To Tell the Truth

It was so much easier in the days of Snidely Whiplash.

Remember Snidely?

For those too young to have a proper cartoon education, Snidely Whiplash was the ongoing villain of the “Dudley Do-Right” tales. Snidely was evil and you knew it – he had a black coat and hat, a mustache that begged to be twirled, and a dramatic, sinister laugh. There was no secret about who he was –  even somebody as dimwitted as Our Hero Dudley could tell “Hey, this is probably the bad guy here.”

As we got older, things got a little more sophisticated. Oh, there were still blatant figures of evil like Darth Vader with his black armor, blood-red lightsaber, and habit of choking minions who failed their job reviews. But we also got characters that seemed oh-so-charming, ready to smile all the way to the bank, with your money in their hand. Stories like “The Music Man,” “The Producers,” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” gave us flim-flam artists who could talk anyone out of anything – to the amusement of we, the audience, who knew so much better.

After all, we knew the whole script.

We like to think we’re that good in real life, too. That we can spot the phonies and the fakes. That no one is going to spin a line on us, because we’re smart. We’re aware. This is our story and we’re the hero, so that means we have to be right, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It never was.

We’ve had a lot of painful reminders of that over the years. Bill Cosby, loved by millions as America’s Dad, going to prison on sexual assault charges. The sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, where trusted figures proved to have terrible secrets. And now we have in front of us the Supreme Court hearings, where a nation is weighing whether nominee Brett Kavanaugh or his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, is more credible.

Nobody gave us the script. Nobody put us in the room where it happened. And that means we’re left leaning on two things – evidence, which is often slow and painstaking to gather, and our own impressions and experience, which can be put together oh-so-quickly.

Maybe too quickly.

A recent piece in FiveThirtyEight noted studies that show we’re a lot worse at gauging liars than we think we are. Even professional observers – police, journalists, prosecutors – turn out to have a success rate that’s only a little above 50 percent. Even the cues we watch for aren’t a sure tell, the piece notes. Since “everyone knows” that certain cues indicate that someone is straightforward or a liar, they’re easy to fake – actors do this all the time – or easy to stumble into by someone who’s nervous about being mislabeled.

The result is that two people, watching and listening to the same individual, can reach completely different conclusions. One person’s “Obviously sincere” is the other’s “well-rehearsed phony.” For one, anxiety is proof of guilt, for another, the sign of understandable stress. And as observers try to convince each other, they often talk right past each other, because they are literally not speaking the same language.

I’m not pretending to be a sage who’s above it all. I have my thoughts and impressions, too; I have a conclusion that seems likely to me. But it is easy for anyone – rightly or wrongly – to reach a conclusion based on the story they expect to see. The charges on Cosby, for example, had circulated as rumors for years before they ever reached a courtroom. And it was easy for most people to dismiss them as merely rumors … until the grinding weight of evidence made it undeniable.

It was slow. Painfully slow, especially for those at the heart of it all. But by taking the time, by persisting in the investigation, a conclusion was finally reached. One big enough to shatter the stories that had already been drawn.

We need to take the time. On this case and any case. Yes, there’s a lot of pressure to decide this quickly. But with so much on the line, we need to be sure. It can’t just sound right – it has to be right.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” Sherlock Holmes once observed. “Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Keep digging. Always.

It doesn’t have to be as fast as a Whiplash.