Might People On The Internet Sometimes Lie?

From Reddit: Parents Of Children Who Claim To Have Had Past Lives, What Did They Tell You?. Some sample comments:

When he was 6 years old my son described in great detail my grandmother’s house he never been to. This was in 1986 or so, pre-internet. There are no pics of the place that I’m aware and no one owned a camcorder in our family, so video is out of question either. It’s a small house with red roof and a purple door (grandma painted the door every couple of years). He described all of it – that it had one big room with a fireplace across from the window, he explained where the doors are located, how there always were some boxes under the stairs, that there always was a faint smell of apples in the house (grandma ran a small time apple sauce business). That there was this cat almost completely white with a black spot around his right eye (that’s mr. Whiskers, my grandma’s cat!).

My grandma and Whiskers both died in 1977, 3 years before my son was born. To this day I can’t fathom it and can’t even get a remotely sane explanation on how does he know all this. I never told him about it, my wife has never met my grandma and never been to her house and in 1986 we were stationed in Germany, so none of my old friends could have reached my son, so this is definitely not someone’s prank. Best part of this is my son says he doesn’t remember telling me that, but my wife heard him saying that too, so if definitely happened!

And from Reddit, What Is The Creepiest “Glitch In The Matrix” You’ve Encountered?:

When I was in school I had this hippie teacher who would always tell us that the universe can help if you just ask it.

She told us one time her daughter had lost something very important and when she asked the universe to help she suddenly had a massive pulling feeling towards the sink. She walks over and immediately stuck her hand down into the garbage disposal and pulled the item out in perfect condition.

So I think it’s total bullshit of course, but later that day I was searching for a thin little booklet that I really, really needed for school. I spent 3 hours looking for it and had no luck. Finally out of frustration I almost sarcastically said, “I need your help universe.” I immediately walked over to this bookcase filled with books from my step dad. I had never once used this shelf or any book on it.

I grab a random book I’ve never seen from the middle of a huge pile. I open it to somewhere around page 200 and right there is my booklet smashed in between the pages. It was incredibly thin so you couldn’t even tell there was anything in there if you looked at it from another angle.

I’m sure there’s a good explanation, but it’s been well over a decade and I still remember the incredibly freaky vibe I got the moment I saw the book.

I don’t believe in reincarnation or paranormal forces. When I read stories like this, my first impulse is to try to think of reasonable explanations or ways they could be a coincidence. Maybe some kids have instinctive talent at that sort of cold-reading thing TV psychics do sometimes. Maybe your unconscious can remember where you put a booklet and then repress it from the conscious mind for some reason.

But these kinds of claims are often themselves far-fetched. If I told you in normal conversation, unrelated to compelling reincarnation theories, that kids have a natural talent at cold reaading, you’d scoff and demand proof. And it’s not just reincarnation and booklet-finding. If you read Reddit enough, you’ll find hundreds of equally compelling stories of telepathic contact, cryptid sightings, UFOs, et cetera.

So. Alternate hypothesis. About one million people view Reddit every day. Let’s assume 10% of those see threads like the above – which were pretty popular and which I think both made it to the front page. That’s 100,000 people. Now let’s assume that even 1/10,000 people on the Internet are annoying trolls, which is maybe the easiest assumption we’re ever going to have to make. If each of those annoying trolls posts one fake story to a thread like that for the lulz, that’s enough for ten really convincing stories per thread – which is really all there are, the other fifty or sixty are just the usual friend-of-a-friend-had-a-vague-feeling stuff.

(it’s true that in a site read by a million people, there will also be far more people who have experienced a genuine one-in-a-million coincidence, but that shouldn’t scale nearly as quickly; after all, liars can invent coincidences way more far-fetched than the sheer numbers would allow)

This hypothesis seems obviously right. If I ask “what’s the chance that at least one in ten thousand Internet users is an annoying troll?” you laugh hysterically and tell me that nobody has even invented numbers that high. It perfectly explains mysterious events that would otherwise require impossible coincidences or weird theories about hidden brain functions. So why is it so hard to make myself believe?

I think part of it is a failure of scale. Reddit looks a lot like a normal forum or blog comment section, the sort of BBS I used to go on as a kid with twenty or thirty regulars who would dominate all the discussions. If indeed 1/10,000 people is the sort of jerk who would make up a story like this just to troll people (or even 1/1,000 or 1/100 people), the chance that I’d run into them on my little BBS/comment section/Dunbar-number-group is pretty low, and I can safely ignore the possibility that five different crazy paranormal comments are all by pathological liars. It’s only when you get a place like Reddit, which manages to feel like a community while also having a million readers a day, that you have to start thinking about these things.

This suggests a more general principle: interesting things should usually be lies. Let me give three examples.

I wrote in Toxoplasma of Rage about how even when people crusade against real evils, the particular stories they focus on tend to be false disproportionately often. Why? Because the thousands of true stories all have some subtleties or complicating factors, whereas liars are free to make up things which exactly perfectly fit the narrative. Given thousands of stories to choose from, the ones that bubble to the top will probably be the lies, just like on Reddit.

Every time I do a links post, even when I am very careful to double- and triple- check everything, and to only link to trustworthy sources in the mainstream media, a couple of my links end up being wrong. I’m selecting for surprising-if-true stories, but there’s only one way to get surprising-if-true stories that isn’t surprising, and given an entire Internet to choose from, many of the stories involved will be false.

And then there’s bad science. I can’t remember where I first saw this, so I can’t give credit, but somebody argued that the problem with non-replicable science isn’t just publication bias or p-hacking. It’s that some people will be sloppy, biased, or just stumble through bad luck upon a seemingly-good methodology that actually produces lots of false positives, and that almost all interesting results will come from these people. They’re the equivalent of Reddit liars – if there are enough of them, then all of the top comments will be theirs, since they’re able to come up with much more interesting stuff than the truth-tellers. In fields where sloppiness is easy, the truth-tellers will be gradually driven out, appearing to be incompetent since they can’t even replicate the most basic findings of the field, let alone advance it in any way. The sloppy people will survive to train the next generation of PhD students, and you’ll end up with a stable equilibrium.

The weird thing is, I know all of this. I know that if a community is big enough to include even a few liars, then absent a strong mechanism to stop them those lies should rise to the top. I know that pretty much all of our modern communities are super-Dunbar sized and ought to follow that principle.

And yet my System 1 still refuses to believe that the people in those Reddit threads are liars. It’s actually kind of horrified at the thought, imagining them as their shoulders slump and they glumly say “Well, I guess I didn’t really expect anyone to believe me”. I want to say “No! I believe you! I know you had a weird experience and it must be hard for you, but these things happen, I’m sure you’re a good person!”

If you’re like me, and you want to respond to this post with “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?”, then before you comment take a second to ask why the “they’re lying” theory is so hard to believe. And when you figure it out, tell me, because I really want to know.

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317 Responses to Might People On The Internet Sometimes Lie?

  1. ChelOfTheSea says:

    I worry a lot about losing real signals to dismissing “well that’s just obviously bullshit” claims, so I understand where you’re coming from here.

    We know the answers to actually dealing with these questions – empirical verification, statistical techniques, etc – but the problem is that such analysis is generally more costly than a false belief!

    I’ve wanted for a long time to sit down and do some work on game-theory-with-an-analysis-cost.

  2. NIP says:

    As someone who habitually hangs around a lot of internet trolls, I don’t for a second buy the idea that any of these reddit stories are trolling. “Trolling” doesn’t stand for “general internet tomfoolery”. It’s a specific behavior angling to elicit a specific response, and getting some random stranger to scratch his head over whether a spooky story is true or not is not that response. One trolls to make people upset. Nobody who is among the intended audience of those reddit threads you cite is getting upset at those stories. On the contrary, they’re all nodding their heads and conversing quite amiably about how spooky it all is. Unless the creation of those particular subreddits themselves are some sort of meta-troll intended to make nerds like yourself hot under the collar, which would be funny but also completely unprovable.

    My own hypothesis is that there are simply a lot of weird people out there with weird stories that they like to tell because they’re interesting to tell. They might not even be lies, just embellishments or misrememberings that happen to be entertaining to share. I’ve met many such people telling stories like that in real life, and their intentions were never to hornswoggle anyone. Haven’t you?

    • SolveIt says:

      Unfortunately (from my POV anyway), trolling doesn’t mean what it used to these days. It does mean “general internet tomfoolery”. I agree with the rest of your comment though. I’ve heard too many interesting stories, that were told in the utmost sincerity, that fell apart on even a cursory check.

      I think this has something to do with people having vastly different factchecking abilities. I can take naive untruths apart with a five-minute search from my phone. Usually, the people telling these stories wouldn’t know where to begin, or even that factchecking is actually a thing that people can do!

      • NIP says:

        This is when I play the part of le mag oldfag who gripes about Reddit normies ruining everything and reminisces about the days when trolling meant something. Oh well.

        I agree with you that it’s often a matter of fact-checking, but only when it’s a secondhand story. In the case of someone relating something that (they believe) happened to them, it’s often just a case of some weird thing that’s highly up to interpretation, or a real coincidence or two that happened to get that person’s imagination and pattern-matching into overdrive. So they embellish it in their minds because it’s thrilling, and then they share the embellished self-narrative with others because it’s fun and gives them attention. It’s not a case of someone not knowing that ghosts or supernatural forces don’t exist; it’s a case of them not even caring. 99+% of people aren’t rational, let alone rationalists, and not only aren’t bothered by the factual inconsistencies of such stories, but find a world in which no stories have factual inconsistencies to be boring as hell. Thus why such stories are so popular.

      • J.P. says:

        I suspect the definition of “troll” was unconsciously widened over time because people wanted to label borderline behavior they didn’t like with a strongly negative word and “borderline” kept expanding as a result.

        • enkiv2 says:

          Definitely. We know, from histories of the term & its etymology, that the original use of the term “trolling” specifically referred to creating the kind of epistemological ambiguity that Scott is talking about, and not to the emotional needling that the term usually refers to today (which as recently as ten years ago would have been referred to as griefing in most internet communities, even though the expansion of the term troll was already underway).

          (For those who are not aware, “troll” is by analogy to the fishing technique, not the mythological bridge-dwelling creature. Specifically, one trolls a community by dragging bait — in the form of an only borderline-believable story that if true demands conversation — through the conversation in order to catch the gullible.

          The prototypical troll of the usenet era was someone who pretends to be remarkably naive in some unusual way: claiming to have never heard of some cultural touch-stone or geographic location or technical concept. This kind of troll sometimes still occurs in multiplayer games: a seasoned player who pretends to be a new player, and feigns ignorance of basic mechanics.

          Of course, a griefer can also be a troll, in the case where the borderline-unbelievable claim is of a politically- or emotionally-charged nature. This is probably where the semantic drift comes from. After all, pretending to be a nazi is both trolling and griefing, in communities where actual nazis are rare, and in that situation combining the two is highly effective at getting a response.)

          I bemoan the loss of nuance when it comes to the terminology with which we describe social misbehavior online; it seems like fifteen or twenty years ago we were able to be a lot more precise and yet still be generally understood. But, I might have a warped perspective on this: most of my understanding of internet culture prior to 2001 comes from people like ESR and Kibo writing specifically about patterns in internet culture and about definitions and terminology, and they may have produced the illusion of clear distinctions where general understanding was actually pretty muddy.

          • Catlick says:

            When it comes to the term’s changing definition, I think the mythological vile creature homonym is more to blame than a desire to label borderline behavior as trolling.

            Traditionally, ‘Bemused’ only meant confused. But now it is also understood, at least popularly, to indicate ‘wry or tolerant amusement’. Presumably, this happened for no other reason but the two words sound alike, and ‘amused’ is much more common than ‘bemused’. Enough people didn’t know what ‘bemused’ meant and hazarded guesses based on ‘amused’, and now the new definition has started to take hold. If the frequencies of the two words were swapped, I think ‘amused’ would have the secondary definition ‘feeling of confusion’. Troll the vile creature is much more widely known than troll the fishing technique. If that homonym didn’t exist, I don’t think the term would’ve changed meaning in quite the way that it did.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Sources? I was always of the impression that inherent in trolling was creating negative emotional responses and causing the people trolled to expend more emotion and effort than was involved in the trolling originally. But I wasn’t really online prior to the current century.

          • I interpreted “troll” as playing off both meanings of the word. The troll was trolling bait through groups and behaving in a trollish fashion.

          • stillnotking says:

            The prototypical troll of the usenet era was someone who pretends to be remarkably naive in some unusual way: claiming to have never heard of some cultural touch-stone or geographic location or technical concept.

            Yep. This was indeed the original sense of the term on Usenet. “Trolling” in those days was humorous and mostly mild.

            It didn’t take long for it to start being used to refer to the deliberately offensive, though. By the late ’90s it had pretty much the connotation it has today, IIRC.

          • Shion Arita says:

            In my personal experience with the internet in times older than these, the term troll was used to mean someone who makes posts that are counter to their actual beliefs or knowledge in order to bait a response. This had many specific forms, but the key element was them pretending to hold a position that they actually didn’t. You wouldn’t call them a troll if you thought they were being genuine, even if they were being an assholle and trying to piss people off.

          • Brad says:

            On slashdot, which is not the beginning but certainly long ago, there were five downvote types: overrated, offtopic, redundant, flamebait, and trolling.

            “Natalie Portman petrified and covered in hot grits” would have been offtopic.

            “GNU/Linux is the operating system of the future, only fascists use M$ products.” would have been flamebait.

            “What’s wrong with DRM exactly? If you aren’t stealing music it doesn’t affect you” would have been trolling.

        • Loiathal says:

          Absolutely. Now it means “being a jerk”, “lying on the internet”, or “linking people to RickRoll”.

        • Autolykos says:

          That’s usually the time when you need a new term for the original thing. In the German usenet, trolls by the classical definition were generally called elks/moose (“Elche”) – which I still find a quite fitting term for people who feign ignorance to attract attention…
          And I think the terms were actually used in parallel for a while, with “troll” being reserved for the more malicious subspecies. The term “griefer” I only know from online games – but its application to discussions is straightforward enough to be clear…

    • DrBeat says:

      That kid you went to middle school with who insisted his dad worked at Nintendo and he got to play the new Mortal Kombat before anyone and it had Barney the Dinosaur in it wasn’t “trolling” and wasn’t trying to make you upset but he WAS trying to hornswaggle you.

      • NIP says:

        I agree, and it’s an important distinction. One can indeed hornswoggle without trolling, or troll without hornswoggling. My argument in reference to the stuff Scott’s talking about on Reddit, though, is that it doesn’t have the characteristics of either. If one were trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes, one would try to get others to believe a story who typically would not believe such a tale. The threshold of credulity on /r/spooky or whatever is no doubt much too low for that to be the case. In other words, everyone in those threads goes into them wanting to hear and at least half-believe all of those stories. The kid whose dad works at Nintendo doesn’t have such an audience, and will immediately get punched in the arm by the most skeptical of his comrades.

        • Bryant says:

          Third possibility (which I think is likely): people like getting attention. As you note, /r/spooky is a credulous place, so it’s a great place to tell everyone that your uncle works for Nintendo because you’ll be believed, you’ll get up votes, your score goes up, etc.

    • Callum G says:

      >As someone who habitually hangs around a lot of internet trolls

      [citation needed]

      Name three of them.

      • albertborrow says:

        Trick question: the best trolls are always anons.

      • NIP says:

        The beauty of your question, Callum G (IF THAT IS YOUR REAL NAME!?) is that since this is SSC – where I once made a comment about Mongolian throat singing boards and was taken completely seriously by a fan of Mongolian throat singing – I can’t tell if you’re trolling.

        This is some meta shit right here.

        Also, question: does anyone know of any sbstantiated reports of people, with known names or handles, who make their trolling hobby known? Besides Scott Adams, I mean. I certainly don’t know any.

        But albertborrow knows what’s up. Half of the sting of real trollery is knowing that you got made a fool of by some random asshole you’ll probably never meet in real life. You’ll never get to ask: “why?”

        • Deiseach says:

          where I once made a comment about Mongolian throat singing boards and was taken completely seriously by a fan of Mongolian throat singing

          Tuva is not Mongolia, I keep saying, when it comes to throat singing! 🙂

        • Bryant says:

          Also, question: does anyone know of any sbstantiated reports of people, with known names or handles, who make their trolling hobby known? Besides Scott Adams, I mean. I certainly don’t know any.


        • Callum G says:


          To answer your question though, the Ga* Ni**er Association of America used to get up to mischief. Also Ken M is a decent troll with his own particular style. He even has a subreddit which sort of amazes me. A troll with a documented, mainstream following with over 200,000 subscribers.

        • Icey says:

          Specifically on Reddit what you describe can be covered by the existence of certain novelty accounts. (/u/rogersimon10 specifically comes to mind as the “jumper cables guy”).

          Other Reddit examples might include /u/obviousplant who posts images of either examples of IRL trolling (thus being open about it) or falsely claiming to have been posted someplace to increase the potential humor of it (and thus being a form of meta-trolling).

          There might be others as well, these are just a few that I thought of off the top of my head.

        • GCBill says:

          David Thorne has always been pretty open about trolling people.

        • Adam says:

          Back when OK Cupid had the journaling feature, the best known troll of the journals kept getting banned and reincarnated, but never revealed his real name or face. Eventually, after maybe six years or so, someone dredged up a picture of him from his Navy days, but it was pretty old and still didn’t include a name. Finally, a few years after OKC axed the feature, he was still in our Facebook groups and when Facebook started cracking down on fake names, he finally started using his real name and then revealed his current face a little over a year ago, and even met and was briefly engaged to a friend of mine here in Dallas. That took a while, though. It was a decade until he gave up the act. Guess he just finally outgrew it.

    • JulieK says:

      They might not even be lies, just embellishments or misrememberings that happen to be entertaining to share

      My family has several stories we like to tell about cute things various family members did as toddlers. When these events actually happened, the child was communicating with gestures and possibly one-word utterances. But when the story is retold, by a story-teller who intends to be truthful, the toddler’s communication has been changed into full sentences.

      • Chalid says:

        I do this but I don’t consider it a lie. I think of it as more like translation – I understand what my toddler means, but no one else would understand my toddler’s grunts and gestures.

        (And I think everyone listening understands that that is what is happening.)

      • akc09 says:

        This is actually interesting to me! Our kid has a speech delay, and when I hear stories about things other people’s toddlers have said, I always end up wringing my hands and freaking out that our almost-four-year-old isn’t anywhere near as articulate as their two-year-old.

        For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me that this embellishment might be happening.

        (I mean, we still have an issue, but maybe it’s not quite as bad as I think sometimes…)

      • heterodox.jedi says:

        Yeah, it’s really hard for me to replicate the speech patterns of my two-year-old. If I’m trying to capture the general content of what she said, it’s probably going to be wordier and have more verbs.

    • wysinwygymmv says:

      I’ve met many such people telling stories like that in real life, and their intentions were never to hornswoggle anyone. Haven’t you?

      Yes, but I’ve also known a fair number of people who tell crazy lies for no apparent reason.

      Like in most cases, I don’t get the impression that their intentions were to hornswaggle anyone per se — it’s usually not clear to me what such a person’s actual intentions are assuming “intentions” is even an applicable word for this sort of behavior.

      But some people just tell crazy lies for no apparent reason. A particularly good friend of mine told was smoking a cigarette on the subway one time and a couple told him he wasn’t supposed to do that. So he apologized and said that he’d been having trouble readjusting to society since coming back from Iraq. Total bullshit, the guy is about as anti-military as they come. Why did he say it? I’m not sure even he knows.

      It’s not even rare. I can think of at least three other people (and I’m not a talky social kind of person, I don’t know many people) who do this sort of thing, and that’s just the ones I’m sure about — it can be very hard to spot these people because they will tell stories and then everyone will be like “Oh, how remarkable,” but there’s no real way to fact check and (barring physical impossibilities and the like) no real reason to doubt the alleged first-hand accounts.

      • NIP says:

        Oh, totally dude. I’ve also known several compulsive liars, as I believe they are called. There was once a guy I knew who told me that his father had trained him from the age of five to be a killing machine, and suffered from muscular hypertrophy at the age of sixteen so badly that he damaged his skeleton. At which point he joined the SAS, but dropped out to pursue his boxing career. He was also a “gypsy”. I asked if he meant a traveller, since they aren’t the same thing and he obviously didn’t resemble a gypsy in the slightest. Nope. Full gysy.

        But my point wasn’t that people never lie on the internet (or in real life) or that one should never fully disbelieve crazy stories. There certainly are individuals out there who couldn’t tell you a true story to save their life. My point was that Scott’s examples of stories that might be outright lies appear IMO to be bad examples. That’s all. I’ve been to subreddits like that and none of the stories struck me as compulsive liar material; just “implausible and told to amaze, in a space specifically designated for that kind of story.” I dunno, maybe I’m making a distinction that’s overly fine to a bunch of rationalists.

        • wysinwygymmv says:

          Well, I wasn’t talking about wildly implausible stories (calling them “crazy lies” was probably misleading) — I was talking about pretty much believable but rather remarkable stories. It wouldn’t be a stretch for someone who hadn’t met my friend and discussed politics with him to think he could be a veteran. The guy who liked to talk about how he owns my uncle’s motel and my uncle just manages it for him — there’s nothing especially implausible about that either, it’s just false.

          When I was much younger I talked to someone online who lived across the country from me. In a weird coincidence, someone else from my high school ended up chatting with the same person and told a plausible lie — that he was a member of a band a few mutual acquaintances had. No one besides the liar would ever have known it was a lie if not for the coincidence which was actually much less plausible than the lie itself.

          So I understand the distinction you’re making and I agree there are many explanations — imperfect memory, confabulation, and the like come up a lot in this thread. I guess what prompted me to reply to you was the statement “their intentions were never to hornswaggle anyone”. In my own experience, the intentions behind telling stories like this are usually unclear to me, but very often I think it comes from a murky area of intentions to deceive that fall somewhat short of hornswaggling.

