Why Lies Spread Faster than the Truth

With the increasing speed of information coming at us, how do we know what’s true and what’s not, or even worse – what’s fake?

Figuring out what’s true and false is tough, and then understanding what to do about it can be even tougher.  But we should recognize one aspect between lies and the truth.

Lies spread faster.  Here’s why.

In the information age, we’re understanding our world more and more in terms of information and data.  We’re also recognizing that we are (and always have been) making decisions based on this information – even to the point of automating many of these decisions.

We are explainers, building internal models in our head for describing what we see in the world, and our decisions are based upon what we come up with as that explanation.

Some explanations are good at describing the data, and others are not.  However, the most likely explanation – the truth underlying it all – does well at explaining what we’ve seen and anticipating what’s to come.

One example of a bad explanation is the conspiracy theory; they are easy to create, and there seem to be so many of them.  In data science, we call this phenomenon overfitting, where an overly complicated explanation for the data is proposed that (1) seems to fit the data we have perfectly and (2) is highly likely to fall apart with any new information.

On the other hand, a truthful explanation needs to meet two criteria:  (1) faithfully explain what we have observed and (2) be consistent any future observations.  In a way, truthful explanations are consistent throughout, as well as have the power of prediction.

False explanations spread faster than the true ones, because they are easier to come up with and aren’t burdened by being consistent with new information.   The false explanations will be created and disseminated quickly, because they only need to meet the first criterion.

When we search for the truth, we strive to meet both criteria, and that takes time.  Plus, the more certain we want to be about the truth, the longer it takes.

When we don’t care about certainty of the truth, this incentivizes weak or false explanations which can spread faster.  The intentionally false explanation – the lie – comes from malevolent intent to force a decision before the right explanation can be found.

The goal of the lie is of course not the truth, but a quicker than expected decision (usually by someone else) that might not otherwise be made if the truth were actually known.

There are times, such as in business and entrepreneurship, when quicker decisions are preferable and have positive intents.  In these cases, the point of the decision is to act quickly, gaining feedback needed in order to make better subsequent decisions.  “Perfect is the enemy of the good” is a mantra used to characterize this approach.

However, in areas such as science, criminal proceedings, or investigative journalism, where we are trying to find out what the truth really is, there is a bigger penalty for getting it wrong, so it’s important to gather the best information before the decision is rendered.

In these situations, beware of those who seek to hide the truth.  Those who seek to obfuscate – lie – are not in search for the truth.  They are trying to force an outcome that would be different than what would occur if the truth were uncovered.

Unfortunately, we are in a time where the lies have turned into deliberate attacks on the search for truth itself.

We’re seeing it with science with attacks on findings relating to climate change and theories of evolution.

We’re seeing it with lawful investigations into foreign influence and potential criminality.

We’re seeing it with attacks on the free press, investigative journalism, and the First Amendment itself.

These institutions seek truth and need a manner of protection in order to allow them to get to that truth.

Why?  Because, as we’ve discussed, getting to the truth – finding the best explanation for the facts – takes more time than finding and promulgating less valid (or likely false) explanations.  Thus, we find ourselves engaged with defending against these false explanations right at the time when we’re searching for the best one.

There’s no perfect solution, since getting ahead of the lies isn’t possible.  However, we can build up our systems to combat against the lies better.  Here are several things we can do:

Let the data be collected

Whether in science or journalism or investigations, we shouldn’t be afraid of collecting more independent information.  The truth comes out through repeated and independent examination, and we should strive to learn what the facts are.

Differences about what to do in light of the truth may still exist, but let our differences result from an acknowledged difference in values, not our collective lack of understanding or in differing sets of facts.

Be open about how the data was collected

Here lies the real challenge.  In science, this is easier to accomplish – we need to make sure everyone analyzing the results knows where the information came from.  There is no real value in hiding information about the sources providing the data.

However, in investigatory or journalistic work using confidential or unnamed sources, this becomes more difficult.  There is a real penalty for the sources being as transparent as possible.

The world proves itself to be a dangerous place, and there are interests out there who don’t want information to be known.  Silencing the source is in their interest, so transparency, while desired in an altruistic environment in search for the truth, could put people in danger.  The costs of not being transparent about information can sometimes be outweighed by the costs of harm that could come to those sources.

The costs don’t come from our desire to be transparent.  The costs come from bad actors (in autocratic countries, this is the government, and in free societies, these are liars and criminals) who wish to prevent truth from being exposed to hide their bad acts (and potentially give the impression that they are really good).

Striking that balance is key, but hopefully we will trend toward transparency and truth.

Protect the truthseekers

The scientists, investigators, and journalists who care about the truth need our protection.  We can’t leave them open to attacks from those with other nefarious agendas.

Sometimes they get it wrong – those in search for the truth would readily admit that – but seeking the truth will uncover those wrongs, with understandable explanations for what led to the original errors.

Society benefits by having truthseekers, so society needs to protect them.

Allow freedom to question the explanations

We don’t question “the data” – we can question the hypothesis for why the data look that way.

For example, in investigations, DNA of the defendant at the crime scene can be powerful evidence of guilt.  One explanation is that the defendant committed the crime and their DNA was left at the scene.  Might there, however, be other explanations?

Of course.  There could be prosecutorial misconduct or planting of evidence or a problem with chain of custody.  There are many possible explanations for the data – our job is to seek the most likely explanation for the facts.

It’s not the data that are bad; it’s the explanation for what the root cause is.

We need the ability to question the explanations we are hearing.  In fact, we should strongly encourage such questioning.  A vigorous discussion of the facts and how likely our explanations are to be the right ones is important in getting to the truth.

We must protect freedom of thought and expression because it’s necessary for seeking the truth.

Develop new technologies that help to close the gap between when falsehoods start and the truth is revealed

Again, by its nature, the truth takes time to be revealed, so the lies will always come first.  That said, we can best enable the truth’s unveiling through technology.  We need approaches that focus on connecting available information into the most likely explanation.   We need a way to shrink the time gap between when the lies start being disseminated and when the truth can catch up.

 

Fundamentally, if we care about the truth, we should allow the search for truth to occur.

We must support the search for truth, the approaches of finding and evaluating that truth, and the institutions, such as science, investigations, and journalism, that are in that business.

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I currently serve as Vice President of Decision Science at CenturyLink. I've previously served as a leader in the Advanced Risk & Compliance Analytics (ARCA) practice at PwC and as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates. I've served the public as Chair of the Thousand Oaks, CA Planning Commission. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daughter Monroe. Learn more about me »

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