How to tell if politicians and leaders are lying: expert advice


Patricia Roberts-Miller has written books about demagoguery, political argument and the rhetoric that helped perpetuate slavery.

Courtesy of Trish Roberts-Miller


The art of the lie

At a point where historians and political scientists express alarm over the future of American democracy, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley embodies an era where the truth seems more elusive than ever.

There is a disturbing familiarity to our polarized politics, says Patricia Roberts-Miller, a former rhetoric professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

It reminds her of periods in history that led to mass violence, such as pre-Civil War America and Germany prior to World War II. Like then, she said, people are seeing those who disagree with them as their enemy.

But Roberts-Miller, who has written books about demagoguery, political argument and the rhetoric that helped perpetuate slavery, said turning down the temperature will require that people cut through the bombast to come to their own conclusions about what they believe.

“In other times people had trouble getting to other points of view and getting what’s called cross-cutting information,” Roberts-Miller said. “But it’s extremely easy now and yet people are choosing not to do it.”

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: How can you tell when a politician is telling the truth?

A: Let’s not get into a whole thing about what is the truth. I would say, don’t confuse sincerity with truthfulness.

What do you mean?

Well, I think in our culture we have a tendency to think that if a person is sincerely representing what they believe, that’s truthful. It might be sincere. But what they’re saying is not necessarily true, just because they believe it.

What’s the best way to fact check that, to figure out whether it’s approaching being honest?

This is counterintuitive, but the best way to do it is find [the] strongest criticism of what the politician is saying. The only way to figure out if someone is making a good argument is to look at it from multiple perspectives. So find the strongest opposition arguments.

So where are some of the places where you can find opposition arguments?

It depends on the topic, of course. And I do think it’s really hard because there are so many sources out there that look like they’re scholarly. They have Journal of this or that in their name.

I tend to go to certain organizations or media that have very different points of view. I prefer print, because they can give you the sources, it’s easier to process more slowly and think about it. Things like looking at the Heritage Foundation, The Economist, and The Nation. Looking at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

That’s premised on having the desire to challenge your own worldview. What if you don’t have the desire?

Get it.

The way that we tend to talk about political discourse is in what’s called the agonistic model. We talk about it as a battle. We use a lot of fight metaphors. You undermine an argument, you attack somebody, you challenge somebody, that sort of language. And I think it can be helpful to understand that what we’re trying to do is actually see something from multiple perspectives.

I’ll give you a dumb example. We have pedestrians, vehicles, and cyclists who all use the streets, right? And they have different needs, and they really disagree. There’s not one perspective that encompasses all of them. And so there’s going to have to be some negotiation.

My desires as a pedestrian are perfectly legitimate. But if we’re going to have a really vibrant neighborhood where people are happy, I need to think about it also from the perspective of people driving and cyclists.

And so it’s not that I have to challenge my worldview as much as I need to broaden it. It’s also not to say that all points of view are equally valid. We don’t really have to accommodate dinosaurs.

All of this seems like a massive time investment. If I have three kids, and I’m trying to get them to baseball practice and school or to bed, I’m not gonna have time to fact check. So how do you do this in a way that it doesn’t suck up so much of your time?

I think there are a couple answers on that.

So one is, if you haven’t done the fact checking, don’t have a strong opinion. And that’s an option, right? We’re kind of made to feel like you have to have a strong opinion on everything. But it’s perfectly fine not to, it’s perfectly fine to say I don’t have the time to look into this, and therefore I don’t really know.

It’s so funny, because when I say to people that you don’t have to have an opinion on this, but right now, you have a very strong opinion and very little information, people are shocked.

So that’s one.

The Quakers talk about having a “concern,” in which you decide, you’re really going to try to be informed, and you’re going to try to look at information from different points of view on it. And that’s going to be your area. You’re not really going to try to be informed on everything, because you can’t.

But, as I said, you can have these go-to sites, where you can feel like, okay, if I want to know what the Libertarian argument is, for something, I’m gonna go to Cato. Guttmacher has really good information on birth control, abortion, those sorts of things, so when you get those weird statistics of people saying, this happens this much, you could look.

So yeah, some of it is kind of knowing here are the places. So I’m not just Googling.

And then what I think is a big issue is cost. I try to point my students to sources that are available, but some of the best work is newspapers, right? It’s media. And you have to have subscriptions to that and that’s a problem. And so people will often rely on stuff that’s just easier.

Are you telling people to subscribe to their local newspaper?

I am actually telling people to subscribe to their local newspaper. And I think it can be really good to subscribe to multiple papers, you know, a local and a national. I don’t sit and read through four papers every day. I can’t do that. But when I’m trying to figure something out, I’m going to check The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

Yes. And so in theory, in an ideal world, being able to read all this information, weighing it, coming up with your conclusion, you would be an informed citizen and would be able to have an established point of view. That said, there are all kinds of conspiracy theories floating around out here. How do you avoid falling into some of these traps, for lack of a better word?

Try to be aware of why we feel very strongly about things.

I realized I had very strong opinions about expert witnesses in trials. And I thought, why do I have a strong opinion on that? I have friends who are either prosecutors or public defenders but I’ve never talked to them about expert witnesses. I’ve never read studies on it. Where’s this from? And I suddenly realized, this is from “Law and Order.”

So try to think about why do I have strong opinions on it? Where did I get this information? And what will prove me wrong? Can I name evidence that would cause me to change my mind? And if there is none, then it’s not a rational belief.

And it’s fine to have not rational beliefs. In fact, that’s what religion is. I’m a religious person, it’s fine. But I know that. If there is no evidence that would cause me to change my mind on whether 9/11 was an inside job, or global warming, then I don’t have a rational belief on those things.

And that’s the way conspiracy theories work. What makes them not rational is that people, when all their evidence gets destroyed, they just come up with new evidence.

Okay. And then if people follow all these steps, will that fix everything?

Humans are human and we’re wrong a lot. But I think if you really try hard to find the best opposition argument and pay attention to it, even though it is probably not going to change your mind, it calms you down.

It’s not a binary. It’s not like there are two sides on any issue, there are 10 sides. And so you find out, okay, there are all these different points of view on it and these people have reasons. And while there are some real bad actors out there on any issue, there are a lot of people who aren’t bad actors, and who have perhaps different priorities from me or something, but they’re not villainous. They’re not malevolent. They’re not stupid. And it just lowers the temperature.

What worries me is not just that we’re kind of treating public discourse and public disagreements and policy disagreements as battles, but we’re treating them as though it’s an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. And it pretty rarely is.

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Daniel Desrochers covers Congress for the Kansas City Star. Previously, he was the political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. He also worked for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia.

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