        • sovietKaleEatYou says:

          I knew someone who made misleading statements absolutely naturally, like breathing. These were not like “I was brought up to be a killing machine”: they were individually believable but a bit inconsistent and over-the-top when taken in aggregate. After fact-checking a couple, I’m comfortable saying that this person was at all times a “compulsive liar” or “anti-social personality” or what have you, and don’t believe a single biographical detail about them.

          @wysiwygymmv: I’m curious, it sounds like your friends had lying “episodes”, but were otherwise mostly honest? This surprises me, because it’s not the experience I had. Would be curious to know more about this.

        • dangermouse says:

          In my real life interactions, I often say things I think are so obviously ridiculous that it is clear that I’m joking. Unfortunately, due to inferential distance, the joke is not always apparent to the people I’m talking to. I tend to react to this by trying to double down and say even more ridiculous things until (I hope) they realise, rather than breaking character and saying that it was a joke outright, but no matter how silly I get, because I say it with a straight face, it’s not always clear to people. I wonder now if some people just think I’m a compulsive liar. Might this explain the behavior of some people who you experience as liars? I’d like to know, because I’d hate to be unintentionally misleading people.

          • sovietKaleEatYou says:

            What you do could probably be called “trolling”, if your intention is to screw with people. The intention of a compulsive liar/sociopath would be to change society’s perception of reality to conform with his preferred version rather than the truth. If I were to guess, dangermouse, you would be bothered by one of your jokes becoming universally believed (especially if this had consequences for other people), and would try to correct this if noticed. If that’s the case, you’re fine.

          • dangermouse says:

            It’s not to screw with people, I don’t expect that anybody would believe that, say, there are 300 pigeons living in my basement and I have named them individually and trained them to perform synchronised dances to WHAM!. It’s whimsy, and I expect it to be obvious from content and not need “I am joking” cues but apparently sometimes misjudge my audience. I perform magic a lot, and I know and the audience knows that I don’t really have magical powers, but I have been worried before that someone really did believe that I was genuinely magical, and it was very disturbing to me, I had to break character and explain very clearly that neither I nor any magician could really do magic. I worry that similar things happen in non-performance environments.

          • sovietKaleEatYou says:

            Then it sounds like you’re talking about people with a handicap in the “telling obvious joke/exaggeration cues” social ability. I am all for increased accessibility, but I don’t see a reason to let this interfere with something like a magic show (otherwise we’d be in “The Giver” territory of making everything black and white to eliminate color-perception inequality).

            If your point is that the line between “bad” lying and joking or “ok” lying (imaginative stories for kids, magic, wihte lies) is hard to draw then I agree that this is the case. Determining whether a joke or a whimsical comment is appropriate in a given moment is a question of moderation and signalling, like everything social. I think there’s a couple other discussions about this on this comment thread but I can’t follow all the threads: this is something that more aspie-leaning ssc readers have probably thought through much more thoroughly than me.

            However, insofar as such a diagnosis exists (and it does in my experience), compulsive liars are entirely outside of the realm of any “socially acceptable” forms of lying, no matter how loosely construed. To give an analogy with hygiene, there is a spectrum of people from germophobes to slobs. There are people who believe that rolling in the dirt helps the immune system. And then there are people who send other people anthrax in the mail. Compulsive liars are in analogy with the latter category.

        • pdbarnlsey says:

          I feel like this is relevant here:

          “A guy sees a sign in front of a house: “Talking Dog for Sale.”
          He rings the bell and the owner tells him the dog is in the backyard. The guy goes into the backyard and sees a black mutt just sitting there.
          “You talk?” he asks.
          “Sure do.” the dog replies.
          “So, what’s your story?” The dog looks up and says, “Well, I discovered my gift of talking pretty young and I wanted to help the government, so I told the CIA about my gift, and in no time they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one figured a dog would be eavesdropping. I was one of their most valuable spies eight years running.”
          “The jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn’t getting any younger and I wanted to settle down. So I signed up for a job at the airport to do some undercover security work, mostly wandering near suspicious characters and listening in. I uncovered some incredible dealings there and was awarded a batch of medals.”
          “Had a wife, a mess of puppies, and now I’m just retired.”
          The guy is amazed. He goes back in and asks the owner what he wants for the dog.
          The owner says, “Ten dollars.”
          The guy says, “This dog is amazing. Why on earth are you selling him so cheap?”
          “Cause he’s a liar. He didn’t do any of that shit!”

          Interestingly, my cousin was the guy who bought the actual talking dog. But he had to give it up because of the government and/or big pharma.

      • But some people just tell crazy lies for no apparent reason

        Cough, Walter O Brian, Cough.

      • Jaskologist says:

        “Lying is a skill like any other, and if you want to maintain excellence you have to practice constantly.” -Elim Garak

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      Posting lies for the sake of attention sounds like “trolling” to me, but even if you dispute that terminology, you can simply ask “is more than 1/10,000 people a habitual liar and/or attention-grabber?” which of course answers itself.

      • Spookykou says:

        I have mixed feels about people getting hung up on minor details in any essay. On one hand it is amusing to me when somebody makes a D&D reference and half the comments are explaining how the OP doesn’t understand how D&D works. On the other hand it seems like some people conflate a mistaken reference with the essay being mistaken in general, and then get bogged down in a totally irrelevant conversation about the reference in question.

    • onyomi says:

      “My own hypothesis is that there are simply a lot of weird people out there with weird stories that they like to tell because they’re interesting to tell.”

      Yeah, given the number of days the modal internet user has already lived, and the number of things he does each day, chances seem good that most internet users will have at least one story of a really weird coincidence. Because really weird coincidences never, ever happening would itself be really weird. Get together a “room” full of internet users all sharing the weirdest coincidence that ever happened to them, and you could be left with an erroneous impression that either crazy coincidences happen all the time, or that most people telling you about weird coincidences are lying.

    • Ryan says:

      My own hypothesis is that there are simply a lot of weird people out there with weird stories that they like to tell because they’re interesting to tell. They might not even be lies, just embellishments or misrememberings that happen to be entertaining to share. I’ve met many such people telling stories like that in real life, and their intentions were never to hornswoggle anyone. Haven’t you?

      Now add on the number of times someone has heard some cool story from another person and then later retold that story as if it happened to them. Also they mucked up some details because of the telephone game phenomena. And then the person they told that story to retells it again with some more details mucked up. And then the final person posts the story as a response in askreddit.

  3. jamii says:

    > I can’t remember where I first saw this…

    Perhaps in Why most published research findings are false?

  4. Cobraredfox says:

    I try to not classify internet stories as True and False, since my ability to check up on it independently is nonexistent.

    Instead, I aim for Plausible and Implausible.

    If the story has elements that make no sense, then the story is not plausible. But I mean, maybe it’s true! Maybe there’s some crazy coincidence at play, maybe the storyteller forgot some vital details in the ten years they’ve been retelling this story. Maybe my knowledge of the story’s subject is incomplete.

    But it gets labelled as implausible anyway, and I’ll be god damned if I changed my view of the world on the strength of it.

    • EarthSeaSky says:

      Huh, on reflection I think this is exactly what I do as well. Funny how that works.

      On reflection, I think this is actually what I do with most information. I’ve never really dismissed things out of hand. Up until extremely recently, I was always super hesitant to conclude that somebody was lying on purpose. I remember having a heated discussion with my mom ~12 about whether or not there are certain things you can just ignore automatically, or whether you should give every claim a fair hearing.

    • Null Hypothesis says:

      That’s the same approach I use when reading through a place like Reddit.

      Basically, some random stranger is typing a story online, and the question is whether or not I believe him. But that’s actually not the right question at all.

      If he tells me a story about something his kid had done, and it made a point in the conversation, I could go ahead and look at his post history and discover he’s a 16 year old and obviously doesn’t have an 8 year old kid. And yes, I’ve gone and discovered that that story happening to him was a lie.

      But why do I care if the story happened to him. He’s just a faceless nobody. And that plausible story more or less certainly happened to somebody somewhere on earth. Someone’s 8 year old kid has certainly done something similar to the situation described. Probably lots of someones.

      Which means that the person it really did happen to could have logged on and made the same point by writing the same thing and it would have been true.

      But everyone is anonymous. So how should I know, or more importantly why should I care if the right anonymous person typed those letters? The truth behind the story told by the stranger is actually irrelevant to my situation. The point made in the conversation is still valid. All that’s relevant is that the story told by the stranger is true for a stranger. If those happen to be two different featureless strangers, then one it simply acting as the mouthpiece for the other.

      Or, put another way, all strangers online are Legion.

  5. callmebrotherg says:

    I have the same problem. Weirdly, this system-1 befuddlement at the idea that some people are just lying liars comes up in my writing fairly often. If Alice wants to find out a thing and is asking questions of Bob, who knows the truth but doesn’t want to reveal it, then I write out a whole scene with Bob giving evasive or technically true replies before I realize, oh wait, *Bob can just outright lie,* that’s a thing that people can do.

    Similarly, when I have political discussions with my parents and they give me some outrageous new story, my first impulse is to try to explain it, before my System-2 so helpfully reminds me that my father has sometimes referred to himself as a conspiracy theorist and outright denies many scientific facts, my mother is nearly as bad, and they’re close to being at the point where they’re getting their news from InfoWars–so, you know, maybe they were just *lied to.*

    (At this point I can’t hold a conversation with them about basically anything outside of “how was your day?” unless they’re willing to give me sources)

    • DrBeat says:

      Actually, I recall you shouldn’t have Bob outright lie, because you should never have characters outright lie if you can help it. I think there’s several reasons, but the one I can think of most readily is that we rely on the observations of characters to find out things about the world we can’t observe for ourselves, so you don’t want that illusion of trust broken.

      • EarthSeaSky says:

        I like the way Yahtzee handled it in Jam. In one of the scenes, to illustrate that a character is lying [minor spoilers, but not really]:

        Angela banged her fist on the side of the fridge, frustrated. “How can you be a secret government agent when you’re so bad at lying?!”
        “I’m not a secret government agent,” said X, lying badly.

        Of course, you’re allowed to break lots of rules in comedy.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Unfortunately we also rely on the observations of characters to find out things about the world we can’t observe for ourselves IRL. Maybe fiction shouldn’t lull us into thinking it’s reliable.

      • skybrian says:

        Maybe that’s a reason why the bad guys are so often obvious in fiction? If the reader isn’t confused, trust isn’t broken.

        I’m guessing skilled writers have all sorts of workarounds. But maybe simplest just to avoid the problem most of the time.

        • albertborrow says:

          It’s easy enough to put tells in the book that unskilled readers won’t detect, and then go back and say: “Look, don’t you see, it was there all along!”

          See: all of Homestuck.

        • Loquat says:

          Make the bad guy obvious or arrange the story so the reader learns the truth before or soon after the lie appears. An example from Game of Thrones: early in the story, an assassin tries to kill the newly-crippled Bran Stark, and he’s killed during the attack so he can’t be questioned. Catelyn Stark calls on her old buddy Littlefinger to help investigate, and he lies to make her think Tyrion Lannister is behind the attack. Around the same time, though, we also see Tyrion visit Bran with advice and some accessibility plans to help him adjust to life without functioning legs – not something you’d expect if Tyrion had in fact wanted him dead. Later, of course, we learn that Littlefinger is a habitual liar who should never be trusted.

      • albertborrow says:

        Solution: rational fiction. Make the protagonist smart enough to understand the possibility of lying, and the antagonist smart enough to lie successfully. It’s enough to simply make the protagonist realize the antagonist lied after the fact, or while they are being lied to. Sure, it’s paranoid, but if you’re going for realistic behavior to begin with, then you have every right to make the protagonist paranoid.

      • callmebrotherg says:

        That might be good writing advice (though I think it’s okay at least if Bob is your book’s Voldemort), but I can’t say that I arrived it via good writerly intuition.

    • “before I realize, oh wait, *Bob can just outright lie,* that’s a thing that people can do. ”

      In my second novel, which is a fantasy, there are truthtellers. So some people are practiced at misleading without actually lying.

      I have a scene where someone is doing that, finding it difficult, and it then occurs to him that he currently has magical shielding which will, among other things, keep a truthteller from knowing whether he is telling the truth. So he switches, with relief, to straight lies.

      What he doesn’t know is that the magical shielding was removed while he was unconscious.

    • Subb4k says:

      Just make all the characters Aes Sedai. Problem solved. 😉

      • callmebrotherg says:

        You joke, but I’ve got a story that I’m working on where there’s a way for magical people to prevent each other from knowingly uttering even half-truths. It’s an incredibly simple ritual, too, so they can and do use it on a regular basis.

      • Jiro says:

        I never read all of the Wheel of Time but from what I did read I wondered why the judicial system, merchants, etc. wouldn’t start writing up standard-form questions, like “did you see man A kill man B, given the following definitions and conditions: ___ ___ ___ ___” while asking the Aes Sedai to answer “yes” or “no”. It’s hard to tell half-truths under those conditions.

  6. J says:

    To channel Robin for a bit, I think what I really want from sites like reddit is communion with my tribe. I tell myself I want facts about the world and current events and interesting trivia, but really I’m just hanging in the sweat lodge with my boys. I think that’s what makes it so hard to give up; using more reputable, dry sources to provide the factual content doesn’t fill the same need. Nobody wants to think their tribe is lying to them, so that makes it extra dangerous to use it as a source of fact.

    Of course it’s also hazardous (perhaps much more so) as a source of communion, since 1 in every N people is a shill of some kind. Even if you don’t buy my claim that it’s thoroughly astroturfed, lots of people are optimizing their behaviors in ways that don’t conform to my assumed model of a tribe of people in some distribution around me posting and commenting in the same approximate ways I would. So it’s a huge source of leverage for the many many interests in the world that want to shape my view of my own tribe.

    Relevant xkcd:
    (And very fitting alt text for that xkcd: ‘Nuh-uh! We let users vote on comments and display them by number of votes. Everyone knows that makes it impossible for a few persistent voices to dominate the discussion.’)

    • doubleunplussed says:

      Especially fitting since Randall Munroe designed the current “best” algorithm used on reddit, which sorts things not by total votes, and not by proportion of upvotes to downvotes, but by something like the 95% confidence lower bound on the proportion of upvotes to downvotes, assuming actual votes are random events from an underlying “true” vote ratio you’d ideally like to sort by.

      • albertborrow says:

        Mind, Randall is also the genius behind R9K. He’s very good at pointing out the problems in communities, but I think the flaws with even the “best” algorithm speak for themselves.

      • Zeno of Citium says:

        Munroe didn’t design the algorithm, although he’s largely responsible for it being adopted by Reddit. Evan Miller designed the algorithm ( , interesting article) and Munroe’s then sysadmin (davean) actually wrote the initial code for Reddit. See for Munroe’s explanation.

        I told you that so I can tell you this: It’s absolutely fascinating how fast “Randall Munroe found an algorithm from Evan Miller and had his sysadmin write it after convincing the powers that be at Reddit to use it to sort comments” became “Randall Munroe wrote the Reddit comment sorting algorithm.” It’s the same sort of historical compression that leads to “The assassination of Franz Ferdinand started WWI” or “In the American Civil War, the North fought the South to free the slaves.” The statements contain a lot of truth, but they aren’t strictly true, and they lose a whole lot of details while still being a decent summary of a complicated event.

  7. switchnode says:

    Discussions of this type always make me think of Asimov’s Black Widowers story “The Obvious Factor”.

    I find that having read it helps me to keep the obvious factor in mind.

  8. gbear605 says:

    I seem to have a different experience than you and most of the respondents: I simply don’t feel any befuddlement because I already was expecting them to lie. Maybe it’s that I know a number of people offline that are either conspiracy theorists or majorly over exaggerate, but while I was reading through this post, I was experiencing some major confusion about your confusion.

    • oldman says:

      I had exactly the same response – was just scrolling through the comments to see if anyone else thought the same as me.

    • qwints says:

      Especially in the context of spooky stories where a claim of veracity is an expected and accepted part of the fiction. Neither the speaker or listeners really believe there actually was an escaped convict with a prosthetic hook, but most teliings relate that it really happened to a family member or friend.

    • TheWorst says:

      I’m in the unusual position of having switched–I used to be constantly perplexed at either how many liars there were, or at how many crazy things seemed to be constantly happening to everyone whenever I wasn’t watching. Because I wasn’t really thinking about the numbers involved, or the selection process.

      But it makes sense. What’s likely to be more thrilling: A random event in your everyday life, or a thriller written by a professional thriller-writer? So given a large enough pool, the most thrilling stories are all going to be fiction. Which, in a way, just means that optimization is more effective than randomness.

  9. eqdw says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few months dealing with the fallout of a sociopath who infested one of my communities. I’m still in the data collection phase, talking to people she pulled her shenanigans on and the like, and it is absolutely shocking just how much damage one person could do when they are willing to break every social norm and casually lie about everything. This has given me a really close look at just how fragile constructive communities are, and how important it is to stop those people as soon as possible.

    So when you say

    And yet my System 1 still refuses to believe that the people in those Reddit threads are liars. It’s actually kind of horrified at the thought, imagining them as their shoulders slump and they glumly say “Well, I guess I didn’t really expect anyone to believe me”. I want to say “No! I believe you! I know you had a weird experience and it must be hard for you, but these things happen, I’m sure you’re a good person!”

    I heavily empathize

    • Reasoner says:

      Any takeaways from your experience that might be of use to others?

      • eqdw says:

        Really, the only big one is ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. This individual was able to do what they did because they told lies to everyone. Slightly different lies each time, whatever was most useful at any given time. It all started to unravel when people started talking to each other.

      • Autolykos says:

        This one is a classic on how to protect yourself from psychopaths/compulsive liars:

    • cactus head says:

      Since you’re collecting all this data, do you plan to write anything up about it? I’m sure a demand exists, I’d personally be very interested to read about the debacle.

      • eqdw says:

        Sorry, when I say collecting data I mean specific personal things that are relevant only to the specific situation. I’m not that good of a scientist

      • yodelyak says:

        I read “Snakes in Suits” the other day, which is a pop-sci novel about how to protect your tech start-up or other non-traditional business organization from psychopathic (or, by extension, sociopathic) exploitation. It wasn’t terrible. I think it’s unwise to read it as heavily data-driven (rational, not rationalist).

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      Two of the biggest shocks of my life was being around habitual liars and compulsive spenders.

      Before that I just couldn’t imagine people like that existed, and was quite blindsided.

      They were also two of the most educational episodes, and I feel hugely more prepared to deal with people now.

    • callmebrotherg says:

      The same thing happened with my aunt. She was able to keep everyone separated into their own little groups, totally unaware of each other, but then she got hurt and they started bumping into each other when they went to see her at the hospital.

  10. Leonard says:

    I think part of the problem is that we are not well tuned to effective anonymity, especially when it comes in the guise of nymity. Those people that posted that stuff were either fooling themselves, or fooled by others in some way, or liars. In a dunbar-number tribe, you’d be able to check up on some of their BS, and gossip would assign to them some general level of credibility; so you’d probably know who the BS artists are. Not on the internet.

    Furthermore, when you see people with real-seeming names or pseuds, like “gaussweiss”, you don’t immediately feel they are anonymous. But in effect, they are.

    • albertborrow says:

      Behold, cower in fright of my ARMY OF SOCKPUPPETS!

      (this is the problem with reddit using unique usernames even though the effective barrier for entry is “pushed a few buttons” – it creates the illusion that users spent more than thirty seconds creating their accounts.)

  11. EarthSeaSky says:

    I’d argue that part of it is the tone that some of these are written in. My eyes glazed over reading the first example you chose, but the second one about the pamphlet struck me as being really sincere and truthful.
    This isn’t really the type of writing that trolls produce. I’d argue that it actually fits the “hallmarks of a true story” criteria. It’s not really overblown, it has a couple subtle touches (thinking back to it to this day, the way it’s jammed into the book, not folded neatly, etc.

    Essentially, I’d say that we’re conditioned at this point to communicate with other people via text, and think of them as *people*. For as much flak as internet communication gets for being shit, I’d say we’re pretty good at it. I don’t know about you, but I’ve already put a face to the narrator the hippy teacher, and his daughter. It’s just good story telling.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This theory that there are easily distinguishable “tells” for lying in text is exactly the kind of thing that seems true to me but which on rational reflection ought to be false.

      I think I could write a fake story that sounds like that if I wanted to.

      • I would have liked Unsong if you had written it in a way that sounded plausible. I stopped in the middle because it constantly feels like you’re making fun of it, so it doesn’t feel real. And that’s not because of the content; Wildbow’s stories are just as wild in terms of content, but they feel real.

        • albertborrow says:

          It feels like Scott is making fun of Unsong because it’s a comedy. Roughly 4% of that story takes itself seriously. I don’t think he was ever trying to dethrone Wildbow in that respect.

      • Callum G says:

        I think there can be “tells” of a lie in a story. Contradictions are inconsistencies are one. Also if the first story you quoted had ended with the lines “And now whenever my son touches a picture of my grandma, the picture comes to life! She starts going around making apple sauce just like she used to! She complains that the new star wars are not as good as the old ones!” then it would have severely dented the stories credibility in my eyes.

        Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; or at least a well-fleshed out back story.

        • skybrian says:

          There can certainly be “tells”, but the bad liars are filtered out by voting. The question here is how good a liar the best liars are?

          I’m not seeing any obvious reason that a good liar can’t spot and remove “tells” from a story, perhaps with help from a friend or two who is good at seeing them, or just on their own. It’s not a real-time thing like playing poker where this might take more practice.

        • Enkidum says:

          An absence of obvious signs that a story is a lie does not constitute evidence that it is true.

          • Callum G says:

            Absolutely, a talented liar can just remove these tells from the story. Also, people who have a genuine story but are just confused or poor story writers must be false positives from this ‘tell’ test. Still, I would wager that P(lie | tell) > P(true | tell). I’m not saying that they’re be all and end all, just that they do exist and do provide information about the veracity of the story.

