Lies in the name of God are still lies

Let’s be honest, we all lie, and we lie a lot.

It’s ok, we’re all friends here.  You can admit it – lying is a regular part of everyday social cohesion.  We don’t call it lying, we call it tact, but it’s still lying.

Like when we automatically say to the mother of a newborn baby, “Oh, your baby’s adorable”.  Sure, most of them are, but there are some newborns that, shall we say, need to grow into their features.

Or when a patient walks in and asks, “Hey, have you lost some weight?!”  No, I’ve actually gained five kilos, but thanks for your flattery.

Even some of the most brutally honest people still figure out they have to lie at some point.  My children, for example.  They have absolutely no diplomacy filter between their brains and their mouths, “Aw, Dad … you stink”, or “Dad, you’re really fat.  You need to exercise.”  But when their butt’s on the line, things change, “I only ate one biscuit …”, or, “He started it …”.

Adults are no better.  Sometimes when things are important enough to us, we bend the truth to fit our world-view.  It’s often subconscious, though confirmation bias of our opinions can also be overt.

Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong, and sometimes there is no right or wrong, but our beliefs shape our interpretation of the world, and the language and actions that stem from them.  And most of the time, it doesn’t really matter.
“Chocolate is the nicest flavour of ice-cream”.
“Beer is better than cider.”
“The Broncos shouldn’t have lost the NRL Grand Final.”
“Holden’s are better than Ford’s at Bathurst.”
“Donald Trump is a great guy.” **

Hey, if you think Donald Trump is a great guy, then you’re welcome to your opinion.  It ultimately makes no difference, if you like Trump, or I like vanilla ice-cream, or if you’re a ‘Ford guy’.

Though what about when someone in the public sphere lies, or allows their opinion to shape their version of truth?  Is ‘a little white lie’ ever truly acceptable?

For example, is it justifiable if news reporters lie about themselves or their motives to get to the truth of a story?  For example, in an article written as an ethical primer for journalism students at Indiana University, Henry McNulty recalled an expose he was part of in which reporters posed as couples trying to get into the local real estate market.  The investigation exposed some inherent racial prejudice amongst the realtors, and eventually lead to the state governor ordering a formal investigation into real estate discrimination.

While he noted that the investigation had noble goals and positive outcomes for the community, he also concluded that the end should never justify the means.
“Credibility is our most important asset.  And if we deceive people in order to do our job, we’ve compromised that credibility before a word is written”, he said.

In recent times, the Safe School’s program has come under intense scrutiny.  For those not familiar with it, the Safe Schools program was touted by its supporters as an evidence-based anti-bullying program for mid-late primary school students, although its primary agenda appears to be in promoting the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) lifestyle and ideology.  Or as one commentator put it, “In reality, the debate is between those who support the right to childhood and children’s bodily dignity, the right to an education that educates, not indoctrinates, versus those who believe Marxist activism constitutes sound school curriculum.”

A post came up on my Facebook feed in the last couple of days, titled, “Gender Ideology Harms Children”.  It was published by the American College of Pediatricians, which sounds like an official body, except that the American Academy of Pediatrics is the peak body of paediatricians in America. Then the style of language of the statement was inconsistent with that used by most peak bodies – this statement by the American College of Pediatricians was very strongly partisan.  I couldn’t help but wonder who the American College of Pediatricians actually were.

As it turns out, the American College of Pediatricians are a group that promote a very conservative agenda under the guise of official medical and scientific opinion.

In their core values, they state that their college:
“A: Recognizes that there are absolutes and scientific truths that transcend relative social considerations of the day.
B: Recognizes that good medical science cannot exist in a moral vacuum and pledges to promote such science.”

I’m all for good science, but one has to wonder if they’re going about it the right way, because while they declare their pledge to scientific truth, their next core value is essentially an opinion:
“C: Recognizes the fundamental mother-father family unit, within the context of marriage, to be the optimal setting for the development and nurturing of children and pledges to promote this unit.”

As much as I agree with and share most of their values, their pledge to opinion-based science is somewhat duplicitous, because opinion-based science isn’t absolute truth, it’s still a version of truth relative to their values and presumptions.

The irony hasn’t escaped some of the colleges critics, who have highlighted some of the factual errors and bad science that inevitably occurs when one tries to fit scientific findings into a set of values rather than drawing conclusions from the science.

In fairness, I’m not saying that the LGBT community is faultless either.  I’m sure that an in-depth study of their sources would find some over-zealous misinterpretations of scientific data as well.

My point is that we tend to look for information that suits our own pre-conceived notions, and the Christian community can get itself into trouble by doing this.  Christian lobby groups and church leaders need to be wary selectively accepting ‘scientific’ information that conforms to their world-view.  They need to, in all diligence, ensure that the data they cite really does support their position, not cherry-pick or over-extrapolate.  Otherwise they’re no better than the moral relativists on the other side of the political spectrum, or journalists who would justify mistruth to achieve a higher goal, or my eleven-year-old denying his biscuit binge.

One critic of the American College of Pediatricians wrote something very incisive in the title of his blog, “Lies in the name of God are still lies.”

It’s a fair call.  Misleading with the best of intentions is still misleading.  We may have the best of intentions, and feel justified in picking the science that conforms to our world-view.

Even so, God called us to speak the truth, because Jesus was the way, truth and life, and it’s the truth that sets us free.  And our credibility is our witness.  If we deceive people in order to do our job, we’ve compromised that witness before a word is written.

That’s the honest truth.

** The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the authors, and are for illustrative purposes only … except the bit about the Broncos … but the rest is just illustrative. 

Dr Caroline Leaf and the myth of optimism bias

“What are little girls are made of?  Sugar and spice, and all things nice.”

