Well, it happened again.
I choose an important and timely topic — the importance of maintaining a healthy skepticism — but, in the course of putting the post together, I veer off into another land. Could that have been what happened to Lewis Carroll?
Plans were to introduce you to my favorite British philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, with his essay “On the Value of Skepticism,” and my favorite American philosopher and astro-everything scientist, Carl Sagan, with his Baloney Detection Kit. I even had that great Carl Sagan meme with which I’d open.
Alas, my rabbit hole sprang open before me as I read the small treatise “You Can Get Sucked Down an Airplane Toilet!” by Paul Mason at my local elementary school (subtitled, Fact or Fiction Behind Urban Myths).
Following on the heels of our rather serious “How to Stay Informed in the Age of Fake News,” this was too good to pass up.
So this week, we’re focusing on ways in which fairy tales, myths, old wives’ tales, dire warnings, fake news, etc. have wormed their way into our lives.
It goes back to God in the garden of Eden, for heaven’s sake.
Remember the story? God put Adam and Eve in the garden with only one rule, “Don’t eat of that tree or you’ll die!” A dire warning for sure. They ate the apples, got tossed out of the garden, then lived to have a couple of kids. How old they were when they died is something I actually googled. I’ll leave that to you.
Dire warnings from the political arena are legion. “WMD” comes to mind as does “Gulf of Tonkin.” Need I say more?
Here are a few closer to home. See if you recognize these (with thanks to Paul Mason for collecting them and more).
“Don’t go in the water for an hour after you eat or you’ll die!”
Don’t pee in the pool; there’s a dye in it that’ll turn your pee bright red. (You’ll die of embarrassment?)
Don’t eat the seeds of the apple, or the pear, or the peach for sure. A tree will grow out of your nose! (Though, I guess, you won’t actually die.)
Yes, our parents (and grandparents) had a way with words. Even those who love us sometimes try to scare us into conformity. What were the ones you heard growing up? Did you hear the one about what happens if you swallow your chewing gum? Have you tried the recipe for cooking an egg using two cell phones? These and more are there for the reading in Paul Mason’s entertaining book.
Mark Twain, in an essay from 1882, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,” wrote, “Everybody lies — every day; every hour; awake; asleep; in his dreams; in his joy; in his mourning.”
Before you get depressed, let me introduce you to clinical psychologist Paul Ekman, who’s been studying this stuff for a few decades. Dr. Ekman (the character that prompted the TV series Lie to Me) distinguishes between high stakes and low stakes lies.
High stake lies are those “that the police and the FBI and insecure spouses are trying to catch. They are the lies of the criminal, the terrorist, the philanderer, the embezzler, and what the cops call ‘bad guys’.”
Low stakes lies include, “Politeness, for example, or praising the host for a dull dinner and conversation, flattery, and so forth. No one really expects to be told the truth in those situations.”
- “It’s nice to meet you.”
- How are you? “Fine thank you; how are you?”
And what of the lies we tell to bring magic and whimsy into our lives?
- A man in a bright red suit will slide down the chimney and put expensive presents just for you under this tree.
- The tooth fairy, Jack Frost, Mr. Sandman.
How do you differentiate between “high stakes” and “low stakes” lies? How can you be certain it’s not a slippery slope?
Next week: November 22