          • Enkidum says:

            “I would wager that P(lie | tell) > P(true | tell).”

            Yes, agreed. But in most cases (like the ones Scott is discussing) I think what we really want to know is P(true | !tell)

          • deciusbrutus says:

            In other words, P(!lie|!tell) ?

          • Enkidum says:

            Right. Actually I guess there’s a difference between P(true | !tell) and P(!lie| !tell). And the latter better captures what Scott’s writing about – are these people deliberately lying (as opposed to fooling themselves, or mildly exaggerating, or whatever)?

      • trustacean says:

        Maybe writing a story like that would convince your System 1 of a few things about lying.

      • EarthSeaSky says:

        Consider the counterpoint: How much work would that take? Trolling is all about having fun at other people’s expense. Yeah, you could write a meticulously crafted, well written story about [whatever] that’s *juuuuuuuust* plausible enough to be believable, but that would take way more time than the average troll’s attention span, and really, what’s the pay off? People on reddit believing you after you said something that wasn’t true? Not exactly top kek material.

        Not sure how often you utilize the ‘chans, but I’d be curious to hear what you think about the /x/ board.

      • lil_copter says:

        I think your system 1 is right on this one.

        We’re way underestimating how many people have weird, compelling, interesting stories that are not out right lies; nearly everyone does. A self-identifying rationalist is more likely to resist the temptation to embellish and is more likely to recognize a coincidence for a coincidence, and therefore lack any fantastic stories to tell, which is why one might underestimate how many people do have these kinds of stories.

        You take these stories and slowly perfect details over time with psychological tricks that they play on themselves and what you have is a story that is indistinguishable from the outright liar’s story. It’s just as good and compelling.

        Basically, there are a lot of people that have experienced a coincidence and can then tell a fantastic story about it; more people than there are the outright liars. So in a thread with 10 really convincing stories, I would say > than 80% would be the “truthful”.

    • sovietKaleEatYou says:

      I like to keep pointing out that some percentage of the population (order of magnitude 1%) have some version of antisocial personality disorder, and as a result are really good at casually lying in a way that simulates telling the truth on a number of levels. I have known one such person well and they are very different from the lies of “artful storytellers” (of whom I also know a couple) or trolls. In particular, I would agree with you that the second story is written in a genuine style and if told to me by a friend who I knew to be either honest or an “artful storyteller”, I would be willing to bet that, if not necessarily 100% accurate, it was based on re-interpretations of real experiences. On the other hand, either of these stories could be generated by my ASD acquaintance with no link to the truth. I think you would need to look for inconsistencies in a larger body of writing by a talented casual liar in order to tell they are lying. I’ve actually spent some time trying to figure out how one could get better at determining if someone is a casual liar. One thing that distinguished my antisocial acquaintance was the she never told a story that made her look bad or lose social capital, so there’s that.

      • Nyx says:

        “One thing that distinguished my antisocial acquaintance was the she never told a story that made her look bad or lose social capital, so there’s that.”

        Personally, if someone tells a story about doing xyz that makes them look really awesome or cool or popular, that makes me suspicious. Not in a “call them out on it” way, just in a “I’m not going to integrate this story into my personal model of the universe”.

        • Autolykos says:

          Although nowadays that alone is insufficient to tell whether they are a compulsive liar or just read up on PUA and took it a bit too seriously. OTOH, a lot of that stuff is actually advice on how to become a better psychopath.

        • TheWorst says:

          This sounds similar to the rule about adventure stories. Some friends who spent time in the Army indicate that if a story begins with “So no shit, there we were…” and is about how awesome or badass the story-teller and his friends are, then it’s completely bullshit.

          And if the story starts with “So no shit, there we were…” and is about breathtaking incompetence, disastrously bad luck, and general absurd stupidity, then every word of it is absolute truth.

  12. sketerpot says:

    So your System 1 keeps making Type 2 errors? This is causing me to experience emotion number six!

  13. a non mouse says:

    1,500 words to resolve that cognitive dissonance around the voluminous and persuasive evidence of pedophilia / child trafficking going on at the highest reaches of mainstream politics.

    Is it resolved?

    • Montfort says:

      I’m not sure why you thought this post needs to have kulturkampf shoehorned in, but maybe you can take your “voluminous and persuasive evidence” to an open thread or something.

      • a non mouse says:

        A controversy that a lot of people really would prefer had no basis in fact that is freaking out the entire left (“fake news” as a meme basically because of it) that actually has a lot of plausible connections and things that would take insane coincidence to not be indicative of something seriously wrong.

        Scott then makes a post about how plausible seeming things can be dismissed without thinking too hard about them as long as no one mainstream is reporting them and you don’t see the link?

        • FeepingCreature says:

          Seeing links is not hard. Anyone can see links.

          If you really want to see links, Scott is currently writing a story that’s literally all about seeing links. You may enjoy it.

          IMO: The problem of paranoia is not an excess of imagination, but a lack of material. Everything fits, everything connects like a spider web. But the world is a lot larger than the five most recent events that caught your attention. If you stop after the first association you find, anything can seem plausible.

          Have you tried to avoid jumping to conclusions? I hear there’s some good articles on this.

        • hyperboloid says:

          Since you have a trollish history of posting things that hint at hard right views, and then never fallowing up with any detailed argument, I’m not sure if there is any point in engaging with you.

          But here goes.

          I think you’re talking about “Pizzagate”, a conspiracy theory that claims that a secret network of satanic pedophiles tied to the highest levels of the Democratic party is operating out of a Chevy chase Pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong (the restaurant’s barcade style gimmick is that it features a number of Ping Pong tables).

          As far as I can tell this sub McMartin preschool nonsense has less then no basis in fact. Apparently it all started when the inhabitants of alt right web forums got a hold of the wikilleaks Clinton emails and discovered that John Podesta spends an inordinate amount of time discussing food.

          The flowing ‘suspicious” emails are indicative:

          From: Susan Sandler
          To: John Podesta
          The realtor found a handkerchief (I think it has a map that seems pizza-related. Is it yorus? They can send it if you want. I know you’re busy, so feel free not to respond if it’s not yours or you don’t want it.

          From: John Podesta
          To: Susan Sandler
          It’s mine, but not worth worrying about.

          Apparently Podesta visited a property with progressive activist Susan Sandler and a real estate agent. They may or may not have had lunch there, that lunch may or may not have included pizza, and Podesta left a handkerchief that was some kind of branded merch with a map printed on it, possibly a map to the location of a Pizzeria.

          From: Jim Steyer
          To: John Podesta and Mary Podesta

          Hey John,

          We know you’re a true master of cuisine and we have appreciated that for years …

          But walnut sauce for the pasta? Mary, plz tell us the straight story, was the sauce actually very tasty?
          Source: Wikileaks
          From: John Podesta
          To: Jim Steyer and Mary Podesta

          It’s an amazing Ligurian dish made with crushed walnuts made into a paste. So stop being so California.

          There are more of these, but I’m not going to torture SSC readers any longer then absolutely necessary with anecdotes from John Podesta’s duller then dirt personal life. I’ll just say that I for one think we may have less to fear from the alt right then some suspect if the best thing the vanguard of the herronvolk can find to do with their time is bust up the great walnut sauce conspiracy of 2016.

          Podesta goes on in other emails to discuss various mundane details of the Clinton campaign including scheduling a fund raiser at Comet Ping Pong. Because the restaurant’s owner, James Alefantis, is gay, and a Clinton supporter, the tinfoil hat crowd has decided that he is the center of a pedophile ring, and that any reference to food in any leaked email is an elaborate code for sex with children.

          In the minds of the paranoid this supposed sex ring has grown to gargantuan proportions, involving, Clinton herself, Obama, George Sorros, the Illuminati, and god knows who else. The fact that there is not one shred of actual evidence to support any of this is not important, since the accused are Liberals, and therefore by definition moral degenerates, they are guilty until proven innocent.

          The more you look into this bullshit the more you find a spiraling vortex of anti information, the kind of stuff that makes stupider just reading it. It is the very definition of fake news.

          • Deiseach says:

            The fact that there is not one shred of actual evidence to support any of this is not important, since the accused are Liberals, and therefore by definition moral degenerates, they are guilty until proven innocent.

            My understanding is that the ‘story’ was invented as a blatantly ridiculous conspiracy theory mocking the amount of time Podesta & Co. were talking about food, about pizza, about this place, about their in-jokes about pizza, etc. Then it leaked out into the mainstream and went wild, but I think most people never believed for an instant that it had a shred of credibility, not even those of us who are not particularly fans of the liberals/Democrats/Clinton campaign.

            Some people may indeed believe “liberal = moral degenerate” but the tinfoil-hat wearers on every side are not, as a rule, held to be the most representative voice on anything.

          • Chalid says:

            @Deiseach It did not “leak out” into the mainstream. It went mainstream after a guy actually went to one of the pizza places and fired a gun inside while “investigating.”

          • rlms says:

            Indeed, conspiracists are not a significant proportion of the people who dislike Clinton. But they are 100% of commenter ‘a non mouse’, who just brought up the subject.

          • a non mouse says:

            Disclaimer – I don’t have a huge amount of time for this comment section so getting into all the particulars when they’re all available in a few places (the voat sub is a good place to start) that have collated the known information. That being said, here are a few things.

            First off, context is important and the priors as to how likely it is that there could exist pedophile rings has to be established. From what I’m reading, most commenters are starting with a frame of “this is extraordinarily unlikely and basically never happens”. This is a reasonable place to start for a normal person who thinks of this type of activity as unthinkable but, in fact, this type of thing does happen. One recent example is this :

            Deputy Police Chief Gunnar Floystad says that in Norway’s largest abuse case to date they have arrested 20 men so far, with three convictions, in western Norway. The 31 other suspects are from other regions in Norway.

            Floystad told reporters Sunday that many of the suspects are highly educated, and include lawyers and politicians.

            This article itself then became a sort of symbolic representation of the whole item – the article was AP sourced so the NY Times and Washington Post deleted it under the normal procedure where they’ll run certain AP articles for a time-limited period. Internet sleuths discovered the deletion and some of them speculated that the deletion was more sinister. Now everyone argues about the deletion of the article rather than the other point which is a bit more salient – pedo rings are real and can involve high ranking people.

            Because the restaurant’s owner, James Alefantis, is gay, and a Clinton supporter, the tinfoil hat crowd has decided that he is the center of a pedophile ring, and that any reference to food in any leaked email is an elaborate code for sex with children.

            No – because he had (since made private) an instagram that had pictures on it that included –

            A girl with her hands masking taped to a table
            A picture of a baby with money in his or her mouth with a comment from him that the baby is overpriced
            Another picture of a baby or small child where he comments that the girl looks like a “hotard” (urbandictionary – “The state of being both a ho and a retard.”)
            A picture of him holding a baby with the comment “#chickenlover”. (slang in the gay community for someone who likes sex with underaged boys)
            His profile pic is a photograph of the head of a statue of Antinous from a museum in Madrid. Antinous was Emperor Hadrian’s boy lover

            and he’s not just a Hillary “supporter” – he’s the boyfriend or ex-boyfriend of David Brock who is now the head of CTR (correct the record) – Hillary’s operation to go into comment sections and question negative coverage of her (cite – ). He’s also listed on the website for the White House as having visited 5 times including 2 meetings with the president (you can search that yourself, it takes about 10 seconds to find the data on the actual White House webpage).

            Broader picture – rationally speaking this type of conspiracy makes sense. Shared blackmail and hazing is amazingly effective at creating group cohesion.

          • Enkidum says:

            My “investigation” into pizzagate has consisted of exactly as long as it took me to read your comments. I don’t know what to tell you, other than that if the best evidence you’ve got for a pedophilia ring is the instagram account you’ve described, you have a really, really bad threshold for what constitutes “evidence”.

          • hyperboloid says:

            @A non mouse
            For the purposes of argument I’m going to operate as if you believe what your saying, but to be clear I don’t think for a minute that this actually true.

            I suspect that for your purposes the absurdity of these claims is a feature and not a bug. You are a neroreactionary, or an alt-righter, or a white nationalist (or whatever ridiculous euphemism for fascist you prefer); as such you believe that you have won our most recent election, that Donald Trump is your man, and that the state is now at the command of a member of your goose stepping subspecies of humanity.

            I very much doubt this view of things not only because l’éminence Orange is more conman then tyrant, but because even if he did aspire to make himself fuhrer he would fail miserably in the task. In the first half of the last century your bloodstained tribe was led by men of iron; child murdering fucks though they were, Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler were men of some remarkable personal qualities. Donald Trump on the other hand is a pampered rich boy who splits his time between molesting unwilling women and stamping his name on gold plated shit that he hawks like a carnival barker before a baying cacophony of imbeciles.

            Your slander against Mr Alefantis, and Democratic party is almost certainly meant to intimidate rather then defame. By showing that even the most groundless of accusation can destroy lives you aim to frighten your enemies into compliance.

            From what I’m reading, most commenters are starting with a frame of “this is extraordinarily unlikely and basically never happens”. This is a reasonable place to start for a normal person who thinks of this type of activity as unthinkable but, in fact, this type of thing does happen.

            Nobody doubts that some organized groups of pedophiles exist; of course child pornography must be produced by someone. What is strange, unless you start form the assumption that Liberals are by definition sexual deviants, is that such group would exist on such a scale within a major political party. It would be kind of an odd coincidence that every major Democrat in Washington was either a pedophile or the sort of person who found pedophilia unobjectionable. It is also extremely odd that this massive conspiracy of boy fucking could continue without a single victim, or victims family, coming forward, or a single shred of physical evidence being produced.

            The only “evidence” you have provided is the, now private, “jimmycomet” instagram account. Since the account is no longer open to the public I had to look for archived versions photos on other(mostly Pizzagate related) sites. You specifically mentioned:

            1) A photo of a grinning little girl with her hands stuck to a table with masking tape.

            Alefantis claims that the girl in question is his goddaughter and is playing with another child who is out of frame. Not only do I see no reason to doubt this explanation , I cant even understand what sinister implication your drawing from the picture. Do you mean to suggest that the evil pedophiles have restrained this girl for some nefarious purpose using masking tape (a product that I doubt is very effective at restraining anybody) and then posted it to a publicly accessible instagram account?

            2)Another picture of a man you claim to be Alefantis, but looks nothing like him( for the record this is James Alefantis ), holding a little girl who appears to be eating something orange. The image is tagged with the phrase #chickenlovers .

            You claim that chicken lover is gay slang for a man prefers underage boys. The phrase you’re thinking of is chicken hawk, you may be confusing it with the “chicken lover” episode of Southpark, that was about a man who had an unnatural attraction to chickens.

            I’m guising the young lady in question is eating a chicken tinder, and “loves chicken” in the sense any child might.

            3) A picture of a baby with a pile of money and comment about said baby being “to expensive”.

            You are confusing two different pictures . The first is a picture of a very creepy doll for sale at, and I’m not making this up, Linda Tripp’s Christmas shop. The other is a very cute picture of baby holding several stacks of Euros; again I am at a loss as to what could possibly be wrong with this.

            4)A close up of child’s face that has been tagged with the inexplicable phrase #hotard. Pizzagaters claim that this is a portmanteau of “ho” and “retard”, sighting that most reliable of sources, the urban dictionary.

            I honestly have no idea what #hotard means, but a Google search revels that Hotard is a rare surname somewhat common in Louisiana. It could be somebodies name, it could be an in joke of some sort, perhaps a nonsense word the child in the picture said at some point. I just don’t know, but I can’t see how it’s evidence of pedophilia.

            literally every other piece of evidence for Pizzagate is taking ordinary conversations and assuming that they contain hidden codes referring to sex with children. Of course if you change the meaning of words enough you can make anything mean anything else, cheese pizza can mean child porn, sauce can mean sodomy, and “a non mouse” can mean kid fucker.

            Accordingly I now propose that /r/The_Donald, 4chan, the voat pizzagate sub, and Micheal Flyn’s twitter account are all part of an elaborate secret pedophile communications network!

            Think about it, why do they want to build the wall?

            So they can keep the kids they are fucking from escaping to Mexico!

            The alt-right loves Putin. You know else loves Putin? The Greeks; and we all know what they used to get up to.

            Oh, you want suspicious pictures, I got suspicions pictures.

            #Pizziagategate, spread the word!

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:


            two minor objections:

            You are a neroreactionary, or an alt-righter, or a white nationalist (or whatever ridiculous euphemism for fascist you prefer)

            Alt-righers are most certainly, and self-admittedly, fascists, as are most white-nationalists. But I don’t think it’s a proper description of novoretractionaries.

            It would be kind of an odd coincidence that every major Democrat in Washington was either a pedophile or the sort of person who found pedophilia unobjectionable.

            This is a bit silly, they don’t need to be pedophiles or pedophile neutral, they just need to consider that the ammount of kiddy-diddling going on is less bad than the consequences of it going public (Best case scenario: Lose some big name party names. Worst case scenario: No democrats elected for anything ever again).

          • Jaskologist says:

            It would be kind of an odd coincidence that every major Democrat in Washington was either a pedophile or the sort of person who found pedophilia unobjectionable.

            Putting aside pizzagate (for which I have seen no real evidence), have we yet encountered a large organization that won’t cover up wide-spread molestation? The following organizations have all covered it up:

            Penn State
            The Catholic Church
            Basically every local and non-local government in the UK
            The BBC

            I’m not aware of any on the other side of the ledger, but I’m hoping that’s just selection bias.

          • rlms says:

            Citation on 3?

          • hyperboloid says:

            @Whatever Happened To Anonymous

            The distinction between the Penn state, Catholic church, or BBC, pedophilia scandals, and something like Pizzagate, or satanic ritual abuse, is an order of magnitude difference in severity and scale. The real world cases of large organizations covering up sexual abuse are conspiracies of silence, in which people in leadership positions systematically refused to deal with a problem they would rather didn’t exist.

            This happened for a number of reasons. diffusion of responsibility was a huge factor. As was the belief that the accused were morally superior and therefore incapable of the alleged crimes; priests are assumed to be moral exemplars, Jimmy Savile and Jerry Sandusky were known for there charity work, ext.

            It’s not that the Vatican was procuring boys for perverse sexual rituals, it’s that they refused to face up to the reality of the problem and insisted on believing that it could be handled internally by sending offenders for counseling rather then turning them over to the civil authorities and facing a trial that might damage the reputation of the Church.

            The Pizzagaters aren’t claiming that the Democratic party leadership hushed up abuse for fear of a scandal, they’re claiming that they were involved in a massive conspiracy to traffic children to abusers, and then murder the witnesses. It’s sort of like the difference between the US army’s behavior after My Lai, and the what the SS did in Auschwitz.

            I’m not saying it’s impossible, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and I have yet to see any evidence at all.

        • Murphy says:

          there’s a reason that seeing links between everything is linked to mental health problems and people with some conditions can end up with their walls covered in newspaper clippings.

          You give the impression that you think scott is somehow part of a conspiracy. You think the liberal conspiracy gave him a call and said “hey, scott, could you do a story on how people should dismiss stories from people”?

          Looking for “pedophile” symbols or terms is little different to bible-code. if you look hard enough at anything you’ll find things that kind of match.

          like this:

          Make a list of every term that could be associated with pedophila, ped, cp etc and every symbol that can be associated with them, from sexually aggressive teddy bears to the Cornetto logo

          If you’ve done it right you’ll end up with a fairly long list.

          Now turn off all the filters and match everything you can to everything in a book or on a street. Every heart symbol you match to a pedo logo, every cartoon bear you highlight, every cheese pizza you pick out the acronym.

          Every time you find one of these “hits” you throw a piece of paper in your bucket.

          it doesn’t take much work to fill a bucket. Then you link every item together and declare that they all support each other.

          Suddenly you’ve got a case for why Moby Dick is full of secret dog whistles for pedophiles and people planning to assassinate countries leaders.

          Finding a million “links” between anything and anything is easy given enough material. The hard part is separating out the links which are actually real.

      • hlynkacg says:

        @ Montfort

        a non mouse is a troll who’s whole shtick is making unsubstantiated (usually kulturkampf related) claims and then bailing.

        The question answers itself.

    • FeepingCreature says:

      Evidence cannot clarify between two theories equally suited to produce it.

    • Reasoner says:

      It’s a pizza place. It’s not surprising if some of the emails related to this place refer to pizza.

    • S_J says:

      Are you talking about Jeffery Epstein, rumored to run a “Lolita express” ?

      Or is this about some pizza place?

      • qwints says:

        The conpiracy theories around Epstein always seemed much more plausible to me- the flight logs and conviction alone are enough for some suspicion. That’s what confused me about the whole pizzagate thing – it looks nothing like the real abuse stories or sex scandals that have been uncovered. It reminds of the brilliant Brass Eye episode on Paedogedden.

    • Tyrant Overlord Killidia says:

      The Democrats.

      They do not forgive. They do not forget. They have over 9,000 penises and they’re all raping children.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Banned for derailing and bringing up culture war topics out of context

  14. tcheasdfjkl says:

    I think the reason I find it hard to believe people are just lying in this kind of context is that I don’t intuitively empathize with this behavior. I’m not obsessively honest or anything, but it just… doesn’t occur to me to lie unless it’s a relatively ethical lie that would make my life much easier?

    If I force myself to think about it, I can force myself to empathize and even be a bit tempted to lie on the Internet as well – after all, I am highly motivated by online validation and admiration when I can get it, so I can see how if I imagine being able to get those things more easily by just optimizing directly for those things without being constrained by truth,* I can be tempted to do that. But I don’t want to make myself empathize too much here – intuitive moral defenses are incredibly useful – so I will probably continue to have trouble expecting to find lies everywhere.

