Why do people lie? Let us ask a group of youngsters, say in first grade, this question in a non-intimidating, playful fashion whether they have ever lied to someone and if so, why, I believe many would say yes and for a variety of reasons such as: for fun, to win a game, to score a point, not to let mom know, claim superiority and so on.

Age is apparently no bar in this game of lies. When two casual acquaintances meet, it is sometimes the case that one will talk to the other about age. Of course, I am not worried about my age, are you? It is only a number, don’t worry about it. I’m pushing fifty (non-specific whether the push is up or down), what about you? Just idle talk with an implied invitation to lie. Mark Twain characteristically commented: “Age is an issue of mind or matter. If you don’t mind, then it does not matter.”

An Inexactitude
It is considered improper to use the word “lie” in parliamentary language. The British Parliament suggested an alternative phrase: “a terminological inexactitude.” The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled, based on freedom of speech rights, that it is not illegal to lie about diplomas, military medals and honors in employment applications from military veterans. Such claims remain true until proven false.

Not all lies are anathema either. I received a blogger’s comment recently stating that the famed American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to land on the moon, spoke from the moon the famous words:  “… a giant step for mankind” followed by another phrase: “good luck Gorky,” before boarding the Eagle space craft for the arduous return to earth. Armstrong was questioned by reporters about what that last comment meant. The astronaut refused to answer as long as Mr. Gorky was alive.

Upon Gorky’s death. Mr Armstrong revealed an incident in his childhood years as he jumped over the fence into his neighbor Mr. Gorky’s property to pick up the ball that he and his friends had been playing with in their backyard in Ohio. He heard a screaming conversation from inside the house between the Gorkys “Sex is all you want. Said she. You can have all the sex you want after that neighbor kid Neil lands on the moon!”

I have spent some time searching the archives for details on that second message from Armstrong. To no avail so far. The blogger probably wrote a hilarious lie.

Misled and Deceived
When one attempts to intentionally mislead by resorting to falsehood as a cover-up for personal or professional gain, the inconsequential type of lies become “damn lies.” These carry heavy risks as was the case for instance in the cases involving Bernie Madoff, the promoter of a giant Ponzi scheme. We all know what happened to him at the court of law. Two other prominent individuals in this category are Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta. The charge in these cases was insider trading on a large scale.

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If the selling of the Iraq war proposal to the American public and the world was not a damn lie, what else could get that distinction? The cost, a mere two trillion dollars.

Padre, I Have Sinned
My middle school and high school years were at a Catholic school in central Kerala.

Through interactions with my class mates (most of whom were Catholics) I learned a great deal on societal matters in their community, especially the relations between the church, the resident pastor and the members of the diocese. I recall a story about utilizing the practice of confessions for seeking pardons cleverly. A young man appears at the confessional window of his church and rings the bell for service.

The padre arrives at his seat, explains the procedure and gets to the point quickly. Father, I stole a piece of coir rope, says the young man. Well, you know the Lord does not approve of any stealing for any reason, says the priest. This is the first time you have come to this window. We do not want to see you here at all. Have faith in the Lord. This time, you are “poruthu” (forgiven), the padre says. The man leaves for home, hopefully somewhat chastened. Not quite yet, it seems. He turns back and returns to the same window for service. Why are you back here so quickly? asks the priest. Father, when I told you about stealing the piece of rope, I forgot to tell you that the other end of the rope I stole was loosely tied around the neck of a bull calf. So he came home with me!

One of the problems in our small community was obviously cattle rustling. This young man attempted to get pardon for a serious crime through a clever, incremental process.

When Padres Obfuscate
One of the other common problems in the community, learned from our off-class discussions, was the varied ways in which the priests got around violations of the celibacy doctrine of the church. Such violations were not uncommon. Nor did they end as rumors only. Decades later and in a stranger than fiction scenario, Dan Brown, the author of the best selling thriller, Angels and Demons, narrates the story that the reigning Pope Carlo, who had just died under suspicious circumstances, fathered a child with a nun in residence at the Vatican. The Devil’s advocate appointed by the Pope, a cardinal, at the beginning of his term, strongly defended the Pope in not having violated the celibacy doctrine because the conception of the Sister was through artificial insemination. Hormonal instincts cannot, in general, be controlled by doctrine. Nor are they geographically isolated.

Numbers Lie Too
Statistics wont prove a thing, says the old axiom. Correct to a point, By a technique of random sampling, however, the collective behavior of humans, animals, inanimate objects and events under defined circumstances can be predicted, with a reasonable degree of confidence. An example of an invalid conclusion is that global census figures indicate that every fourth child in the world is Chinese. But there is absolutely no reason for every non-Chinese mother expecting a fourth child to panic. There is no data available to sample the outcome.

During any national elections, volumes of polling data are analyzed to get a handle on the possible outcome of various races. The reliability of the data being analyzed is key to an accurate prediction. Some Republican states in the United States attempted to initiate legislation in a hurry to prevent voter fraud in voting. These measures met with partial success only due either by intervention of the courts or the failure to establish a problem. It was obvious that the states were not trying to suppress fraud but only voting in large numbers for their opponents. They all knew they were lying about fraud when they initiated legislation.

A Loaf of Bread?
The story is often told of a French mathematician, Henry Poincare (19th century), who suspected that his favorite bakery from which he bought a 1Kg size loaf of bread everyday was cheating. Patiently, he weighed the loaf everyday before use and plotted the data for statistical analysis

The distribution turned out to be a normal Bell Curve with a peak value of 950 gm and a standard deviation of 50 gm. It simply meant that the loaf always weighed less than the advertised value of 1 Kg and could be as low as 900 gm. Upon his complaint, the bakery admitted the error. They also compounded the problem by admitting that they always gave the heaviest loaf of the day to the professor. Every other customer, therefore, got cheated more than the professor. The baking industry apparently knew of this problem several centuries earlier. The British trade group of bakers had instituted a clever goodwill gesture to the public by adding an extra roll in every bag of twelve. Thus came the concept of the “bakers’ dozen.” Versions of this practice persist even today. You may find sometimes a package of six pairs of socks with the notation plus one.

Temptation is the driver for deliberate misdeeds like cheating. Lying is the mechanism for cover-up of such and Conscience is what makes cowards of us all.

P. Mahadevan is a retired scientist with a Ph.D. in Atomic Physics from the University of London, England. His professional work includes basic and applied research and program management for the Dept. of Defense. He taught physics at the University of Kerala, at Thiruvananthapuram. He does very little now, very slowly.

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