disappointing. I’m pretty sure they don’t answer me because they think ‘well, if it isn’t true, it should be’

    Reply
  6. Chris

    Well you may be right about AIDS in the west, but there is plenty of evidence as to heterosexual AIDS transmission in Africa (including 2.3 million children under the age of 15 years, mostly not sexually active or drug abusers but children of mothers with AIDS)

    http://www.who.int/hiv/mediacentre/news200811june/en/ ” In sub-Saharan Africa almost 60% of adults living with HIV were women, 48% in the Caribbean.”

    https://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-around-world/sub-saharan-africa/overview

    etc etc

    It just may be the case that (like the Y2k issue maybe), the (yes, at times over the top) reaction in the West, and the resources thrown at the issue, prevented it from developing into the situation in Africa. After all, why in Africa are the majority of victims women, if its a disease of gay men and drug addicts? (unless you believe all of the women are addicts – in which case see UNAIDS (2017) ‘Towards ending AIDS in Eastern and Southern Africa Region: Leaving no one behind’ – 2% of new infections are amongst drug users)

    Now Mr Spurlock, well, there are other questions there.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      It wasn’t throwing resources at the problem that stopped the explosion of AIDS into the heterosexual population. It was never going to happen. The article says “Heterosexual transmission continues to drive the epidemic among sex workers, their clients, and their clients’ partners.” That may be true, but keep in mind that AIDS in Africa is overestimated for funding reasons. I read years ago that if a person dies of the flu in Africa, doctors write “AIDS” on the death certificate to keep the funding high. Follow the money.

      https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/kenya/1451257/Aids-in-Africa-overestimated.html

      Reply
      1. Valerie

        The article you link to says the prevalence of AIDS is overestimated by about one quarter. Not that big a stretch. No mention of the heterosexual/homosexual statistics.

        What makes you think the situation in Africa “was never going to happen” in the US even without intervention?

        Reply
        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          That was just one. Other estimates of the over-estimation are much higher.

          https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/how-was-the-aids-situation-in-africa-so-greatly-overstated-1.1039953

          http://archive.boston.com/news/world/articles/2004/06/20/estimates_on_hiv_called_too_high/

          The truth is, nobody knows for sure. It’s not as if dedicated U.N. doctors are visiting every village, making careful diagnoses of all the sick people, then reporting to the best of their ability. As one article explains, they’ll sample an urban population, then extrapolate across the entire country. And these are U.N. estimates — not exactly an organization known for its strict adherence to the truth. The higher the estimates, the more money they squeeze from western countries.

          As to why it was never going to happen in the U.S., I’ll first ask you this: what was the intervention that stopped it? We were told AIDS was going to be passed along from partner to partner like syphilis. Guys would get it from drug-shooting prostitutes, then pass it along to their next girlfriend, who would pass it on to her next boyfriend, etc. Remember those PSAs telling us you’ve slept with everyone your partner slept with, and everyone they slept with, and everyone they slept with, etc.? So what intervention stopped that person-to-person-to-person explosion? The only effective intervention I’m aware of (besides encouraging people to wear condoms) was testing the blood supply. But most people never receive donated blood.

          It was when I researched the article I wrote that I concluded the explosion into the heterosexual population was never going to happen, barring some major mutation in the virus. Despite its horrible effects, HIV is actually a delicate virus. Oxygen kills it quickly. It’s not like a common cold or flu virus that can be sneezed onto another person, or live on a doorknob.

          To become infected, you have to get the virus into your bloodstream without it being exposed to oxygen. In other words, to get HIV through straight sex, you’d need to have an open wound NOT exposed to oxygen, and have your partner’s infected blood or semen — also NOT exposed to oxygen — reach the wound.

          There were reports early on of men being infected with AIDS from straight sex with prostitutes, but when pressed by investigators, most ended up admitting to having sex with other men.

          So there are two possibilities: 1) The explosion into the heterosexual population was never going to happen, exactly as I concluded after reading a lot of research and interviewing researchers, or 2) I misread or misunderstood the research, the national news reporters read it correctly and came to the correct conclusion (with no agenda) that AIDS was poised to explode into the heterosexual population, but then some unnamed interventions prevented it from happening, thus making the national news predictions appear wrong and my prediction appear correct, even though the national news predictions would have been correct without those interventions.

          I think that’s an easy one.

          Reply
      2. Anand Srivastava

        I don’t think AIDS has any relation to homosexuality. The problem is having sex with unknown (barely known) people, who could have aids. The problem with gays has been finding partners, as the activity is considered abhorrent by the rest of the men. So the problem might be higher in them, but I think it is mainly due to prejudice of the researchers.

        Reply
        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          I don’t see where prejudice enters into it. The relation isn’t to homosexuality per se, it’s to certain sexual practices that are more common among male homosexuals. Infected blood or semen has to enter the uninfected partner’s bloodstream. Not likely to happen during what we’ll call “straight sex.”

          Reply
  7. Dianne

    Some people will do anything for attention, even if it means making themselves look like — er — donkeys, either immediately or later, when the facts become known.

    Reply
  8. Jim

    There is more heterosexual transmission of AIDS in Africa. One theory is that the OTHER sexually transmitted diseases break down the usual barriers in the vagina and penis and so there is more opportunity for the virus to be transmitted. Those conditions don’t exist in the US or Western Europe.

    Another theory is re-using needles for immunizations since a lot of those countries have like $5/year per person for healthcare. Some of their systems wash and re-use microscope slides, which we just toss in the sharps container here.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I don’t doubt that there’s more heterosexual transmission in Africa. My points are 1) the number of AIDS cases in Africa is exaggerated for funding reasons, and 2) there was never going to be an explosion into the heterosexual population in the U.S., and reporters writing those scary “it’s everyone’s disease now” stories knew as much.

      Reply
  9. egocyte

    I know you’re not a big fan of calorie counting, but let’s not forget there are 7 kcal in 1 g of alcohol…

    Reply
      1. Walter Bushell

        OK, that explains the calorie gap between Spurious’s claimed calorie intake and the the claimed diet.

        Reply
        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          I’d be surprised if Spurlock reported his drinking to the nutritionist who read his log in the film and told him he was consuming more than 5,000 calories per day … which means he was consuming even more than that.

          Reply
  10. Walter

    Of course, he could be lying about his alcoholism.

    Apropos that we could ask:
    “Were you lying then or are you lying now? Or both times perhaps?”

    Reply
  11. Joe

    The reason they pushed the lie that AIDS was going to affect everyone was to normalize the gay lifestyle and it has worked even though it’s still a gay disease.
    They still won’t say it’s a gay disease but facts are facts, even “hate facts”.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I wouldn’t call it a gay disease, since women and straight people who shoot drugs succumb to it as well. But the notion that millions of people were going to get it through straight sex was clearly nonsense.

      Reply

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