    *now that I think of it, this is somewhat similar to the fact that when I was participating in Ozy’s SJ/anti-SJ Intellectual Turing Test, it was in some ways easier to write my fake response than my real one because the fake one was less constrained by truth.

    • Unirt says:

      I do empathize with those story-tellers: as a young kid I liked to tell my friends spooky ghost stories that I’d heared from my grandma. I loved the attention I got and the others’ fear reactions were so satisfying. At one point a classmate told me, “wow, you tell these stories so well, as if you really believed them”. I was taken by surprise, for I had thought that I actually did believe them, though, upon reflection, I could see that I really did not. I had just falsely convinced myself that I did. I never told the stupid stories again.

      Yet I know several people who have retained this behaviour into adulthood and still tell tales about witches or telepathic conversations with animals absolutely sincerely; I know those people well and am fairly sure they aren’t conciously lying; they’ve successfully convinced themselves. In some not-very-rational communities it helps them win attention and popularity.

      • Matt M says:

        I think this is pretty close to my opinion of what’s going on with stories like this. It’s not “trolling” in the sense that they are not consciously intending to upset, offend, or even lie to anyone.

        I think it’s a general mix of the “compulsive liar” trait discussed above and people who have a legitimate, entirely heartfelt belief that past lives (or some similarly unbelievable general concept) are completely and obviously true. If you think that something is definitely true and that telling people a certain story is necessary to get them to believe the truth, then are you really “lying”? (yes, technically you are, but I don’t think the people who do this think they really are)

      • LCL says:

        I have a very specific memory of realizing, in sixth grade, that I ought to make up stories using “it would be cool if …” instead of “one time I …”, because I still got to tell the cool story and the audience wouldn’t get distracted trying to decide if they believed it or not. Which would imply that until then I had been habitually lying. I can easily imagine some people simply never having that realization.

  15. nelshoy says:

    I agree with the person who said trolling probably isn’t the best description.

    Reddit has the additional complication of Imaginary Internet External Validation points, and I think karma’s importance for a subset of the reddit user base goes a long way in explaining this behavior.

    • astaereth says:

      Yeah, Reddit is distinct from some other areas of the internet in that it directly incentivizes creating popular content–a system that is as vulnerable as any other popularity contest to people cynically telling others what they want to hear.

  16. Douglas Knight says:

    You start by talking about liars and you end by talking about sloppiness. Maybe it isn’t important to distinguish them, but since you do distinguish them in the two parts of the essay, you should consider the possibility that you got them wrong — that the Reddit commenters are sloppy or the scientists are liars.

    But maybe the distinction doesn’t matter. What matters is that if you filter hard, you have to correct for truth.

  17. neverargreat says:

    These stories don’t strike me as trolling either. I’ve been told several stories of this kind firsthand from people I know to be honest and at least as reasonable as most other people. I think it’s a mistake to immediately assume people telling incredible tales are simply lying – far more probable to me that they had a remarkable experience.

    I think that these types of stories can have an element of truth to them, and it speaks to an area of human experience that has been overlooked by science. The metric for acceptable scientific evidence is that it is measurable, repeatable, and predictive; by this definition accounts of reincarnation can’t count as evidence. For one most accounts are too vague or muddled to be accurately recorded or verified, and it’s not like we can just ask people on their deathbed if they would consider reincarnating into a newborn in Missouri. I mean, we could, but it’s not exactly scientific. Anecdotal evidence is no evidence at all.

    My definition of science is the ability to categorize trends and behaviors. This is fairly straightforward in physics and chemistry, but it becomes much more difficult in biology. When you get to human behaviors, you have the notoriously troubling areas of sociology and psychology, where it’s very difficult to separate the data from the noise. Human behavior is unpredictable, human experiences are subjective. There can be large differences between the minds of two humans, but there is very little difference between the minds of, say, two sea sponges. The sponges agree, so their behaviors are much simpler to categorize. But just because the mind of a sea sponge is simple to quantify does not mean that it is more ‘real’ than the mind of a human, it’s just more predictable.

    At the level of physics and chemistry, everything is pretty much in agreement as to the physical laws. If the hallmark of having a mind is the ability to act unpredictably, then it’s hard to imagine that molecules and crystals and old radiators have minds at all. They all act very admirably in terms of conforming to accepted behaviors. Humans don’t do so well at conforming, since we have big minds that think strange thoughts. I say that this is a good thing, since we think at all, opposed to most of the rest of the universe. Science is good at quantifying the universe, but it can’t quantify the mind (no, I’m not advocating any kind of dualism).

    This is why I think that these people are not lying, just that science is uniquely unfit to assess the veracity of these experiences.

  18. suntzuanime says:

    I think you’re missing an important aspect of the story. People don’t post these fake stories for the lulz because they’re annoying trolls, they post them for the karma, those precious upvotes. You get more lies when lies are incentivized. This is also what’s happening in the scientific literature, and it’s what happens in job interviews and dating, when everyone’s a fun-loving self-starter who loves long walks on the beach and passionate leadership.

    • Civilis says:

      This provides an answer to why I didn’t necessarily disbelieve the stories in the original post, namely, that I couldn’t see any great reason for telling the stories other than that they were perceived to be true by the teller (they didn’t necessarily happen as written, but the author believes they did). Normally, I try to analyze behavior I don’t understand by ask ‘what’s the motivation?’, and in this case, it wasn’t coming up with any answers.

      A troll, to use the traditional internet definition (traditional internet? really?), would be posting something to be deliberately disruptive or provocative. The stories don’t seem to accomplish that.

      It could be argued that the writer could be lying for attention or affirmation or sympathy, but if so, I wouldn’t expect the stories to be so subtle. The problem is with this collection of stories, the least subtle story that is still believable is going to get the attention and affirmation, so I would expect someone that is lying for attention to push the envelope to the point of revealing tells to the most skeptical.

      I’ve always defaulted to ‘assume things are a string of coincidences that have been misinterpreted or misremembered’ to explain unusual events.

    • Cheese says:

      “I think you’re missing an important aspect of the story. People don’t post these fake stories for the lulz because they’re annoying trolls, they post them for the karma, those precious upvotes. You get more lies when lies are incentivized.”

      I think this is still a similar scenario with respect Scott’s system though.

      Instead of being about liars, it just becomes about ‘people who care about functionally useless Reddit points’. If you don’t really get why people would just lie straight up for no reason, it’s still a bit of a difficulty (at least for me) to truly understand why someone would care about reddit karma to the extent where that kind of effort is put in.

      It’s a bit different in that an upvote provides a kind of reward. Is the receipt of that enough incentive? I don’t know. In actual face to face interaction people might tell lies like this to ingratiate themselves with others or as a social signalling mechanism. So maybe i’m viewing it incorrectly in separating reddit interactions from real life social interactions. Basically what Civilis says above as well.

      • Nyx says:

        It’s not about the points; it’s about what the points represent, in this case, being a Cool Guy who people like.

        I don’t think people are necessarily trying to Win Reddit and have the most points. I go on Reddit a lot and I basically never make original posts and don’t really care about comment karma. But at the margin, karma does influence people’s decisions; all other things being equal, you’d rather have the big Cool Guy numbers. There is something a little bit awesome about seeing a +50 or a +100 that indicates that hey, 50 or 100 people liked your post enough to press a button, and a little bit lame about -10 or -20 that makes you think that maybe you’re not such a Cool Guy as you think you are. It exerts a small, gradual and consistent influence on people’s actions, which adds up to a big influence.

  19. Tyrant Overlord Killidia says:

    It’s not even lying.

    I stumble onto something like this YouTube channel repeatedly (not only on YouTube) and… and… it just makes you realize how easy it is for people to go off on these flights of fancy based on the flimsiest evidence.

    People aren’t lying. They just need, need a good story.

    • LCL says:

      Came here to post the same thing. Our conception of lying is people having a good grasp of the truth but consciously putting out untruth. That’s comparatively rare, not required to explain the examples given in Scott’s post, and thus probably not the explanation for them.

      Much more common is people not firmly grasping and, especially, not particularly caring about the empirical truth. They believe what they’re saying in some unconsidered way, or it’s emotionally true, or its empirical truth is of vanishingly small relevance compared to its narrative power.

      • sovietKaleEatYou says:

        If I could upvote this I would. I think that to some people the imperative to say the truth is either difficult (they don’t have a natural mental distinction between truth and falsehood, like colorblind people), or it’s an inconvenient and not particularly necessary chore (like “I know it *would* be nicer if I made my bed, but I really don’t feel like it”)

  20. orin says:

    I don’t think that there is anything wrong with your logic that some of these posts are trolls. However, Scott, I’m worried that you are living in a bubble if you haven’t known great many a person who are stupid or credulous enough to make the kinds of cognitive errors that lead them to genuinely believe that stories like this faithfully describe the facts of their own experience. Even putting aside basic incompetence and faulty memory and confirmation/hindsight bias, a significant fraction of the human population *wants* to believe in things like this, and are little different from children who convince themselves of any number of untrue things they *want* to be true.

  21. AnonEEmous says:

    i’m truthful, and i believe people

    i’m also open to any type of belief

    that’s the answer you should be looking for mister Scott Alexandro

    edit: oh yeah, what about people who reshape their own memories via wishing to believe and revisiting of memories and a need for a narrative and all that junk? you can convince yourself of stuff if you do that – memory is malleable to my eternal regret

  22. I have the same “gut feelings” about these things that you do, and I think they are explained by several factors:

    1) Understanding someone requires giving them a certain amount of credence. So for example if someone takes the attitude from the beginning, “what’s false about what this person is saying?” they have a hard time even understanding it. On the other hand, if they take the attitude, “what is right or could be right about it?” then they tend to understand better. So right off the bat it’s unnatural to assume that someone is just lying.

    2) Doxastic voluntarism is true. If we think they are lying, that is because we are choosing to do so. And if we think they aren’t, that is because we are choosing not to think so. Now since we are talking about a voluntary act, there are all sorts of things that matter to us besides whether our belief is true. And in this case, if we are choosing to believe that someone is lying, it strikes us as unjust, since if the person happened to be telling the truth, we would be accusing them of being a liar for no reason except that they had the misfortune to have something unlikely happen to them.

    3) Although the argument that most stories like that are lies is a pretty good one, “every single story like that ever told is a lie” seems pretty dogmatic, and that’s because it is. I have heard things like these from pretty honest and reasonable people, and I had at least one such thing happen to me personally.

    4) Believing the person is lying is very similar to a conspiracy theory. That might strike you at first as totally wrong, since if the person is telling the truth, doesn’t that mean that something pretty conspiracy-like is true? But the alternatives that hit your system-1 here are “the person told story X because something pretty much like X happened to them” and “the person told story X in order to delude us all, hiding the real truth,” and it is clear that the second has much more of the conspiracy theory about it.

    All things considered, I would say that as a consequence our natural priors are miscalibrated about these things, and most cases will in fact be lies or terrible exaggerations. But I wouldn’t assert as a fact that all of them are, either (especially because, as I mentioned, I have personal knowledge that they are not). Chesterton somewhere says something like, “the believer can either accept a miracle or reject it, as the evidence leads him, but the unbeliever has to dogmatically reject every single one.” But what he didn’t get is that it is entirely possible not to be dogmatic at all: not to believe dogmatically in religious claims, nor to believe dogmatically in materialism.

  23. Peter Gerdes says:

    I think it’s important here to distinguish intentional liars and unintentional ones.

    The intentional lying explanation seems so weird here because it seems to match incentives so poorly. If your motivated by a desire to fuck with people surely posting a hooky not very believable story about the universe helping has a very poor return on investment. Moreover, it’s just hard to come up with a psychological model on which someone would do that.

    On the other hand I have absolutely no trouble believing these posters did the exact same thing we all do when telling a story: leave out the parts that seem to confuse the issue. They’ve convinced themselves that it was the universe helping them so leaving out incidental details reducing the degree of coincidence isn’t lying…it’s better conveying the key point.

    • Enkidum says:

      Agreed that unintentional lying is easy to fall into and we all do it. But consider all those facebook posts about how FB has decided to give 5¢ for each “like” on this picture of a cancer-ridden child to their medical fund, or the numerous equivalents we’ve all seen. Every single one of those had to start as a deliberate lie. So there is clearly a quite strong movement of outright intentional liars out there.

  24. Steve Sailer says:

    A friend of mine tells an anecdote about how a minor earthquake knocked one book off his shelf and it fell open to a certain page and when he picked it up and read what was on the page he was inspired to change his career, and then several other improbable things happened that, when you put them together are too implausible to have been by chance, and now he’s a successful author.

    Of course, since his career change inspired by the earthquake, he’s become a best-selling storyteller, so his anecdote might have gotten better in the retelling, but he’s quite sincere about it all.

  25. Steve Sailer says:

    You can listen to a tape recording of Sabrina Rubin Erdely of Rolling Stone talking to Jackie Coakley, the UVA student who made up a story about Haven Monahan organizing a fraternity initiation ritual gang rape of her on broken glass.

    Hundreds of thousands of people read Erdely’s absurd article and only a tiny fraction went on the Internet to express any skepticism.

    I played a modest role in bringing Rolling Stone to justice, but even I hesitated to say that the story was a complete hoax:

    Which it was.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Rolling Stone magazine thought they could win Nicole Eramo’s libel suit over all the lies about her in the magazine because they got her declared a semi-public figure, which requires defamatory publishing lies that with either knowledge they were lies or with reckless disregard for the proof. But Jann Wenner gave a deposition saying he was de-retracting much of the article. The jury stuck Rolling Stone with a $3 million decision.

      I think that’s reasonable. From listening to the tape, it appears Erdely believed everything she egged Jackie Coakley into concocting, but you’d have to have a reckless disregard for the truth to believe such absurd claims. On the other hand, considering what a large number of prominent journalists, such as Jeffrey Goldberg the new editor of The Atlantic, went on Twitter to congratulate Erdely on her magnificent article, you’d have to wonder just how widespread is a “reckless disregard for the truth.”

      • Deiseach says:

        The trouble with that story is that Erdely had a frame story she was looking for evidence to support (that is, that institutions – including universities – don’t do enough to help rape victims, are more interested in ass-covering, sweep everything under the carpet, and will try to get victims to shut up and go away). She contacted various universities and victim support groups, one volunteer at the UVA group mentioned “My friend says this happened to her” and away they went.

        Erdely didn’t want to question Jackie’s story (a) because of the dictum that you unconditionally believe anyone claiming to have been sexually assaulted (b) it was exactly the big, splashy story she wanted to write up – she rejected other, less lurid but more solid and proven reports.

        And the same with Rolling Stone and the editors there – they had commissioned this article, Erdely told them she had a juicy, attention-grabbing story, they all had too much invested in it to go “Hang on, isn’t this too much of a good thing?”

        The thing that stood out to me – the one part of the account that should have had Erdely going “Hold on, wait a minute!” – was the claim that she had been knocked into a glass table that broke under her, and then she was gang-raped on top of this for two hours or so. Also her mother – she allegedly did nothing about her daughter’s assault or at least nothing we heard of in the story. Let her continue to attend this university? Had the allegedly blood-stained dress at home yet never went to the police? Nothing of that struck the reporter as fishy? Jackie kept claiming all the evidence was back home with her mother, yet we never hear of the mother getting on to the university or the cops there?

        Something really might have happened to Jackie, but we’ll never know now, because a vulnerable young woman found all the attention and support she got as an assault victim so appealing, she kept changing the details to make them even more terrible so as to elicit more sympathy and attention, and then got herself into a tangle with the reporter who wasn’t going to drop the story just because Jackie changed her mind.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Here are excerpts from a taped conversation between reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and UVA rape activist Jackie Coakley.

      See if you can tell that Jackie just made up her story out of whole cloth, borrowing parts of it from a Law & Order SVU episode.

      • erenold says:

        Listening to your recordings gave me at least one very strong response, and that is:

        Holy shit – Jackie Coakley is literally the female persona on the Chainsmokers’ track Selfie (“So, like, what do you think?… but first, let me take a selfie.”)

        A somewhat less strong response is that I cautiously believe I would have been able to tell, at the very least, that this was not someone who had suffered any recent trauma, or if she had, that she clearly had not let it affect her in any significant way.

    • stillnotking says:

      What really killed Rolling Stone was republishing the story after they knew it was false. They put a disclaimer on it, but that obviously wasn’t enough for the jury. Hard not to see that as malice, or at least reckless indifference.

    • qwints says:

      I think the reason people generally accepted it is the same reason it was able to be proven false – it had multiple verifiable elements: the injuries from the glass table and the friends told right after the incident come immediately to mind.

      I also thought that most of the story was made up prior to Erderly contacting the school.

    • The Nybbler says:

      There were two details that led me from skepticism to out-and-out disbelief there. One was that “crashing through a low glass table”. This is a movie staple that’s MUCH worse in real life when you’re dealing with ordinary plate glass rather than sugar glass or its modern equivalents. The second, partially related, was her two friends not wanting to take her to the hospital despite being obviously bloody and injured. Even if you accept that the frat was all about rape, it’s not credible to think her friends were as well, to the point of ignoring serious injury. (seems to me that’s a horror trope too, though I can’t find it on allthetropes)

      • Deiseach says:

        The glass table bit was where the reporter should have gone “Okay, show me your back” (or else called bullshit). That kind of injury is not going to be fixed up with a quick shower.

        The friends discouraging her from going to hospital is plausible if there is no torn, blood-stained dress, simply a young woman who is crying but otherwise looks (on the surface) uninjured, and there’s a strong “was it date rape or was it that she went further than she wanted but it’s a murky area” dispute about “well, it’s her word against his what happened, he’s popular, they’re a popular frat, we don’t want to get tagged as getting them in trouble if we go to the cops and nothing happened”.

        She’s standing there streaming blood with her back cut open and they persuade her to simply go back to her room? That’s not plausible, even if they don’t want to get a reputation as party-poopers, it would still be impossible to ignore. More likely would be “oh crap, we don’t want to make rape accusations, look just tell the hospital you were drinking at a frat party and you fell over a glass table, okay?” One of these things can be true, not both.

    • tscharf says:

      UVA is Virginia’s best public school and it’s hard to get in for most people. Here we are expected to believe that 7 people who had good enough credentials to get into this school all chose to jeopardize their entire careers and risk long jail terms for some gang rape during a party. It’s not impossible to believe one drunk person could do this, but 7 is going to take some compelling evidence to support. My binary truth law said this was now 2^7 = 128 times harder to believe.

      This struck me exactly as the Duke Lacrosse case. A rush to judgment on a hard to believe story that social taboos prevent people from openly questioning. An open letter from Duke professors was the height of this disgrace.

      It’s the social taboo part that give these stories legs. The Rolling Stone was very sloppy and got what they deserved here. If I was on the jury I would have been enraged that nobody was fired. My guess is the Rolling Stone fired nobody because they feared this would be an effective admission of guilt.

      • Matt M says:

        I think Rolling Stone’s audience is sufficiently left-wing that they also have to be very careful to maintain their PC-credentials. Losing their SJW credibility would probably hurt them more, financially, than losing this lawsuit would, especially in the long term.

      • Deiseach says:

        Here we are expected to believe that 7 people who had good enough credentials to get into this school all chose to jeopardize their entire careers and risk long jail terms for some gang rape during a party.

        That was Erdely’s thesis for the story as she proposed it, though; rape culture is prevalent in large institutions, there’s the understanding that college is about drinking, partying, sex and having a good time as much as an education, university administrations are not doing enough to tackle it, they prefer to sweep any accusations under the carpet because they don’t want the school to get a bad reputation, so victims lack support and are left isolated and alone while the culture remains the same around issues of alcohol, consent, and sexual assault.

        She had already done such stories on the military and the Catholic Church*, which Rolling Stone had published and which had been well received, and this was all of a piece with the themes she was exploring. Rolling Stone were eager to go ahead with another one of her exposés, she had the frame story in mind when she went in, and Jackie’s story was exactly the high-profile (even lurid) account she wanted (she rejected other suggested victims’ stories as not the thing).

        *When I read that she had been the writer about “Billy Doe”, my heart sank; that was a very complicated mess of a story about alleged abuse. It came in the wake of the infamous sex scandals in the Church and again, it’s hard to know what is true and what is false. “Billy” was definitely a troubled individual, he was a heroin addict at the time he made his accusations, and by now it’s hard to know if something really happened or if he invented every single thing – again, like Jackie Coakley, he told different and increasingly lurid stories to different people.

        There’s a series on the entire sorry story here. The worst part is that the diocese did have a shocking history of covering up abuse, so when it came to this story, the DA and the prosecution and the politics involved were all on the side of making a big, historic prosecution that would make the names of those involved. Concerns about plausibility went out the window when the chance to show they were playing hardball was presented.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        By the way, the Duke U. undergrad newspaper columnist who stood up to the faculty and called BS on the Duke Lacrosse Hoax, is now the head of policy in the upcoming Presidential administration.

        That’s not a coincidence.

    • S_J says:

      I remember when the Rolling Stone article, and the questions around, first hit the column of Megan McArdle.

      I wish I could claim to have seen through it from the beginning. But I can’t.

      I can say that I started running the sequence of events through the same mental filter I used when reading detective novels. I quickly hit questions like How easy is it to verify the social calendar of that fraternity? If Erdely didn’t check that calendar, how strong is her reporting?

      My experience at University (in the days when people needed a dot-EDU address to get a FaceBook account) was that most Student Organization events left a trail. The Student Affairs office should know about the event. If it was a season for a large number of similar Fraternity events, the Frat in question would likely have a calendar posted that most students could see. Fraternity events also generate a social-media trail. People would have photos and reminiscences on FaceBook. Scheduling details would be discussed in many places (email, SMS, phone calls, digital calendars, etc.).

      It ought to have been a day’s work for Erdely to touch base with a handful of students, ask about Fraternities, and get some background on what Fraternity events had happened when during the week in question.

      Once it became clear that Erdely didn’t do that research, the cracks in her rendition of Jackie Coakley’s story became much harder to ignore.