It sounds sweet doesn’t it?  We like to connect with these rosy little memes that warm our cockles and make us feel good about the world and ourselves.  We think of all of the examples in our own experience, which seems to confirm the saying.  We may think of a few examples that don’t quite fit, but they’re just the exception that proves the rule.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the saying or proverb is, we usually just assume it’s true.  Think of some other examples:
“Blondes have more fun.”
“Women can’t read maps.”
“White guys can’t dance.”

In all of these things, we tend to experience what psychologists call confirmation bias (Princeton University, 2014), our own mini-delusion in which we fool ourselves into believing a half-truth.  It looks right on first glance, and we can easily think of a few confirming examples, so without deeper inspection, we assume it must be true.

When Dr Leaf proclaims that,

“Science shows we are wired for love with a natural optimism bias”

the same process kicks in.  But in truth, science doesn’t show anything of the sort.  What science shows is that we learn love and fear, and our genetics influences the way we see the world, our personality.

We are prewired to LEARN to love and fear.  It doesn’t come naturally.  We require exposure to both love and to fear for these emotions to develop.  The Bucharest Early Intervention Project is a study looking at the long-term psychological and physical health of children in Bucharest, one group who remained in an orphanage, and the other, a group of children that were eventually adopted.  Analysis of the cohort of the two groups of children showed that negative affect was the same for both groups.  However positive affect and emotional reactivity was significantly reduced in the institutionalised children (Bos et al., 2011).  This shows that children who lived in an institution all of their lives and given limited emotional stimulation had lower levels of positive affect (ie: love, happiness) compared to a child that was adopted.

The children in the institution did not have high positive affect because they were not shown love.  Those children who were adopted were higher on positive affect because they were shown love by their adopted parents.  Both groups were exposed to distress and fear during their time in the orphanage, so their negative affect was the same across both groups.  Thus, love and fear don’t come naturally.  They need to be learned.

Personality is “the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individuals distinctive character.” (“Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition,” 2010) As Professor Greg Henriques wrote in psychology today, “Personality traits are longstanding patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions which tend to stabilize in adulthood and remain relatively fixed. There are five broad trait domains, one of which is labeled Neuroticism, and it generally corresponds to the sensitivity of the negative affect system, where a person high in Neuroticism is someone who is a worrier, easily upset, often down or irritable, and demonstrates high emotional reactivity to stress.” (Henriques, 2012) Personality is heavily influenced by genetics, with up to 60% of our personality pre-determined by our genes (Vinkhuyzen et al., 2012), expressed through the function of the serotonin and dopamine transporter systems in our brain (Caspi, Hariri, Holmes, Uher, & Moffitt, 2010; Chen et al., 2011; Felten, Montag, Markett, Walter, & Reuter, 2011).

So some people *ARE* natural optimists – their genetic heritage blessed them with a rosy outlook and their early life experiences cemented it in.  These naturally optimistic people, and the people who know them, are the ones who take Dr Leaf’s word as truth because they see it in themselves or their friends.  But the fact that some people are naturally wired for pessimism or a neurotic personality disproves Dr Leaf’s assertion.

Its important that Dr Leaf’s misleading meme is seen for what it is.  If we assume that we’re all pre-wired for love and optimism, then those who are pessimistic must be deficient or deviant, and the fact they can’t change must mean they are incompetent or lazy.  If we know the truth, those who are less optimistic won’t be unnecessarily judged or marginalised.

I should point out that what I’ve said isn’t a free licence to be cranky or sullen all the time.  The natural pessimist still needs to be able to negotiate their way through life, and being a misery-guts makes it hard to get what you need from other people in any business, social or interpersonal relationship.  We have the ability to learn, and the person with a neurotic personality can still learn ways of dealing with people in a positive way.

But if you naturally see the glass half-empty, don’t tell yourself that you’re abnormal, or that you aren’t good enough.  You are who you are.  Accept who you are, because while there are weaknesses inherent to having neurotic personality traits, there are also strengths, such as the enhanced awareness of deception, or protection from gullibility (Forgas & East, 2008).

A good thing to have when searching for the truth.

 References

Bos, K., Zeanah, C. H., Fox, N. A., Drury, S. S., McLaughlin, K. A., & Nelson, C. A. (2011). Psychiatric outcomes in young children with a history of institutionalization. Harv Rev Psychiatry, 19(1), 15-24. doi: 10.3109/10673229.2011.549773

Caspi, A., Hariri, A. R., Holmes, A., Uher, R., & Moffitt, T. E. (2010). Genetic sensitivity to the environment: the case of the serotonin transporter gene and its implications for studying complex diseases and traits. Am J Psychiatry, 167(5), 509-527. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.09101452

Chen, C., Chen, C., Moyzis, R., Stern, H., He, Q., Li, H., . . . Dong, Q. (2011). Contributions of dopamine-related genes and environmental factors to highly sensitive personality: a multi-step neuronal system-level approach. PLoS One, 6(7), e21636. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021636

Felten, A., Montag, C., Markett, S., Walter, N. T., & Reuter, M. (2011). Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain Behav, 1(2), 109-118. doi: 10.1002/brb3.20

Forgas, J. P., & East, R. (2008). On being happy and gullible: Mood effects on skepticism and the detection of deception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1362-1367.

Henriques, G. (2012). (When) Are You Neurotic?  Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201211/when-are-you-neurotic

Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition. (2010)   (3rd edition ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Princeton University. (2014). Confirmation bias.   Retrieved January 10, 2014, from http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Confirmation_bias.html

Vinkhuyzen, A. A., Pedersen, N. L., Yang, J., Lee, S. H., Magnusson, P. K., Iacono, W. G., . . . Wray, N. R. (2012). Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Transl Psychiatry, 2, e102. doi: 10.1038/tp.2012.27