  26. deciusbrutus says:

    I once heard a story about the universe being something that could be negotiated with in the manner of divination. So I tested it. I used standard Tarot cards to predict the winning lottery numbers for three weeks as well as the stock prices. And it was right. I made eleventy one trillion dollars gaming the stock market and lotteries, then…

    Back to reality: Some fraction of the liars say things that are poorly optimized for being believable and getting upvoted; those stories are disbelieved, downvoted, and never enter the discussion. It’s the one in fifty thousand people on the internet who are good effective pathological liars who post the stories that are more optimized for appealing to systems 1, getting upvoted, and then getting discussed on SSC.

  27. Callum G says:

    Maybe it’s the mind-projection fallacy? The anonymity allows us to think others are much more like ourselves than they really are. Doubting them feels like doubting ourselves. I don’t have these same sort of gut feelings about other anonymous parts of the internet. 4chan, subs that are of differing political views, everywhere that there’s a distinction that this isn’t ‘someone like me’ I’m a lot more skeptical of commenters. Does anyone else feel the same? It fits with the mind-projection hypothesis.

  28. Elizabeth says:

    You might like /r/thathappened.

  29. Logan says:

    I’ve made at least one highly-ranked reddit posts that was a lie. That makes it very easy for me to believe that everything I read on the internet is probably a lie, so I guess I recommend it? It also makes it really easy for me to disbelieve news stories, and give people accused of horrible crimes the benefit of the doubt (very useful!).

    You don’t need malicious intent to lie. The stories cited are, I assume, just significant embellishments of real stories. It’s not even fair to call them lies. Saying untrue things to entertain others is called story-telling. Doesn’t everyone reflexively change “true” stories to make them more interesting? And then once you tell the lie enough, it’s just brain chemistry that you couldn’t remember the original story, you’d remember the changed one. And if you do believe it, then there’s no harm in making up verifications like “my wife heard the same thing.”

  30. Rusty says:

    This reminds me very much of Hume’s argument against believing in miracles.

    I always enjoyed Boris Johnston regularly telling the newspapers that he’d been told that London now has more Michelin starred restaurants than Paris. ‘A story too good to check’ he’d add, suggesting he was fully aware it was not, strictly speaking, or in any sense, true.

  31. beoShaffer says:

    Luckily the younger generation is being properly educated about this.

  32. Two comments:

    1. To get published in academia, it helps to have something new. One reason an idea hasn’t been published before may be that the idea is wrong. So the publication process selects for wrong ideas, bogus experimental results, things that are new because the first ten people who tried them got negative results.

    2. Your emotional reaction parallels a somewhat different situation I have often observed. An acquaintance tells you how badly someone else treated him. Rationally, your response should be that the other person probably thinks he is in the right, you have only heard one side of the story, so you don’t know which side is right. But the natural response, the one the person expects, is sympathy and support. If you don’t give it you are heartless, blaming the victim.

    • wysinwygymmv says:

      Rationally, your response should be that the other person probably thinks he is in the right, you have only heard one side of the story, so you don’t know which side is right. But the natural response, the one the person expects, is sympathy and support. If you don’t give it you are heartless, blaming the victim.

      Except that it is completely possible to both be reasonably skeptical of your friend’s side of the story and sympathetic and supportive at the same time. You can’t accuse your friend of lying or misleading you while being sympathetic and supportive, but that’s different from being reasonably skeptical.

      • Autolykos says:

        Depends on how good your friend is at recognizing subtle clues of skepticism, e.g. you only commenting on how bad that must feel without ever acknowledging the truth of anything.
        (But that may happen less often to other people – I might be exceptionally suspect of being skeptical, or bad at hiding it).

  33. Jack V says:

    I agree with this. I have the same impulse, I’ve got used to looking for coincidences and confirmation biases, it’s hard to *also* look for emellishments and fabrications.

    But OTOH, “some point in the last six months, I described my grandmother’s house and didn’t realise my son was in the next room but could hear me, and then forgot about it because I had no reason to think it was important” seems like a very… normal coincidence. It doesn’t even seem to need any especial difficulty to believe. I’m not sure how much weight to put on “and he described every detail”, I think I’m still making the mistake you describe of being too trusting.

    But even though the author SAID they never told their son about the house, the cat, etc, I’m skeptical they’re so sure. Is this author someone who obsessively writes down every conversation they have just in case it’s important later? But they didn’t feel the need to say so? Seems unlikely. Do they have some other method for recalling every conversation for the last six months? Also unlikely. Or are they like everyone else and have really imperfect memories, but make the leap from “definitely can’t remember that” to “definitely didn’t happen” and blithely assures everyone of that? That seems quite likely…

    In a way it’s a similar phenomenon between “over-generous remembering” and “outright fabircating”. Even in myself, I can note an impulse to take interesting anecdotes I remember and get them polished and filed off — I’m like, “those details don’t matter”, except now, I’m obsessive about qualifying those things, to avoid drifting further from the truth. So “completely fabricated” is also quite plausible, and may exceed the other sources of plausible-dodgy stories. But maybe, “exaggerated the incident in my mind, not strictly deliberately” is also common, and it’s hard to divide between them.

    • stillnotking says:

      Exactly. I doubt many of these accounts are deliberate lies, but I’m sure all of them are embellished with the usual tricks played by memory. Otherwise, people’s psychic flashes would occasionally be caught on video or otherwise conclusively documented.

      Relevant XKCD as always.

    • fortaleza84 says:

      I agree. In my professional life I keep detailed records of conversations and events and now and then I find myself mis-remembering things. Usually my memory is hazy but once in a blue moon I have a pretty clear recollection of something that did not happen the way I recall it.

  34. Maznak says:

    Don’t abandon rationality for some vague feeling that something just feels unlikely. The broad audience for such stories is motivation enough to attract people who crave attention – you may call them trolls but they are probably something else. Maybe they would like the world to be that way, with more mystery and telekinesis and life after death etc – so maybe they wishfully think that with such stories they are building that kind of a world.
    Some of them may suffer a kind of self delusion – time to time everyone experiences something that seems extremely improbable, practically miraculous. It takes some effort to recall that there are effects like e.g. confirmation bias.
    I remember one day sitting on a garden bench with my mother, thinking “I wonder where all those birds go when they die. I see too many birds and almost no bird carcasses.” In about five seconds, my mother said “Amazing how you see so many live birds but almost no dead ones”. We have never discussed this topic before! I told her about my earlier thoughts and she immediately started talking about telepathy. I am sure that it was pure coincidence, and we might have been primed by something earlier in our discussion. In any case, it was nicely surreal experience. But nothing “out of this world”.

  35. RealTrueNews says:

    I know from fake-news ( The site is a parody site with material that is entirely unbelievable–and yet, a *lot* of people believed it.


    I think that one of the key factors for people believing obviously false information is that we want to. That’s the easy part. If someone wants to believe that Hillary is running a pizza-pornography ring (because it will make them feel righteous, validated, etc.) then they’re susceptible to that.

    But that doesn’t apply to the Reddit example. What’s happening there is that the coding for the message is a key that fits into your psychological “lock.” In the examples above, the “coding” is someone telling the story the way you would tell it. The cadence, the level of detail, the over-all voice sounds like how you might tell such a story–or how someone you’d identify with might tell such a story.

    The teller is coding the story in a way that feels like “community” and that makes us far less critical. It proposes empathy/sympathy. And so on. I expect if the above examples were less literate, contained other signifiers (such as if the reincarnation person had identified themselves as a holistic medicine practitioner), or whatever, the same claim wouldn’t be nearly as compelling.

    Basically: Put Trump-signifiers on a story about Hillary planning to fake an alien invasion and they’ll buy it.

  36. Deiseach says:

    If you’re like me, and you want to respond to this post with “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?”, then before you comment take a second to ask why the “they’re lying” theory is so hard to believe. And when you figure it out, tell me, because I really want to know.

    Mmmm – because we have one genuine ghost story in our family. Now, maybe my mother was lying to me about the whole thing. Or maybe the person who told her was lying. Or maybe the person who told him was lying. After all, this is the ‘friend-of a friend-told them and they told me’ chain that bumps up the likelihood of error in transmission, honest mistake, or lying/hoax with every step it has to go through.

    But the people involved really didn’t have any reason to lie, other than “this would make a cool story” and that’s fair enough. But you have to take into account the “cool story” part has to outweigh the “would involve deliberately deceiving family members” part, and then judge if you think that makes it more or less likely to be a lie.

    Am I saying I believe this ghost story? Well, not exactly. It could have been genuine mistake, imagination, whatever on the part of the first person, who then in all good faith recounted it to the cousin of my mother who then recounted it to her.

    And we had a whole slew of people seeing visions at a local grotto back in the 80s, one of a spate of alleged apparitions during the period throughout the country. Were the original alleged visionaries in this local instance lying? I have no idea; it could certainly be honest mistake or working themselves up into a state where imagination ran rampant, and I certainly think that was at work with the busloads of people who arrived and claimed to be seeing all manner of things happening. Again, not deliberate lying, but not exactly really what was going on, either.

    (For what it’s worth, I don’t think our local apparition was genuinely an apparition in the sense of a divine presence).

    So that’s why I’d be less inclined to say “definitely deliberately lying” about all the stories and more inclined to say “they probably do genuinely think something uncanny or inexplicable happened, even if there is a natural explanation for it”.

    Though on the other side, my father had a humorous anecdote about how someone could think they saw a ghost; condensing it down very much, it involves a dark country road back in the days before street lighting or light pollution, when a man coming home from the pub saw a shape in the dark that frightened him so he ran home, yelling and shouting to frighten it away. (The ghastly shape in the darkness was actually a straying donkey).

    However, his wife – who had gone to bed but was nervous and was still awake waiting for him – heard this commotion and came to the door, and when he saw this white figure (she was in her nightdress), he thought the ghost had got home before him so he turned around and ran back down the road. She ran after him, crying “Come back, come back!” but he ran even faster shouting “I won’t, I won’t!”

    And that’s my dad’s joke ghost story for you all 🙂

  37. KC says:

    Off the main topic, but both these stories read as though the author put a lot of effort into countering possible objections as efficiently and as hard as possible.

    Could the kid have learned about the house in some ordinary way? No: there are no pictures or videos of the dead grandmother’s house, and everyone who knew her except the storyteller was in another country.

    Could the student have been previously looking at the book, absently left the booklet in it, and then half-forgot about it? No: the books belong to their step-dad and they’ve never once used any of them.

    Of course, if you have a weird true story that no one believes you about, you’re going to have encountered objections, either agreed or disagreed with them, and incorporated your counterarguments into the story if you disagree. But these particular counterarguments strike me as unrealistically cut-and-dry.

    • Matt M says:

      Or if you’re a rationalist-minded person who actually legitimately truthfully DOES experience something like this, you would presumably ask these questions of yourself.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Also, on the papers-in-the-book story, if the universe helped when asked, who first asked the universe to first screw you?

      Your papers end up in a random book for no reason, but the point of the story is that sometimes the universe helps you out? We aren’t even supposed to wonder how the papers got there, rather we are supposed to not accept that “clearing your mind allowed you to remember where you put your papers”.

  38. Autolykos says:

    I think stories of that type circulate in many families, even without pathological liars at work. There is also one about me (but I was too young to remember it myself, and my most likely theory is that it was an elaborate prank by my grandfather – although he never admitted it):
    When I was maybe two or three years old, I was given a model of a Citroën Traction Avant (you know, that iconic gangster limousine from the 30s), to which I allegedly said “22 8”. My mother was quite surprised about it and looked at the model closely, but these numbers were not written anywhere on it – in fact, it was a different model description (11B, I think). She didn’t know much about cars and filed it under “weird thing to say for a kid”, but when she told it to my father, he remembered that there was indeed a rare variant of the car with a 22 CV V-8 motor, with no more than a few dozen ever built.

  39. alwhite says:

    I know some people who tell these kinds of stories in real life. These people really believe the stories they are telling. They really believe that a super weird coincidence has happened. However, when I have been remotely close to a particular story being told, I start to notice inconsistencies in the story told and what I remember happening.

    For the examples you listed, I don’t necessarily think they intentionally lied, unless you count lying to themselves. Notice how both of them required memory of things from long ago. I’m pretty sure they’ve convinced themselves something special happened and they really believe it, but their memories have been warped from the true events.

  40. Eponymous says:

    Historically, nearly all human beings believed in some sort of mystical religion, in which spiritual forces had mysterious effects. Many of these religions claimed miraculous events, signs, portents, etc. Nearly every human community had a priest or shaman or something like that.

    Presumably these beliefs were sustained by claims of successful miracles. These could be coincidences, stories passed down, false memories, or something else.

    But here’s the thing: these were mostly small tight-knit groups. We’re not talking about friend-of-a-friend stories online, where you have thousands of people to choose from. We’re not even talking about “a story I heard about this miracle” stories you get in churches, or the “story someone tells me about a miracle they experienced” (I’ve heard many of the former, and a few of the latter in my day). In many cases, these were fairly small groups.

    How to explain this? It seems likely to me that either (1) there really *is* some kind of mystical something in reality that people tap into on occasion, or (2) there’s something about human brains that makes them *think* there is. I’m guessing most people here prefer option (2), though it’s worth thinking about why.

    • “there’s something about human brains that makes them *think* there is.”

      The way I like to put this is that humans are equipped with very good pattern recognition software, so good it can even recognize patterns that are not there.

      The explanation is the tradeoff between type one and type two error. Seeing a tiger in the bushes that isn’t there is a lot less costly than failing to see one that is.

    • Tyrant Overlord Killidia says:

      Our brains have the gain on “interpret things socially” up to 11. This works fine if you’re living in a small, tight knit group and never leave it. But once your turn that “interpret things socially” to a vast impersonal universe, you start to get weird results.

  41. Eponymous says:

    Okay, another simple theory.

    Yes, any particular weird coincidence is unlikely. But you don’t just need to multiply by the number of people, but *also* by the number of opportunities they had to experience a coincidence, which is a huge number!

    In fact, I would guess that most people have a story or two about a weird coincidence they experienced. Some fraction of those will be extra spooky.

    Now when a coincidence does happen, it’s likely that the person will remember it, they will impart some great significance to it, and then (given how faulty memory is) they will embellish it a bit. They didn’t just look for 30 minutes, they looked for 3 hours. They didn’t just think, “I haven’t looked over there yet”, they experienced a powerful pulling sensation, etc.

  42. Nevertaken says:

    Bryan Caplan had some thoughts on similar stories:

  43. onyomi says:

    I am seeing people use this “system 1” (and “system 2”?) phrase recently. What does it mean?

    • alwhite says:

      Roughly it means emotional brain vs logical brain. Hind brain vs frontal cortex. Belief system vs evidence system. It looks like it originated with the book Thinking, Fast and Slow.,_Fast_and_Slow#Two_systems

      There’s a part of us that wants to make decisions really fast and just move on. This is our intuitions are beliefs and our raw desires. There’s another part that wants to deliberate, get all the facts, and make the best choice. It has been discovered that these parts of us engage different parts of the brain.

      System 1 is often wrong where System 2 is more often right and it’s really hard to convince System 1 that System 2 is right. Also known as “changing our beliefs”. It’s really hard to change things we REALLY believe and that process is made better when we understand our beliefs are held by System 1 and we need a different approach to change System 1.

      • Eponymous says:

        I wouldn’t say emotional vs. logical. I would say it’s heuristics and pattern recognition vs. reflection and analysis.

        • alwhite says:

          Ok, but Kahneman himself said this:

          System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
          System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

      • eyeballfrog says:

        I’m not so sure System 2 is more often right. System 2 is really good at rationalizing things away when they’re inconvenient.

  44. Garrett says:

    How much of what you are describing is due to charisma? Would the same set of facts presented with less-enjoyable writing and occasional glaring spelling mistakes manage to attract the same amount of positive attention?

  45. onyomi says:

    Certainly with respect to IRL hoaxes, like crop circles and big foot, the correct answer does often seem to be that someone was just straight up pranking people. Which is not at all to say that all cases of alien abduction or big foot and Nessie sightings are pranks (some are probably sleep paralysis, bad cameras, and the easily confused), but rather that the best known picture of Nessie or Big Foot is probably an intentional fake. It seems quite reasonable to assume the same would apply online.

  46. ilkarnal says:

    You’re framing this completely wrong for sure. I’ve heard these sorts of stories in real life, and I know perfectly well what is behind most of them from telling these sorts of tales (nothing this exaggerated, or related to the paranormal) before. When you’re telling a story, you’re thinking about the reaction and watching the reaction as it takes place, and very often what happens is that you realize that the story is boring or fucking pointless or both, or at least not quite as interesting as it was in your head. So you modify it to bring the point home – maybe add in things that really happen or happened, but happened in another time and place, maybe cut out parts that make it more muddled and uninteresting, maybe exaggerate the main selling point of the story. None of this takes effort, none of this takes forethought. It’s harder *not* to do it. It isn’t malicious. It’s a reflexive response to potential embarrassment. Telling a tale is more like telling a joke than, I dunno, making a military field report. The point is the spirit, and even more the point is the audience, specifically the audience having a good time. You’re not supposed to take storytime literally – though you ARE supposed to take it seriously.

    Then there’s the fact that people just don’t remember things all that well, which both creates false memories and annoying holes in stories that need to be filled with something to satisfy an audience.

    And yet my System 1 still refuses to believe that the people in those Reddit threads are liars. It’s actually kind of horrified at the thought, imagining them as their shoulders slump and they glumly say “Well, I guess I didn’t really expect anyone to believe me”. I want to say “No! I believe you! I know you had a weird experience and it must be hard for you, but these things happen, I’m sure you’re a good person!”

    What you’re supposed to believe is the *spirit* of the story, which is that something weird happened somewhere. The appropriate response is ‘Whoa!’ like you’d respond to something pretty weird happening in front of you. The story is about transferring that feeling. SAYING ‘nah, didn’t happen’ undercuts the spirit of storytime, and is kind of mean.

  47. onyomi says:

    This also reminds me of Eliezer’s FB post to the effect: “why can’t we program self driving cars to always swerve to avoid pedestrians?” “Because there is a certain percentage of the population who, if they know this, will intentionally throw themselves in front of cars.”

  48. phil says:

    “before you comment take a second to ask why the “they’re lying” theory is so hard to believe. And when you figure it out, tell me, because I really want to know.”


    I don’t want to be reductive or dismissive about this – but – I think if you go all the way down that rabbit hole, you wind up at a very nihilistic place, to the point to where there is a lot of cognitive dissonance about believing what you think you still believe

    about a year ago I made this message board post about PEDs and college football:

    short excerpt:

    “how many PED suspensions should there be if 1% of NCAA football player are taking them?

    128 teams x 85 scholarship players a team = 10,880 total players

    x .01 = 108 guys on PEDs

    lets say the test can catch 5% of users

    that should be something like 5 or 6 guys a year getting busted

    something like every other week you should hear another blurb about so and so get suspended for testing positive, or at least once a month, or at least a couple times a year

    I feel like I follow this pretty closely, the positive NCAA tests I can think of off the top of my head: Brian Bosworth prior to the 1987 Orange Bowl, I thought Ryan Dinwiddie got suspended for some sort of PED as the QB at Boise, but that appears lost to the internet, and now Will Grier

    its possible other people have been suspended, but none come to my mind


    this basic math seems to lead to 1 of 2 conclusions, either far less than 1% of college players use steroids, or testing catches far less than 5% of PED users, to the point of functionally catching no one”

    (the implications of that are further expanded in the link)


    if you think that logic is correct, and I have trouble believing it isn’t, I think that leaves you in a dark place as to how to navigate the world

    I played football in HS, I had, what ultimately became unfulfilled, aspirations of playing in college,

    at the time I knew that steroids were a thing, and that some people took them, but I was pretty naïve to logic above

    I think the argument above poses a real dilemma, in hindsight, I should have either dropped the moral pretense that taking steroids were something I shouldn’t do, or drop the pretense that playing in college was something I should aspire to (something worthy of investing my energy into)

    if my nephew came and asked for my advice on what he should do if he wants to play football in college, what should I tell him?


    going further down this rabbit hole is extremely depressing, to the point to where its probably not healthy to go down this rabbit hole

    I see this pattern (everywhere? lots of different places?)

    in this post you indicated that you see it on reddit

    you indicated that you see it in scientific publishing

    I see it college football

    if you want to be truly depressed, ask what sort of filters casting couch culture has on what sort of movies and TV shows you’re exposed to,

    does this sort of thing go on in business? politics?

    its existentially depressing,

    earlier I asked whether I should have dropped the pretense that playing in college was something I should aspire to (something worthy of investing my energy into)

    after you go down the rabbit hole, you wonder whether or not you should invest any energy into the universe outside your local Dunbar sized community.


    mopey rumination over

    • TheWorst says:

      this basic math seems to lead to 1 of 2 conclusions, either far less than 1% of college players use steroids, or testing catches far less than 5% of PED users, to the point of functionally catching no one”

      Are you sure you’d hear about every case? It seems like there’s another filter there–the “what percentage of those suspensions are considered newsworthy enough that anyone hears about it” filter.

      • phil says:

        There are some number of ‘violated team rules suspension’ that might be code for tested positive for PEDs

        informally, I’m pretty sure that number doesn’t sufficient cover the likely instances of PED usage such that it would give you any real faith in a testing regime

        also if that’s what’s going on, those suspensions are really light compared to what getting caught at different levels results in


        I have followed the sports news cycles pretty closely for large chunks of my life, I’ve been aware when highly marginal contributors in other leagues were suspended for drug violations

        Will Grier the QB for Florida last year, was suspended for an entire year, I’m pretty confident I would have been aware of similar suspensions if they happened with any regularity

        • TheWorst says:

          That is odd, then.

          Think it’s because the testing regime isn’t very rigorous, or that people who get caught don’t suffer much in the way of consequences?

          • phil says:

            I think its because the testing regime isn’t very rigorous

            related article:


            The report points out that the NCAA conducts random drug testing and the penalties for failure are severe. Players lose an entire year of eligibility after a first positive test. A second offense means permanent ineligibility from sports.

            But when you dig into the numbers, the NCAA’s roughly 11,000 annual tests amount to just a fraction of all athletes in Division I and II schools. Exactly how many tests are conducted each year on football players is unclear because the NCAA hasn’t published its data for two years, according to the AP, and when it did, it periodically changed the formats, making it impossible to compare one year of football to the next.

            More confounding is that NCAA rules say players can be notified up to two days in advance of a test, which experts say is plenty of time to beat a test. By comparison, Olympic athletes are given no notice.

            The top steroid investigator at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Joe Rannazzisi, told the AP that he doesn’t understand why schools don’t invest in the same kind of testing, with the same penalties, as the NFL.

            “Is it expensive? Of course, but college football makes a lot of money,” he said. “Invest in the integrity of your program.”

            For a school to test all 85 scholarship football players for steroids twice a season would cost up to $34,000, said Don Catlin, an anti-doping pioneer who spent years conducting the NCAA’s laboratory tests at UCLA. The total costs would be about 0.2 percent of the average big-time school football budget of about $14 million.

            Caitlin told the AP he became so frustrated with the college system that it drove him in part to leave the testing industry to focus on anti-doping research.

            The investigation also found that penalties vary widely from school to school. Here are a few examples:

            •At Notre Dame and Alabama, the teams that will soon compete for the national championship, players don’t automatically miss games for testing positive for steroids. At Alabama, coaches have wide discretion. Notre Dame’s student-athlete handbook says a player who fails a test can return to the field once the steroids are out of his system.

            •The University of North Carolina kicks players off the team after a single positive test for steroids.

            •At UCLA, home of the laboratory that for years set the standard for cutting-edge steroid testing, athletes can fail three drug tests before being suspended.

            •At the University of Maryland, students must get counseling after testing positive, but school officials are prohibited from disciplining first-time steroid users.

          • TheWorst says:

            Yeah, that sounds a lot like a pattern of No One Cares. And they have some incentives not to care, I’d imagine–doped athletes perform better, and performance is what puts butts in seats.

          • phil says:

            or that the people who do care, are selected against


            “some place have ethical people in certain spots that put at least checks on that sort of thing

            and basically the key to winning, is getting rid of all those people, or not inadvertently hiring one”

            Bingo. “Winning the right way” = embarrassing losses and three-year tenures.



            At this point, this particular “fraud lies!” aspect of society is water under the bridge for me personally

            other than wanting to understand my universe and how it works, I don’t feel the need to be especially high horsed about steroids in college football


            what’s way more disturbing to me personally, wondering how many other situations in life operate like this

            where instead of life catching up to people who cut corners, life selects for them


            it seems like there’s two separate problems here

            1) where the social or moral norm normalizes around the cut corner

            [that sort of sucks, but doesn’t seem like a totally big deal]

            2) where knowledge about where the norm about the cut corner has normalized is poorly spread

            which seems to create all sorts of problems,

            you have a group of suckers who think ‘you’re not supposed to do Y’,

            and then you have your in the know group who thinks ‘ehh, you’re not supposed to advertise that you do Y, but its no big deal, that’s just how the sausage is made’

            in that situation, how are you supposed to know what the right norm to adhere to is?

            especially if the norm circles around a taboo that you’re not supposed to talk about?

            how do you know whether or not you’re likely to bump against one of these unknown adjusted norms anytime you leave your Dunbar group? (jaded me – is it mere a question of the stakes involved, where the bigger the pot, the more likely there’s some nefarious unspoken norm violations going on?)


            there are probably lots of interesting observations to be made about the mechanics of how sausage making trade secrets spread

            if anyone else to think of a better way to get at or study that problem

            I would love to hear their thoughts

            (is there a field of sociology research or something that studies exactly this problem???)

          • Nyx says:

            The top steroid investigator at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Joe Rannazzisi, told the AP that he doesn’t understand why schools don’t invest in the same kind of testing, with the same penalties, as the NFL.

            Well, it sounds like part of the problem is that “steroid investigators” are idiots. Why would schools intentionally handicap themselves by testing their own students? Why would schools drag the reputation of their very expensive, well-supported sports teams through the mud? Why would schools even take collective action, when their audience want to watch faster and stronger athletes?

  49. registrationisdumb says:

    There was an old saying on 4chan.

    “The stories and information posted here are artistic works of fiction and falsehood. Only a fool would take anything posted here as fact.”

    It is wise to apply that to the rest of the internet as well.

  50. as1018 says:

    I think the “ask the universe”story might be true because I have been using a system like that for years. I don’t think it’s paranormal- I think it’s a subconscious mind hack.

    Years ago I was told to say “Please help me reach (lost item)” and visualize the item I was searching for in my mind. Then to forget about searching for it and go do something else and the item would be found. I tried and it worked. Over many years, I have done this whenever I have lost something that I am trying to locate and the more I have done this, the quicker I have gotten at having it work. The interesting thing is that sometimes the item I am searching for has been moved or taken by someone else and it will be impossible to find. In these cases, I do the phrase and I usually get a strange feeling. Sort of like my mind saying “It ain’t going to happen”.

    I do not think this is paranormal. I think it is just training the brain to give up the information. Most lost things are lost because I put them someplace and forgot where I put them. Also, when I am looking for things, they might be in plain sight and I have just overlooked them but perhaps part of my consciousness has realized where the item is. There is no need to claim any supernatural powers. Anyway the system works for me and it has worked for people I have taught to do the same thing.

    • From time to time I have the experience of searching for something and eventually finding it in a place I have already searched a couple of times. With adequate incentive and a little blurring by time, that could get converted into one of these stories.

  51. njnnja says:

    Maybe the problem is just that the term “lying” is too strong.

    Everyone knows the research about the weaknesses of eyewitness testimony and the imperfection of memory [citation needed]. Doesn’t that seem as likely an explanation as trolling? Maybe the person is totally sure that what the kid is saying matches their memory of the place, and is reporting it on reddit exactly as they remember the discussion – and yet is still completely wrong.

  52. dwietzsche says:

    I don’t normally have the same sympathetic response you have going on in these cases. I may spend more time than you do talking with people who are mostly full of shit. There’s a point where the callouses set in. But I also think, you know, a part of what makes lies convincing is that people want to believe them. And people tend to want to believe the same kind of things, which is a part of why we can learn how to identify typical categories of lies in the first place. And the wanting to believe is prior to the development of the intellectual tools a person who is concerned about the truth inevitably builds up to combat his own biases. So it remains a bummer to have to practice heuristic style ombudsmanship all the time. There’s no transcendence here. If you want to believe a thing, and you know in this after the fact way that it isn’t true, the way that can play out is you find a way to explain to yourself why maybe your heuristic is bad here (every heuristic has its exceptions), or try to hold out for the possibility of the thing you want to believe even when you know the actual instance that is the occasion for that idea is not itself true.

    Epistemological maintenance of the modern kind is not really natural. The will itself is bound up in how we decide what to believe. It’s not just about wanting, but about how the effort to know a thing works in the first place. Disinterested concern for the truth is just not a native feature of the human intellect.

  53. Rafal Smigrodzki says:

    Scott, as a psychiatrist you no doubt meet pathological liars daily, don’t you? I can tell you from my experience as a neurologist that roughly 10% of my patients present with factitious complaints. They not just tell you things that aren’t so, they generate inane physical symptoms – pseudoseizures, factitious weakness, non-anatomical loss of sensation, factitious movement and gait disorders. And all that to get some tender loving care from an ER physician who then, flummoxed by the weirdness, calls me for help.

    There are lots and lots of … different people out there. I am so very unsurprised that there liars on the interwebz 🙂

    • HeelBearCub says:

      factitious complaints

      Factitious is a word badly in need of a clever definition. Some how related to “truthiness”.

      • Rafal Smigrodzki says:

        Factitious symptoms means intentionally misleading ones.

        A couple of weeks ago I had this patient: young woman, comes to ED with, among other problems, complaints of not being able to walk normally due to right leg weakness. Has dysphoric mood, complains about doctors not taking her seriously. On formal examination of foot dorsiflexion she does nothing. Then I ask her to show how she walks, and observe her inconspicuously while she walks from gurney in room to the hallway, where I do formal gait and balance testing. On the way to hallway she walks normally but once my overt attention is focused on her, she walks with the front of her foot lifted off the floor (heel walking). This is laughable. She does does not know enough about simple biomechanics that weakness of foot dorsiflexion is the exact opposite of what you expect in a patient with heel walking, and she doesn’t realize I am looking at her attentively even if I seem to be doing something else. So I can document factitious illness without any doubt and describe in detail why I think so. This occasionally saves a few thousand dollars on unnecessary MRIs and admissions.

        Or this other guy last week – arms almost paralyzed during formal strength testing, hardly able to shakily lift them off the bed. Literally ten seconds later he absentmindedly scratches his beard 🙂

        Over the years I learned to remain stony-faced and to always have a nurse or two with me during examination, whenever I feel there is something off about a patient.

        As a neurologist I have an advantage in detecting deception over many other specialists, since most patients do not know how to fake neurological disease properly and they yield to the temptation to produce florid symptomatology, rather than sticking with the unverifiable “I have a headache and my tummy hurts”.

        • Deiseach says:

          I’m not disputing your experience, especially since those seem particularly egregious, but sometimes symptoms do fade in and out and I’m sure I’m not the only person who has felt really sick, decided to go to the doctor after a day or two when it hasn’t cleared up, and then by the time I make the appointment and go to the GP, there are no signs when I’m in their surgery.

          It’s even more frustrating when you get home, then the next day the symptoms are back in full force – the opposite of “white coat syndrome”, I suppose? 🙂

          Anecdotes are not data, but other people have told me the same – kid is sick with high temperature, vomiting, etc., they go to the doctor, kid is fine when they get in there.

          • Rafal Smigrodzki says:

            By all means, there are patients with somatization disorder, who are so anxious about real but minor complaints that they start exaggerating, and then there are patients with variable or vague complaints which sometimes can be proven to be related to structural lesion or biochemical abnormality. Also, time is the best physician and many problems naturally resolve before you meet the doctor.

            If symptoms are vague or iffy, I usually give the patients the benefit of the doubt – if somebody shows as a code stroke with tingling and the MRI scan is normal, I call it migraine equivalent, not factitious illness. I am there to help, not judge. Still, after seeing a thousand unequivocal cases of factitious illness or malingering my faith in humanity’s probity settled at a low level.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Wow. I automatically assumed it was a weird typo from “fictitious”. TIL the word dates all the way from the 17th century. And that both words were present in Latin. Huh.

        I actually really like looking up words I don’t know, so it’s not even that.

  54. Milo says:

    There’s actually a subreddit, /r/quityourbullshit, dedicated to finding and calling out these sorts of lies, even the apparently completely innocuous ones–for example, here’s a recent one that’s just someone pretending to be a grandmother. Reading through a lot of these may be a good way to recalibrate your gut reaction, especially since the lies you see there are only the clear, falsifiable ones, so who knows how many people are out there pretending to be grandmothers and getting off scot-free.

  55. johnmcg says:

    It seems to me this suggests the following heuristic:

    * Discount singular studies/stories that conform closely to a preferred political narrative. (e.g. that Michael Brown was shot with his hands up, “Jackie’s” story of gang rape, etc.)

    * Tend to believe a series of stories following a particular pattern (e.g. a number of women claiming Bill Cosby raped them, or that Trump sexually abused them, several stories of unarmed black men being shot by police.)

    The downside of this heuristic, as Scott notes, is that some individual true stories will be disbelieved, causing pain to those who share them (and compounding the existing pain if it’s a painful story).

    • Your second rule makes sense if the stories are independent, less sense if one gets enough publicity so that the people telling the next are likely to have heard of it.

      • Deiseach says:

        Unfortunately, “series of people claiming celebrity, especially now dead celebrity, assaulted them” is not unassailable. Sometimes people jump on a bandwagon, particularly if there’s some kind of notoriety or money to be made out of it. I distrust the tabloid papers over here because there is nothing (apart from libel laws, which are in a knock-on effect becoming ever more abused) to stop Anonymous Source Claims Pop Star did this, that or the other being featured in front-page ‘shock, horror’ headlines with little or no grounds to the story.

        There’s a sticky case of this in the UK right now, where the BBC is getting itself into major trouble – after the Jimmy Saville affair, where the BBC was alleged to have engaged in a cover-up, it went to the opposite extreme and worked very closely with the police in setting up live coverage of the raid on the house of a celeb accused of “historic sex abuse”.

        Unfortunately for the BBC, the raid turned up nothing, the Crown Prosecution Service has decided not to proceed with the accusations, and now the man is suing them for what does seem to be collusion between the police and the broadcaster in planning the raid for maximum media exposure (and you have to suspect part of this was to divert attention away from the BBC’s relationship with Saville).

  56. SaiNushi says:

    In college, I was a math major. I was also Catholic, though I was falling away from that. I have always tried to be rational. I also had a few experiences that many classify as “spooky” or “supernatural”. All of these happened while other people were present. All of them defied rational explanation. All of them didn’t fit into my view as either a rationalist or as a wavering Catholic. The only two explanations for these experiences are faulty memory or unknown forces at work.

    My mother had bipolar disorder. She had a brother with schizophrenia. So naturally, any explanation which relies on my mind being less than perfect is one that I shy away from. I am perfectly happy to let other people believe that my memory is faulty. I prefer to believe that there are forces which science has yet to understand. The one thing I hate is when people decide that I’m lying, or exaggerating. No. When I decide to share those events, I’m sharing them exactly how I remember them to have happened. And most people, when they’re looking for spooky stories, are disappointed with mine. So why would I lie just to give someone a very disappointing story that was really only spooky when it was lived? And if I’m exaggerating, I’m doing one heck of a bad job of it. Everyone looking for a scare or thrill goes “So what? That’s it?” Yes, that’s it. That’s the point. They’re mundane. They’re whatever. And yet, they can’t be explained. They defy physics. They’re underwhelming experiences that nevertheless shouldn’t have been possible.

  57. Squirrel of Doom says:

    For aspiring writers, Reddit is a perfect place to hone your skills. Write short stories in threads that ask for them, and get immediate feedback from a big audience of readers.

    I have no way to estimate how many of these “lies” are really future Hemingways sharpening their pens. But note that both Scott’s examples are quite well written.

  58. fwiffo says:

    Trolling probably explains a large number of these stories. Self-deception has to be high on the list as well.

    I often have the experience of my wife retelling a story about an experience that we both had — and not only is her emphasis very different from mine, but she has very specific contradictory memories from mine — memories which often dovetail very well with her interpretation of the event (as do mine).

    We’re constantly looking to put theories on experiences and observations. It’s very easy to remember things incorrectly when it fits with a theory. We can do psych experiments where participants insist on having had experiences that the experimenter knows they did not have. If we can do this experimentally, why wouldn’t it happen in real life?

    The reincarnation story above seems particularly prone to misremembering. The child has been around a parent who retells a story known intimately by one of the parents. Everything in the story hinges on “I never told him about it” — but who remembers every single thing they’ve told their children? Probably every time the story was retold, the teller reinforced his feeling that “I never told him about it,” and became more and more sure of a thing that you could never really have certainty over. How could you be so confident that neither you nor anyone else told your son that your grandmother used to run an apple sauce business?

    It’s also likely that some of the son’s details were incorrect, but the correct details were remembered much more carefully than the incorrect details, which were less memorable.

    Unfortunately, the human mind seems drawn to superstition; training can change how we rationally respond to these stories, but it’s unclear whether it can change the intrinsic force that superstitious stories hold over us — hence the persistent appeal of Harry Potter-esque fiction, even to the very scientifically-minded.

  59. cassander says:

    Filed under: The easiest thing in the world is lying to yourself.

    On occasion, I’ve caught myself convincing myself of things that I know are not true. I’m sure I’ve done it other time when I haven’t caught myself. Conscious perception is quite far from reality, and memory is even more slippery.

  60. Sniffnoy says:

    I mean, on the other hand, this is a recognized enough problem that it has a stock phrase associated with it — “You really think someone would do that? Just go on the internet and tell lies?”

    (Also, agreement with the other commenters that “trolling” is the wrong word for this and this is more akin to “my dad works at Nintendo”.)

  61. The Nybbler says:

    I think some of this is just storytelling — “swapping lies” as it’s sometimes called. The teller has been asked for a story and thinks it’ll be fun to provide one, either made up out of whole cloth or embellished from a real event. It’s just entertainment.

  62. Captain says:

    I also have this same problem accepting the “They’re just lying” explanation. It seems to violate the Principle of Charity and Hanlon’s Razor, both of which I defend pretty vociferously. Good people can make mistakes and blow things out of proportion; that’s understandable. It’s harder telling myself that good people can also lie for no reason, and I want to believe everyone out there – or at least, any individual person I meet – is, basically, a good person until they give me good reason to believe otherwise.

    Even then – even for very bad people – I find it hard sometimes to think of them as deliberately lying. I think I just really, really don’t like lying.

  63. Peffern says:

    I’m inclined to invoke Hanlon’s Razor on this.

    I think number of people who are

    a) remembering the event wrong,
    b) have told the story so many times it’s become exaggerated,
    c) conflating several events into one

    probably outweighs the people who are outright lying for shits and giggles.

  64. Belladonna993 says:

    I think, to some extent, that you’re conflating evaluating truth (or as someone put it earlier, plausibility) with evaluating sincerity, at least insofar as the stories of the paranormal you mentioned are based entirely on personal narrative and cannot be reliably fact-checked. My inclination then is to ask why attempting to evaluate the sincerity of an anonymous person on the Internet is particularly important. It doesn’t actually change the implausibility of the story.

    If you are planning to engage with that person (and I know that I am personally not likely to try and engage anyone in conversation who is posting on a reddit dedicated to believing in the paranormal anytime soon), I think it behooves you to assume sincerity but be on the lookout for disingenuousness. If you are not planning to engage with people, it ultimately makes no difference whatsoever whether they actually believe what they are saying or are making it up, or what the motivations were for making it up (which could be anything from wanting to make up a good yarn to wanting to dupe the gullible).

    I guess I’m saying I take a generally agnostic approach toward trying to evaluate the sincerity of people on the Internet. Bad science and fake news are a different problem. And the general gullibility of people is a huge threat. I found this story and the related study terrifying.

    Also, hi. This is my first comment here.

  65. FullMeta_Rationalist says:

    People would lie on the internet?


    Incidentally. Around 3rd grade, some kid asked if I could keep a secret. “I’m an elf.”

    and. I. believed. him. Holy cow am I dumb.

    • Deiseach says:

      and. I. believed. him. Holy cow am I dumb.

      Oh, embarrassing anecdotes about believing an obviously fake story another kid told you are not your sole preserve; the particular incident I have in mind is so embarrassing I’m not even going to recount it here, but believe me, if you’re dumb, I’m dumber 🙂

    • LCL says:

      In defense of your youthful self and similar:

      It’s reasonable to believe in elves as a kid. There are stories about elves, books about elves, shows about elves, computer games about elves, lots and lots of available information about elves. Occam’s Razor would guide you to the explanation “elves are real” sooner than “there are many different categories of information with different evidentiary weights and you must notice that despite the volume of information about elves none of it is directly linked to your lived experience and therefore should be classed as fiction, elves probably aren’t real.”

      I mean, good luck distinguishing the cases of elves and dinosaurs, when you’re eight.

      • Chalid says:

        That reminds me of a vignette I heard, I think on This American Life, about someone who only figured out that unicorns weren’t real when she was in college and everyone laughed at her when she brought them up in a conversation about endangered species.

        As she said, rhinos are real, platypuses are real, giraffes are real, and all of these are far more ridiculous than a horse with a horn…

  66. Paul Brinkley says:

    I had been hoping since the late 1990s to mitigate the “fake news” problem (when it was more generally referred to as the Information Glut) through automation. It was one of the reasons I had been working on a specific type of semantic inference tech.

    The more near-term problem was database integration – multiple databases basically tracking the same type of information, but unable to communicate because they were developed by completely different staffs at different times, resulting in tables and columns with different names, and often with varying differences in the organization of their data. The idea was to map any database schema onto a common formal semantic model, then have a program that took queries in the language of that model, mapped it to the original schemas, producing SQL queries (or SPARQL or what have you), retrieving result sets, collating them, and returning them again in the formal language. The model processing program was able to handle first-order logic, including recursion, temporal logic, and even some modal logic so that you could reason over conflicting sources.

    I had a vague sketch in my head of how this would automate evaluation of factual claims, but it would have required a lot of mapping to available data, plus some breakthroughs in natural language understanding (NLU) that still haven’t quite happened. One could imagine a parser / entity extractor that took any checkable claim and translated it to the formal language, sent it to the “federator” I described above, and reported yes or no. Refinement would increase the number of claims it could dig out of the text, and even perhaps supply additional material such as “claim is true, but vacuously so” or “claim is true, but leaves out these other relevant claims”.

    It would have the advantage over today’s fact checkers of being mechanical, tireless, and more complete, and even being auditable – anyone could ask “how did you verify this” and get a report.

    Still needed some NLU progress though. (And, our company ran out of money, but that’s another story.)

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I kept waiting for the punchline to be that it couldn’t detect fake new, but that it could generate it (i.e. I was waiting for this to be a false story.

  67. Paul Brinkley says:

    One more thing that reddit reminds me of is a joke I used to hear from one of my uncles.

    …In general, I remember it being a common game among adults in my locale, rural Texas, to see how long they could lead kids on with a tall tale before the kids would catch on. It took some skill – the adult had to be fairly good at being believable, and of course the kids got better and better at spotting when things weren’t quite adding up. The result was the kids growing up with fairly good BS detectors, which made them naturally distrustful of any politician (or salesman or lawyer or public official or…), in a way that felt a lot like a critical survival skill.

    I get the impression from a lot of social media that this game isn’t as widespread as I’d thought. Is it?

    Anyway, the joke (which was never really meant to be believable):

    So, I’s out the lake thuther day.

    Had my usual rig out – got my favorite pole, waders, bait pail, bottle sippin whiskey, and my cooler fulla biscuits. And I’m rowin out dere to th’ middle, figgerin I’ll catch me a coupla nine-pounders off the bottom n tide me over the week, nothin fancy. Popped a biscuit’n the hook and swabbed some liver on it – catfish love it – plopped it in, and waited.

    And waited, and waited. And ev’hour or so I’d take the line in, find out the biscuit’s done fell off, so I’d reach in an’grab nuther biscuit and swab summore liver n’plop it back in. Next thing I know, the sun’s about set, and between bait and lunch, I’m plum near outta biscuits.

    So I’m reelin’ the line slowly back in, kinda sad and sleepy and wonderin’ what I’m gunna eat fer dinner, when the line jumps, and then this BIG OL catfish jumps THREE FEET out the water and flops down – WHAM! – in my boat! Musta been twenny, thirty pounds! It starts floppin round bottom of my boat and I’m gettin a bit worried it’ll flip me so I got my knife out and I’m tryin to see if I can kill it when I notice it’s tipped oer my whiskey bottle and whiskey’s pourin all oer bottom umma boat. So I grab th’ bottle and set it back and now I notice this catfish gotten a swallow o’ it… I swear its eyes start to bullllge a little and alluva sudden it JUMPS back outta th’ boat and back inna water!

    So now I’m sittin there wonderin whatnthehell that was all about when this perch POPS outta the water an’lands smack in my bait pail! I’m lookin at that perch an’ I peer out the water where it came from, and there’s that big ol catfish starin back at me! And I’m lookin back at it and suddenly I get an idea and pick up the whiskey bottle and alluva sudden that catfish opens its mouth and starts croakin at me, so I lean over and give it a lil sip. Well then it ducks back under the water and pretty soon another perch comes shootin out the water and SMACK! into my pail and there’s that catfish again, waitin there with its mouth open.

    We did this a few more times – I’d give it a swallow whiskey, it’d throw a perch in my pail, sometimes a bass – but now I’m startin run outta whiskey, so I get an idea, grab the last biscuit, pour the rest the whiskey all over it, set it on my hook and put THAT in the water. Two seconds later that line goes taut and I GOT IM!

    Or I thought I did. Soon’s I try to reel him in, this catfish decides he’s gonna get away, and starts swimmin like there’s no tomorrow, and he’s draggin me and my boat all over the lake. And he can’t get free, and I ain’t lettin him go, and he’s buckin and rockin the boat back n forth until the pail tips over and all those fish start floppin out and gettin away, so there’s no WAY in hell I’m lettin go now, until sadly, that poor line finally snaps.

    So that was that. I tried that lake again, same bait, same time, never saw that ol catfish come back. But I know he’s still there, and he’s thirsty fer more.

    And if you don’t believe me – I’ve got the empty whiskey bottle right here to prove it!!

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      I get the impression from a lot of social media that this game isn’t as widespread as I’d thought. Is it?

      A similar game occurs on imgur. Someone posts a convincing story, except the ending is a pun on a meme. Off the top of my head, graphical posts include Michael Cera, John Cena, Spanish Inquisition, etc. Textual posts include “tree fiddy”, etc. The comments are usually along the lines of “Dammit, I fell for another”. E.g. Haram Bae. I think imgur was inspired by 4chan greentexts. E.g. Walk the dinosaur.

      • The Nybbler says:

        A similar game occurs on imgur. Someone posts a convincing story, except the ending is a pun on a meme.

        Much older than greentext; these are “shaggy dog stories”; the phrase goes back at least to 1937.

        • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

          Where has this been all my life.

        • dndnrsn says:

          A long, involved story that ends in a pun is a shaggy dog story. So is a joke that ends in a way that is intentionally stupid and unfunny – the joke being that your time has just been wasted by a pointless story. Stories told in earnest that are unintentionally funny for the same reason are also shaggy dog stories.

          It’s a good term.

          • The Nybbler says:

            My personal favorite is the Purple Passion joke (though I knew it as “Purple Widow”). I told it to my family on a long car trip and managed to spin it out just long enough to deliver the punch line as we were getting home (and thus be able to get out of the car and run)

    • Deiseach says:

      That’s like the story from a radio (and later television) programme that was on our national broadcaster in the old days. It was called “The School Around The Corner” and involved the presenter going to various national schools to interview classes aged eight to twelve, and the resultant songs/funny stories being broadcast. The following alleged anecdote was one of the results:

      In his autobiography ”Your Dinner’s Poured Out” Crosbie recalled one of his favourite incidents.

      An infant was relating how a commotion had arisen when his father had found a horse had fallen into a drain.

      Try as they might, not even a meitheal of men could save the beast.

      Crosbie: ”So what did your father do then?”

      Infant: ”He had to shoot the horse.”

      Crosbie: ”In the hole?”

      Infant: ”No, he shot him in the head.”

      To get the full amusement value, you probably need to know that the Irish slang term “hole” refers to the rectum (although when used in the phrase “to get [one’s] hole”, it refers to successful attainment of sexual intercourse).

  68. hls2003 says:

    It seems like there are probably two reasons for your reluctance to embrace the “lying” theory. One is common to many or most people, and one is probably more specific to you (or people a lot like you).

    The common one you seem to have largely identified, which is that “deliberate lying” is a low-probability occurrence. As you note, this doesn’t mean it’s improbable in the aggregate (given 10,000 users), but in general you’re more often going to be wrong than not when you accuse someone of a deliberate lie. In my experience, even in high-leverage situations, people rarely lie consciously; even if they’re incorrect, they’ve usually convinced themselves first. So your mind defaults to the position of trying to work with the information provided, rather than dismissing it, because most of the time you’ll miss relevant information by writing off someone’s testimony as a lie, rather than trying to understand the truthful foundation behind it.

    I think the reason more specific to you is that dismissing evidence that contradicts your presuppositions about the world itself violates one the precepts you vocally espouse. It’s probably fair to say, given the tenor of your blog, that you spend more time than the average person discussing and thinking about confirmation bias and the way that human cognitive processes influence our perception of the world. So you probably feel a twinge of hypocrisy (I don’t mean that to sound morally accusatory) that others might not feel when you look at a supernatural story that contradicts your materialist worldview, and immediately dismiss it as “lies.” The “liar” theory is an easy way out, a way to avoid challenging your materialist beliefs without having to actually engage with the evidence. In general, willingness to hear all evidence (even anonymous internet testimony that isn’t worth much) without taking the easy way out is a trait you value.

  69. DavidS says:

    I’ve had people tell me this stuff who I don’t think are trying to deceive me. I’ve also had to try really hard not to embellish/strengthen stories myself.

    I think part of what drives it is that once you think that e.g. your ability to speak Ancient Hebrew something shows you’re reincarnated or is a gift from God you think that the explanations others put forward are definitely wrong. So denying that you had a nanny who spoke ancient Hebrew is technically a lie, but y’know, it’s true IN SPIRIT because you know that wasn’t the reason etc.

    It is really awkward in real life when someone tells you a story that they e.g. claim proves God and asks your explanation for this. And the actual explanation is ‘I don’t think the story you just told is fully true’

  70. mmerrill says:

    So, um, yeah…

    Given what this topic is about, a lot of you will probably chop this up as a lie. Nevertheless, since it seems oddly appropriate to this thread, this is one of my weird experiences.

    So I lived in an apartment that had burned down sometime before I moved there. I didn’t think much about that at the time, but later, that piece of information became relevant.

    While I lived there, random doors would slam shut for no apparent reason. There were five doors in the apartment, and any one of them could randomly slam shut with extreme force at any time. For a while I didn’t think about it much, it must be wind, or where wind didn’t make sense because the wind would have to be making weirdly specific 90 degree turns to make a door slam shut, I started thinking it was some weird pressure system that a human would never be able to understand.

    After a while, I had a roommate move in and he brought a stereo system with him. Twice, both times with more than one person in the house, the stereo went from a respectful volume for an apartment to so loud you had to hold your hands over your ear at a rate that should have been impossible. One hit of the bass drum comfortable, the next you’re not bleeding from the ears, but yeah, everyone the room put their hands over their ears. My explanation for this, I don’t know enough about electronics or how stereo systems are built to know that this is actually impossible in non-paranormal ways.

    So, at this point, that information about the apartment having had a major fire seems a little bit more relevant to me.

    • rmtodd says:

      I don’t know enough about electronics or how stereo systems are built to know that this is actually impossible in non-paranormal ways.

      Given the way I’d expect volume controls to be rigged in a stereo (potentiometer hooked up as a voltage divider), if the wiper part happened to somehow short against the “upper” terminal of the potentiometer, yeah, it could happen. Maybe less common than having the sound drop out entirely (intermittent open connection on the potentiometer or elsewhere), but still possible.

      And come to think of it, I recall once seeing a stereo system exhibit exactly the behaviour you describe.

      • The Nybbler says:

        The physical volume control can also be pulling _down_ the line which controls volume; a loose connection there would cause intermittent full volume rather than no volume.

    • Deiseach says:

      No, I’m not going to think you’re a liar.

      Slamming doors? Okay, you’ve said the apartment was rebuilt after a fire. If the doors are hung just a bit out of plumb, it’s perfectly possible to have them slam shut when not fully closed because they’ll start closing slowly,slowly,slowly then pick up momentum and slam!

      All due to being off-kilter. No ghosts need apply. Small amount of wind or change in air pressure (someone moving through the space), not being fully pulled shut, left ajar – they start swinging on the hinges and there you go. I’ve had doors slam shut in my house and it’s been for similar reasons.

      I don’t know enough about stereos or electronics to talk about that, but others have explained how it could happen.

    • Autolykos says:

      Also, your intuition that the wind must make 90° turns to slam some of the doors might be incorrect:

  71. Nyx says:

    I’ve heard a few outrageously false stories as a child (along the lines of “my uncle works at Nintendo”). And I go on r/thathappened enough to be perfectly willing to believe that people will lie just for the sake of telling a story; even a pretty mundane story with no point. It’s really that simple, and the internet in particular is extremely fertile ground for that sort of thing. Everyone is fighting to be heard, and there’s enough anonymity that you can say what you like.

  72. FullMeta_Rationalist says:

    [ I haven’t hammered out my thought completely on this. But since it seems relevant, I figured I might as well dump what I have. ]


    One thing I realized while reading The Last Psychiatrist is that text (and speech) are economic transactions. Agents fall into three groups: the author; the publisher; and the audience.

    1) One of TLP’s memes is “why did this author write this?”. I.e. “what do they gain?”. In cases where the writer is unpaid, the next most natural answer is attention, status, notoriety, and validation.

    2) Another TLP meme is “why did the publisher publish this?”. Of course, the publisher is often after profit motives. And the way to turn a profit is to publish texts which satisfy the target-demographic’s needs.

    3) Another TLP meme is “who is the target demographic?”. I.e. “what demographic does the narrative appeal to?”. Alone often says things like “the type of people who watch Mad Money are not Professional Investors themselves” or “the type of people who watch Sex & The City are not Promiscuous Suburbanites themselves”. They type of people Sex & The City actually portray are too busy flirting in the real world to watch a soap opera in their living room. Both TV programs are functionally equivalent to High Fantasy.

    In analyzing this economically, the audience wants or needs to hear something, and the publisher/author provide it. In return, the publisher is compensated with money while the author is compensated with attention, etc. This may not sound complex or interesting enough to warrant a wall of text. But it’s useful to explain a variety of interactions one might find confusing otherwise. Because when an article sends mixed signals or otherwise says something which doesn’t make sense at first glance, an economic analysis might shed some light.


    “Follow the money.” I don’t remember exactly where I heard this first, but I last heard in in an advertisement for a cop/gangster film. And it was used as an alternative strategy to “follow the drugs.” Analogously, “follow the attention”. Attention is a scarce resource; it’s basically a currency. Where an author invests the majority of their attention in often is often indicative of their motives, be it genuine or ulterior.

    One of TLP’s posts was about an article where a mother wrote about child-rearing [0]. Or at least that’s what the title would suggest. But upon reading the actual text, the subject which the author invests the majority of her time and attention in is her Feelings. Further analysis reveals that it was really an article about the hardships of parenthood and how the child didn’t fit into the mother’s narrative of “I’m a good mom who’s raising a well-adjusted citizen”.

    This reminds me of how The Road Not Taken is so misunderstood. The public seems to believe that the poem glorifies the decision to follow a more difficult, yet more rewarding path. But if this were true, the poem would have been named after the difficult path rather than the easy path. Upon actually reading the text, poem claims most “tough” decisions are exercises in frivolity. Because it’s human nature to wonder about the counterfactual path even though most of the time, the two paths are pretty similar. In anycase, no one cares about the actual narrative because the popular narrative is more palatable and inspiring. I.e. it fulfills a need not intended by its designer.


    TLP also has a story about when he saw one mom_A scolded mom_B because kid_B punched kid_A. Did she genuinely expect that scolding mom_B would deter child_B from punching others in the future? If she wanted this outcome, it’d have been more effective to speak to the kid directly. But then what did mom_A get out of the transation? It proved to her self-image that she was a a strong, independent mother. Likely, mom_A’s (and also mom_B’s) worldview is such that kids have no agency, and thus are extensions of their parents.

    Back to Scott’s post. The value of reddit lies not in its truth-value, but its entertainment-value. “My child has ESP”. Is it true? Is it bullshit? Who cares. It’s fun to think about. More importantly, it gives commenters a chance to showcase their edginess (as measured by Karma). If redditors wanted truth-value, they’d be reading the Onion (kappa). The rando who wrote the ESP post is doing reddit a service. Since he gave you your attention’s worth of entertainment, you might as well compensate him the benefit of the doubt (nominal or otherwise). Why would your system_1 bite the hand that feeds you entertainment-value?


    p.s. upvote if you agree

    [0] I can’t find it at the moment. And I’m going off my fuzzy memory, so I may be misrepresenting things slightly.

    • nyccine says:

      You may be thinking of this one, although the mother’s feelings are just a brief intro until he segues to narcissism, specifically how the system sells it by virtue of convincing parents that children are a reward/accomplishment, to be checked off (degree by 21, successful career by 30, married by 35, I’m sure we can fit in a kid at 40 or so…), as opposed to a responsibility.

      It’s depressing to see play out each and every day, among literally everyone you meet. To think Alone got criticized for harping on narcissism too much.

    • thepenforests says:

      This seems to me like…not a productive road to take?

      Like, I can’t help but read this comment and try to place it somewhere on the contrarian hierarchy. Normal people unthinkingly believe convincing-sounding paranormal stories, enlightened skeptics disbelieve them because lol invisible dragons, enlightened enlightened post-rationalists recognize that not everything is about truth, and so on and so forth up the ladder, etc etc.

      But the whole point of SSC, to me, is forgetting about that ladder for a second and just trying to figure out what’s actually true. Like, yes, the hierarchy is inescapable, everything is about status, this comment itself is about me trying to position myself as higher status than you, blah blah blah. Okay, fine. But given that that dynamic exists, can’t we at least try to keep it so that here, if no where else, truth-seeking is rewarded? Can’t we just have one place on the internet where the truth matters, one place where status is apportioned to those who are consistently right, rather than those who are consistently loud or edgy or contrarian?

      Is it true? Is it bullshit? Who cares.

      I do! A bunch of us do! That’s why we’re here! Have we really gone so far that we can’t acknowledge that?

      I think all of the stories that Scott related in this post are obviously untrue. Whether the people who related them are lying or exaggerating or delusion, it doesn’t really matter – I don’t think they’re true. I think that because to believe otherwise would require a radical reconsideration of everything that I, as a physicist, believe is true about the universe. And while I could be wrong about my beliefs, it would require a heck of a lot more evidence than just a few reddit posts (where indeed, people could easily just be straight up lying) to convince me to change my mind.

      • AnonEEmous says:


        and just for that Aberrant Perspective, you have officially forfeited my upvotes

        i’d like to throw in that a deep personal philosophy, in reaction to a lot of postmodernism (mostly in art criticism which I hate), is that you should strive to at least get close to the truth, even if it’s unknowable. Sort of asymptotic, the truth may be always beyond your grasp but at least you can get real close.

    • Deiseach says:

      If everyone is merely swapping ghost stories for entertainment and we all know that that is what is happening, then fine, nobody cares if they’re “true” or not.

      But if someone is recounting “This happened to me and I can’t explain it and am I crazy as in actually insane, having hallucinations and delusions?”, then it does matter if there is an explanation.

      Now, maybe all you want or need in that second case is “Is this naturalistic explanation plausible enough to reassure the person that they are not nuts?” and you don’t actually care if it’s true or not.

      But it does matter if something is true. Merely going “all intelligent people know stones can’t fall out of the sky, so these peasants must be lying” means that you are saying meteorites are fakes, and that is not so. On the other hand, Piltdown Man fossils? Fake.

      There needs to be a balance between “having your mind locked shut on one system so that you prefer to reject inconvenient facts” and “being so open-minded that your brain falls out”. Charles Fort referred to damned data, and while I certainly would not go with some Forteans acceptance of everything and anything, I think the original impulse was scepticism – of the scientific ‘just-so’ stories as well as the fairy stories – and that is the proper way to look at things; is there an explanation for this? do we have to look for an explanation or can we dismiss it out of hand? are we dismissing this out of hand because looking for an explanation might upset our apple cart about how we ‘know’ the world works and we’ll have to throw out cherished and venerable theories?

      It does make a difference if someone is deliberately lying (be that for entertainment, or for popularity, or to screw with someone else) or if they are mistaken but genuine. You’ll get further with someone by starting “Okay, that’s your story, let’s have a look at it and see if we can figure something out” than “Come off it, admit you’re a liar”.

      That the stories Scott leads off with seem a little polished is not, to me, a very strong argument in favour of them being deliberately false; if you’ve tried to come up with “so how can I explain this without invoking the supernatural or paranormal?” then you’ve tried “did we ever tell Junior about granny’s apple business?” and the other things, and if you’ve told the story to people before and they’ve raised objections that you have countered, eventually you have a story that has undergone the “And yes, we did think about had anyone ever shown him a photo of the house or told him about the cat and the rest of it” tests and has been distilled down into the final form.

      I’m not saying the kid is reincarnated or has pre-birth memories or anything and probably with a bit of digging you could find out that no, there was an old photo of the house or yes, when you and Cousin George had been talking about “Remember the purple door?” that Junior had been in the room and overheard you. But the problem we have is this: Are people liars? Well, yes. Do people lie to make things seem better? Well, yes. Are these people lying? Hard to tell. Why do I want to believe that they are not liars? Because if we go about assuming everybody is lying all the time, it makes it as hard on ourselves as believing that everyone is telling the truth all the time. Assumption of lying as the one-size-fits-all answer is as misleading as assuming there-are-no-stones-in-the-sky; people can be misled, mistaken, exaggerating, hoaxing to see how far they can push something before it’ll be disbelieved, suffering from delusions, etc.

      • Murphy says:

        People can also have strong strong delusions. I found it interesting that James Randi commented that Dowsers are typically extremely sincere and truly believe but also tend to be extremely good at coming up with self justification for why they can’t perform in controlled experiments they themselves helped design.

        They’re not suffering mental problems, they’re not evil people, they truly believe, mostly they’re not trying to lie, there’s a lot of them but that doesn’t mean what they believe is true.

  73. mmerrill says:

    So, we have the fire, and improbable doors, and a stereo that adjusted the volume at a speed with no ramp up that we had no human means of doing ourselves. So, the narrative of ghosts came up. I think my roommate was the first one to bring it up, but the second I started I started thinking along those lines, the narrative was not unreasonable. And my real world explanations were disturbingly flimsy. One of them is, literally, I don’t know enough to know that this thing I can’t conceive of any way happening with what I understand of electronics, is actually impossible.

    So, I kind of Schroedinger’s Cat the whole thing. I’m not going to believe or disbelieve. And one night, while I was drunk on our deck, I felt something out there. One of the original scenarios talked about a creepy vibe, and while that sensation might be all in one’s head, that sensation exists. I was drunk, so I decided I was going to try to communicate, but what can you do with a theoretical entity that can neither speak nor be seen? Well, if this theoretical entity actually existed, it had been slamming doors. I thought maybe I could create a numerical based language system. “If you’re out there, and you can hear me, slam the door twice.” And then I heard a sound that was pretty unmistakably the sound of the self-locking door to the courtyard of the apartment slamming multiple times. When I looked at the real world possibilities of this, I realized that every single scenario I could come up with, including a hoax involving 2 people waiting for me to have a conversation with a ghost, were way more insane than the idea that there was an invisible force here, and it likely had a will of some kind. Every single explanation, outside of ” I am completely insane” was crazier than supernatural things happening. Needless to say, I believe in ghosts a lot more now.

    But now there’s the conundrum, one for me, and one for you. Mine is, this is a firsthand account, as best I can describe. But in real life, I can tell people, and honestly, this thing that happened changed the way that I look at the world, and because I believe in rationally thinking things through, some people are really surprised at the way I look at supernatural things, and I am (although you have to consider my credibility in real life as well) a first-hand account. So if someone chose to tell this story, “I trust this person.” etc., they’re second, and so on, so my conundrum is, this thing happened, I looked at it, and the way we understand the world today, I can’t come up with anything that sounds less crazy than that some kind of paranormal exists, and I can’t come up with a way to describe it that doesn’t make me sound crazy.

    Your conundrum is, with no context with which to base it on, do I think this person is trolling me? (I’m not, by the way, this stuff really happened and the doors and the radio, at least, have other people that experienced the same thing, which only satisfies my needs, and not anyone else’s)

    • Montfort says:

      One of them is, literally, I don’t know enough to know that this thing I can’t conceive of any way happening with what I understand of electronics, is actually impossible.

      If you don’t know very much about electronics, this is not what I would call “flimsy.” Maybe if you were an electrician who opened up the speakers to troubleshoot them but found no fault… and even then, that sounds more like a typical “rough day at the office” story for someone who repairs audio equipment.

  74. mmerrill says:

    Oh, one last thing, the tone of those first two examples? They have the tone of, so this happened, and every real world explanation I come up with sounds crazier than, this happened. If it’s a bunch of trolls, they are particularly gifted trolls

    • Murphy says:

      And what are you calibrating that against? Do you have reason to believe that you’re a spectacularly good lie detector in the medium of text? In ideological Turing tests do you consistently spot the fakes better than anyone else? Are you better at spotting a fake than a trained interrogator is at spotting lies from someone in the room with them?

      occasionally someone gets caught in a bald faced lie online but if those are the only ones you’re calibrating against them you’re going to think a hell of a lot of bullshit to be true because they’re the people who are so bad at lying that they couldn’t help contradicting themselves or recycling lies under the same account.

  75. Douglas Knight says:

    If you run a big contest, like the Reddit contest for karma or academia, people will lie to win your contest. But also, if you cast a wide net, you will dredge up lies told to other people. Jackie Coakley lied to a small audience, but then found a similar big audience. Andrew Wakefield lied to a small audience, but then was found by a big audience with somewhat different interests. If people don’t report their parents’ deaths to keep the pension going, they may distort longevity statistics.

  76. mmerrill says:

    I reread the last sentence of my second post, and just wanted to clarify, my needs refers to “I need to know I’m not crazy,” and everyone else’s needs is a scientifically rigorous way to study paranormal events, which to date, there is no good way

  77. mmerrill says:

    *if paranormal things even exist (we don’t even have a good way to do that)

  78. dansimonicouldbewrong says:

    This looks to me like a colossal failure to use Occam’s razor. Allow me to make what seems to me an obvious analogy: literally millions of people will testify to having spoken with, heard the voice of, deeply felt the presence of, or otherwise been exposed to powerfully convincing evidence of the existence of God. Now, if I were to contemplate the question, “does God exist?” in the context of these testimonies, I could account for them in many ways. The first two or three million, I’d think, would be, “maybe they’re describing actual encounters with God”, lumped together in some as-yet-undetermined order with two or three million minus one variations on, “maybe they’ve all experienced a psychological phenomenon of some sort which makes people believe they’ve had an encounter with God”. But I’m pretty sure the very last one I’d resort to–after I’d discounted all of those previous two or three million, would be, “maybe these people are all just pathological liars trolling the Internet/their church/their communities”.

    • mmerrill says:

      It is a failure of occam’s razor, but not in the way that you think. I had to go to such extremes to explain what happened, that the explanations I came up with were more insane than the concept that ghosts exist. Although I still prefer to describe it as a nonspecified invisible force that may or may not have a will. (Probably has a will, the coincidence of that door slamming several times, when every way I can conceive of someone slamming that door several times involves having his hand on the door and hearing me, which would have been more unlikely than that there are ghosts in the world, actually if you solve this one, the other two come out more or less neutral, it’s weird, but I have some explanation. If you have an explanation how a door that not only closes, but acts as a security lock, and it’s good enough that the person in question had never heard it done before or since, slams multiple times at the same time as the only time the person in question states to the air, “If you can hear me, slam the door twice.” If you have an explanation for that, at least give an explanation for coincidence, because that’s where I run in to trouble. It’s too much coincidence, it’s too much improbability. Cause and effect. The words came out of my mouth, and a door did something it should not have been able to do without somebody helping it along.

  79. dawso007 says:

    Of course when you get right down to it – everybody lies. It would not surprise me if much higher numbers than the ones you are suggesting are liars. But I think that you are getting at the general problem of inaccuracy versus lying. Lying is a clear subset of inaccuracy and there are multiple forms of lying. Lying varies from what is suggested in this classic article to more overt forms. You basically need to be conscious of what you are doing and intend deceive. It does not imply malicious intent and the reference illustrates a number of motivations.

    It should not be surprising that anonymous Internet forums with no obvious accountability facilitate lying. On the Internet for example you can slander and ridicule people and get away with it. Unless there is a local violation of some discussion format – there is no major site that will remove those remarks. The best you can hope for is to hire a reputation defender and bury those remarks farther down the search hierarchy. Nobody seems to remember what would happen to trolls in real life.

    I think that even though lies are commonplace and much more common than suggested they may not account for the majority of inaccuracy on the Internet. Certainly people can have unusual experiences. I have had them myself and often disclose them when I am doing psychotherapy (CBT) with psychotic individuals both as projective tests and to illustrate that other theories are possible. The best psychiatrists are always screening what is being discussed for plausibility – not only if it happened as described but the meaning of the spin – conscious or unconscious.

    I like the comments about inaccurate research. Ioannidis has written one of the most frequently referenced papers in modern times about how most published research is false. He has followed up with commentary on the overpublication of meta-analyses and the conclusion that despite the massive production of meta-analyses only 3% are “decent and clinically useful.” (see ref 4).

    I think that you have to be a complete tuna to read what is on the Internet and take it as fact. I don’t care if it is lies, bullshit, fake news, rare experience, different “narratives” or unexplained medical symptoms – the larger issue is accuracy and accuracy is decidedly low. It is perhaps disheartening that even honest research is false – but that is why we have the process of science and guys like Ioannidis.

  80. shakeddown says:

    …Wait, is this Scott’s way of preparing us for the revelation that he’s been making up this entire blog, and that “Scott” is actually a fictional person created by a team of writers in Macedonia?

    • Protagoras says:

      I’ve met a person who claimed to be Scott, and on the basis of a decent amount of conversation it is quite plausible to me that that person would write a blog like this. Of course, you have no reason to believe me.

      • shakeddown says:

        You could be a fictional character too… But I have met Scott Aaronson, who claims to have met Current Scott, so he’s probably real.

        • Murphy says:

          ya but you’re probably just a sock puppet here to prop up the Scott Alexander myth

          • I have met someone who claimed to be Scott Alexander several times at meetups where the online Scott Alexander had said he was coming.

            And I can’t be a sock puppet, because I have a Wikipedia article.

            So there.

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            lmao, as if I’m going to believe a shill from the right wing media and academic bubble.

          • hyperboloid says:

            David, all that proves is that you’re one of the architects
            of the Scott Alexander conspiracy.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Yeah! The fact that you have your own Wikipedia article proves nothing!

          • tgb says:

            David, I have to say I really enjoyed your wikipedia article. On historical reenactment: “He is sometimes credited with founding the largest and longest-running SCA event, the Pennsic War; as king of the Middle Kingdom he challenged the East Kingdom, and later as king of the East accepted the challenge…and lost.”

          • @tgb:

            It’s a good story, but not a very accurate one–an example of morphing by telephone. The declaration of war was made by Iriel, accepted by Rakkurai. I was just the middleman and warmonger.

            I did fight and lose the war as king of the East–consistent with my prediction to Iriel.

        • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

          >Trusting a member of the Scott A cabal

          Really, it’s like you actively want to get tricked.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Trained Hypnotist Scott Adams has used his Master Persuader skill to convince the internet of the existence of the other two.

  81. tscharf says:

    If the Internet says the double slit experiment is not a lie, it must be true. I think.

  82. kboon says:

    I’ve found that looking at posting history is actually a reasonable method.

  83. wintermute92 says:

    For me, I’m reluctant to write off those claims as lies because I’ve heard some very similar stories from people I completely trust aren’t just screwing with me.

    The past-lives/remote-viewing one is particularly relevant. I’ve heard multiple people, many of them devoted physicalists, relate stories about someone displaying concrete knowledge of a thing or event they couldn’t possibly have learned about normally. They’re usually baffled, and quick to hedge and apologize for saying something so silly, and utterly sincere. So I’m slow to assume lies because I think that more than 1/10,000 people, probably more than 1/100, will offer up this kind of story sincerely if you give them the right prompt and setting.

    I should clarify that I don’t “believe” these stories. Certainly I don’t think they’re supernatural, and in many cases I think they’re not just incomplete (saw a picture and forgot) but factually inaccurate (didn’t happen as told). They all conform to the basic patterns of magic/aliens/mysticism stories: they happen late at night, or many years ago, or in the dark, or to a friend. Certainly they don’t ever happen in conveniently-documented settings with clearly-impossible behaviors – if you have a provably-dated video of someone unambiguously predicting the future, tell us about it!

    Interestingly, I’ve heard few-to-none of these stories from rationalists, or scientists in certain false-positive-prone domains, or other hardened skeptics. Physicalism is a belief, but it doesn’t give you the analysis tools of James Randi or Carl Sagan. Those people, I think, are more likely to successfully explain these stories (or simply write them off as odd coincidences and lapses of conscious memory).

    I chalk much of this up to the fallibility of memory. Did that kid flawlessly describe Grandma’s house? I’d be stunned, especially since the kid doesn’t remember doing it. I’ll bet that poster (and wife) have told the story a lot of times, and that the kid’s story and Grandma’s house have unconsciously converged over the years. I’ll bet that the notebook story (if true, that one sets of my fiction-writing bells for some reason) involves forgetting the placement and half-assedly remembering it later. Hell, this is my go-to assumption when I come up with a clever phrase and find that it’s already in use: convergent evolution is perfectly plausible, but unconscious recall seems more likely. I learned years ago that my earliest childhood “memory” had morphed over time, and I’ve never much trusted old stories since.

    So there’s my guess: it’s hard to write these stories off as lies because it seems unkind (or hypocritical) in light of the sincere stories from real people that are out there. Accepting them as well-meant oddities means I don’t have to view real people as possible liars.

  84. baconbacon says:

    Obviously someone could be lying outright in these stories, but even if they are “the truth”, they are lies.

    When he was 6 years old my son described in great detail my grandmother’s house he never been to. This was in 1986 or so, pre-internet.

    1986? Its 2016, your 30 year old memory isn’t “true”, the pre internet quote is to make it sound like the kid couldn’t have cheated by pursuing Facebook, but that doesn’t preclude the story teller from being wrong.

    I never told him about it,

    A complete lie. Unless you are the worst parent ever and this was the first conversation you ever had with your child this is a lie. Not because it isn’t true (the author may not have ever mentioned his grandmother’s house) but because you can’t be sure that you didn’t. If you kid has been talking for 3 years, that is 1,000 days worth of conversations with him and you remember 100% of them? No. Not 50%, not 10%. You remember some tiny fraction of them. The Author has literally no idea if he sat down and drew his grandmothers house one day in crayon while playing with his kid. See this house? Its my grandmother’s house, purple door, red roof, black and white cat. He could have done that a dozen times in his life and totally forgotten (never had someone tell you a story they have already told you? Do you think you have never done that to someone else?).

    It’s a small house with red roof and a purple door (grandma painted the door every couple of years). He described all of it – that it had one big room with a fireplace across from the window, he explained where the doors are located, how there always were some boxes under the stairs, that there always was a faint smell of apples in the house (grandma ran a small time apple sauce business). That there was this cat almost completely white with a black spot around his right eye (that’s mr. Whiskers, my grandma’s cat!).
    My grandma and Whiskers both died in 1977, 3 years before my son was born. To this day I can’t fathom it and can’t even get a remotely sane explanation on how does he know all this. my wife has never met my grandma and never been to her house and in 1986 we were stationed in Germany, so none of my old friends could have reached my son, so this is definitely not someone’s prank. Best part of this is my son says he doesn’t remember telling me that, but my wife heard him saying that too, so if definitely happened!

  85. baconbacon says:

    Obviously someone could be lying outright in these stories, but even if they are “the truth”, they are lies.

    When he was 6 years old my son described in great detail my grandmother’s house he never been to. This was in 1986 or so, pre-internet.

    1986? Its 2016, your 30 year old memory isn’t “true”, the pre internet quote is to make it sound like the kid couldn’t have cheated by pursuing Facebook, but that doesn’t preclude the story teller from being wrong.

    There are no pics of the place that I’m aware and no one owned a camcorder in our family, so video is out of question either. It’s a small house with red roof and a purple door (grandma painted the door every couple of years).

    If there are no pictures or video why do we believe him? “of course I remember what Gramma’s house looks like”. Nope. I mean maybe he is right, but he starts with this as if it is an axiom, but its likely his memory is faded. It would actually be more believable if the story went “my kid described my gran’s house, and then I went up in the attic and dug up the old pictures and buy George was he ever close”. If there are no pictures then the only evidence is this guy’s memory which is doubly fallible. He could have adjusted his memory of her house to fit what his kid said, or adjusted his memory of what his kid said to fit the memory (or merged them together). Zero chance of corroboration.

    I never told him about it,

    A complete lie. Unless you are the worst parent ever and this was the first conversation you ever had with your child this is a lie. Not because it isn’t true (the author may not have ever mentioned his grandmother’s house) but because you can’t be sure that you didn’t. If you kid has been talking for 3 years, that is 1,000 days worth of conversations with him and you remember 100% of them? No. Not 50%, not 10%. You remember some tiny fraction of them. The Author has literally no idea if he sat down and drew his grandmothers house one day in crayon while playing with his kid. See this house? Its my grandmother’s house, purple door, red roof, black and white cat. He could have done that a dozen times in his life and totally forgotten (never had someone tell you a story they have already told you? Do you think you have never done that to someone else?).

    Best part of this is my son says he doesn’t remember telling me that, but my wife heard him saying that too, so if definitely happened!

    Nope. Your wife’s memory doesn’t count as corroboration either.

    • baconbacon says:

      To demonstrate how riddled with holes his story (likely) is. Imagine this conversation with him

      “Do you really believe that you remember what your Grandmother’s house looked like 40 years after she died?”

      “Yes, I loved my grandmother”

      “I’m sure you did, but you went there what, once or twice a year?”

      “Try 10 times a year. Try I spend ever summer there from age 6 through 16. Try some of my best memories growing up were at her house.”

      “Ok, so why did you never talk about her to your wife or child? ”

      “Oh, I told my wife about here, but I never told her (specific memory I am so sure that is accurate and is lodged in my brain but I never told my wife that, no, nope, not possible)”.

      • tgb says:

        This seems entirely plausible to me. I have lots of memories of my grandparents house that I went to only as a child and only sporadically. They are not the kind of memory that I would relate to anyone, because it wouldn’t come up. Why would I tells someone about the large tree outside the door that was cut down due to it rotting which left a large stump that the walkway to the door sort of wound around? (Well, I mean, other than this situation right here.)

        • baconbacon says:

          This seems entirely plausible to me. I have lots of memories of my grandparents house that I went to only as a child and only sporadically.

          What is your confidence that these memories are accurate then? “I remember that my grandparents’ door was Purple” is not the same as “my grandparents’ door was purple”.

          The default is not “my memories accurately represent the past”, but that is the starting point of all these stories.

          • Randy M says:

            I am increasingly aware of how inaccurate my own memory is. I recall it used to be better, but… well you see the problem.

  86. tgb says:

    One reason I don’t want them to be lies: cognitive dissonance. I don’t want to have to admit that I’m wasting my time reading made up stories, sorted by how unlikely they are, while pretending that they’re interesting insight into parts of life I haven’t seen.

  87. Alia D. says:

    I think the question you should focus on is not whether your system 1 wants “to say “No! I believe you!”” but whether your system 1 is inclined to vote for them as a trustee of an organization you care about.

    An important part of a child’s social train is to condition them not to call people they are interacting with liars. Even if someone is a liar, pointing it out will offend them and cause friction in your social circle. There are times when you do need to, but in those cases you should use system 2 to weigh the consequences, gather evidence, and plan a social strategy, not have system 1 cause something to just pop out of your mouth.

    So in well-adjusted individuals, it’s not surprising if System 1 is suggesting that you act socially as if you believe the statement. But if at the same time System 1 is suggesting you lower your likelihood of trusting the person with money or power, then System 1 may not be indicating true belief in the story

  88. Alexandre Zani says:

    Of course they’re lying. As you yourself mentioned, real stories are always filled with little details that detract from the point you’re trying to make. So if you want to convince somebody using the anecdata of your experience, making something up (or embellishing something real) makes a lot of sense. And it’s not even evil, because you know that what you are trying to explain is true! You are just helping someone else see the truth.

  89. BBA says:

    I think most of these fall short of lying under the George Costanza principle: it’s not a lie if you believe it.

    I’m nearly certain that at least one statement that I believe to be true is in fact false. To believe otherwise would be conceited (h/t Raymond Smullyan). If I were to utter such a statement, believing it to be true, would I be a liar?

    Some people are just scum, but I assume they are outnumbered by mistaken/misremembering/embellishing/lying to oneself. I mean, I have to. Otherwise life would be pointless and I might as well just go live among horses, you bunch of yahoos.

  90. jonm says:

    Got to agree with the other commenters here that trolling doesn’t seem like the most likely explanation.

    First, these stories seem really unimpressive to me. Someone found something after they were looking for it and it happened to line up with a sarcastic comment they made. If that happened to me I would just shrug, I lose and then find things all the time.

    Second, these seem totally consistent with real life stories I’ve heard from vaguely spiritually minded people, that probably have a great deal of semi-intentional embellishment, missing inconvenient details and confirmation bias as well as just coincidences. Unreliable biased narrators are essentially every human, whereas trolls making up slightly dull coincidence stories on reddit seem like a very small group.

  91. sinxoveretothex says:

    Scott, I don’t have an answer to why it feels hard to distrust those stories (even though I both agree with you on an intellectual level and agree on the opposite position on an instinctual level).

    But I felt it is interesting that I recently saw the exact opposite: something that looked obviously fake[1], that people called fake[2], but that turned out to be totally true[3].

    I’m not sure what my point is, perhaps that our gut feeling can be totally wrong at times?




  92. Jake_A says:

    One of the extremely extremely rare times that I disagree with Scott.

  93. waltonmath says:

    I think your argument about trolls makes sense, and it doesn’t feel instinctually wrong to me. But what does feel wrong is responding this way in conversations with others. Now, part of this is that I’m talking to a small subset of all possible people, sometimes voice my concerns poorly, and often misunderstand how people will respond best to communication.

    But if someone tells an interesting narrative in an eager tone, and I think their logic is flawed, I’m often reluctant to raise the issue. Indeed, when I do try, it often feels like I’m ruining the fun by disputing a claim at all, like this is a time for telling stories rather than arguing about their validity. I suspect part of this problem is soluble by presenting counterarguments in a friendlier manner.

    Could this want to contribute to a trusting, friendly group be what’s causing the instinctual desire to believe probably fake stories?

  94. Katja Grace says:

    I also feel inclined to trust these stories in spite of what I agree is a pretty plausible explanation. My own guess about similar things in the past has been that the idea of them being true is horrifying to me, so I am quite motivated to disbelieve them, and then I don’t trust my discrediting of them because it is obvious to me that I was extremely biased.

    I don’t feel like this is true, but I don’t have other great explanations. I figured that if it were true I should be able to find extreme stories in genres that I don’t find horrifying, which I would be able to accept are clearly lies. I looked a bit and couldn’t actually find extreme seeming stories in genres I don’t find horrifying, so I couldn’t test it. Apparently I am not imaginative. What do people want to lie about on the internet?

    It also occurred to me that if the stories above are intentional lies, the answers to questions on the internet along the lines of ‘what’s the best/most elaborate/etc lie you have ever told?’ should be fairly extreme, because they should be a combination of real amazing lies that some fraction of the liars are willing to admit to, and even more extreme lies about the lies they haven’t really told. There are a bunch of reddit threads about this, but they didn’t strike me as nearly as impressive as I would expect. It could be that extremal lies from obvious sociopaths do not get upvoted as much as mild lies that sound like they come from likable people.

  95. thetitaniumdragon says:

    People do lie in such things, constantly.

    However, I personally have had two anomalous experiences, both related to dreams. I think both have entirely rational explanations, but they were very strange experiences, and to a less skeptical person, might indicate something interesting was going on.

    The real problem with the “one in a million” coincidence for something unusual is that you have more than one opportunity to experience an odd event. If we assume every day has a 1 in 1 million chance of having something strange happen, by the time you’re 30 you have a better than 1% chance of having had an anomalous day.

    So it isn’t just the fact that there’s a million monkeys on Reddit, but it is a million monkeys times ten thousand monkey days each. Even without the many liars which surely exist, we’d still expect to hear some stories that are weird.

    That doesn’t mean we should trust these stories – but some of them are probably true, and just less special than they sound, while others are probably misremembered, while still others are outright lies.

    I don’t see why it matters. Most are probably untrue, even if they aren’t lies, and the rest are probably mostly unremarkable and too poorly documented to show anything interesting even if something did happen. Some may be inherently unverifiable.

  96. beortheold says:

    A lot of what we read is implausible, and we constantly struggle to fit new facts into a coherent worldview.

    Indeed, a lot of what we read is obvious lies. Somehow, we are all able to rationalize this nonsense, and we do it constantly. (I don’t want to catalog the lies, as it would be distracting, but if you are a liberal, imagine the obvious lies that conservatives believe, or if you are a conservative, imagine all the obvious lies the liberals believe. In addition to those, there are plenty of lies that pretty much everyone believes.)

    There is also a social cost to declaring something a lie, especially if the liar is a member of your community. It decreases the community’s status and cohesion, and it creates direct conflict. Indeed, collective belief in obvious lies is a great way to maintain asabiyah. Therefore, communities actively punish members who declare lies lies, and members learn this implicitly and habitually.

    To detect and identify a lie as a lie requires a certain skeptical frame of mind, one that is difficult to activate in the face of habit and pressure, even when the topic under dispute is something as trivial as a bad scientific study or an anonymous post on a message board.

    So rationalization might be difficult, but it is the default.