Becoming Better Philosophers of Lying

March 1, 2013

To fans of "The Big Bang Theory," "Game of Thrones" and other popular television shows, books and movies: UA researcher Don Fallis studies the characters you love and despise, unveiling the pervasive nature of lying and deception.

Fallis is a professor in the UA School of Information Resources and Library Science, SIRLS, who has spent years studying false statements and dishonest intentions.

In recent years, Fallis has been invited to publish a series of essays and book chapters for the Open Court Publising Company and Wiley-Blackwell on instances of lying and deception in popular culture.

With several essays pending, Fallis took a moment to answer some of questions about his work:

Q: Why do you take interest in instances of deception, whether related to white lies or disinformation?

Fallis: I am a philosopher who works in an information science school. Disinformation turns out to be one of those topics that is at the intersection of these two academic disciplines. On the one hand, information science is concerned about all of the bad information out there – on the Internet and elsewhere – that might mislead us, and it's about what we can do to avoid being misled. On the other hand, philosophers have long been interested in what lying is and in why it is wrong to lie. But, to be perfectly honest, one of the main attractions is simply that lying and disinformation seems to be a really cool subject. People are much more interested in talking to me about lying than about the philosophy of mathematics, which is my other area of expertise.

Q: What are some of the most impactful examples you found in your analysis of "The Big Bang Theory?"

Fallis: A few years ago, I published an analysis of lying in the Journal of Philosophy. Basically, I said that someone lies when she says something that she believes to be false and she believes that a certain social convention is in effect: "Do not say what you believe to be false." I subsequently realized that this analysis is incorrect. And I realized it when I was writing my essay for "The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy." You see, even though the character Sheldon Cooper claims to detest lying, he actually lies to people quite frequently. However, Sheldon does not understand social conventions. (This fact is regularly used to comic effect on the show.) In particular, he does not understand social conventions involving language. For instance, Sheldon famously does not get sarcasm. As a result, my analysis of lying gives the incorrect result that it is not possible for Sheldon to lie. I have subsequently published this counter-example to my analysis in a real philosophy journal. But it first appeared in this "Pop Culture and Philosophy" volume.

Q: The "Game of Thrones" is a hugely popular book and, now, television series. What is your take on the books?

Fallis: In the first book of the "Game of Thrones" series, Prince Joffrey tells his father that Arya Stark had her direwolf attack him. In order to make sure that his son is telling the truth, King Robert Baratheon tells him that, "It is a great crime to lie to the king." This passage intrigued me. So, in my essay for "Game of Thrones and Philosophy," the question that I tried to answer is whether it is morally worse to lie to a king than to lie to someone else. In addition, I discuss the many lies that Ned Stark actually tells. In fact, right before he gets his head chopped off, he lies about having plotted against King Robert.

Q: Holden Caulfield has long been a teen icon. What did your study of "The Catcher in the Rye" reveal about him?

Fallis: Holden Caulfield is famous for complaining about all of the phonies that he runs into.  However, Holden himself goes around lying to just about everyone that he meets in the novel. In fact, he even admits to the reader that he is "the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life." On the face of it, this looks like the pot calling the kettle black. So, I wanted to figure out whether there was any difference between Holden and the phonies such that we should think that the phonies are worse. In a nutshell (and after rereading some Jean-Paul Sartre), I concluded that the problem with the phonies is that they are in "bad faith."

Q: Given that our popular culture is laden with fiction, why should we consider the pervasive nature of lies and deception embedded in our films, television shows, books and other forms of entertainment?

Fallis: The fact that lying and deception are so prevalent in fiction indicates they are an important aspect of human life that deserves philosophical attention. But in addition, the depiction of lying in films and in literature can help us to be better philosophers of lying.

Q: What does it mean to be better philosophers of lying?

Fallis: When philosophers give an analysis, or a theory, of something like lying, they invariably test that analysis by checking to see if what the analysis says about various examples matches our intuitions – specifically regarding those examples. For instance, I decided that my analysis of lying was incorrect because it said that Sheldon can't lie, but my intuition is that Sheldon can lie. However, when left to their own devices, philosophers often make do with just a handful of examples and/or they come up with bizarre examples where our intuitions are very uncertain. What's great about fiction is that it provides us with a bunch of very realistic examples of lying and deception that we can use to test our theories. Novels and TV shows don't work for readers and viewers unless the characters behave in fairly believable ways.  So, even in science fiction stories such as "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Planet of the Apes," all of which I have now written about, the lying and deception is pretty true to life.

Read some of Fallis' work online:

Photo credits: "Game of Thrones" character Daenerys Targaryen via Wallpapers.Brothersoft.com; "Game of Thrones" title card from Home Box Office Inc./BCKORS, LLC./GROK!, LLC./Generator Entertainment/Suction Productions, Inc.; "The Big Bang Theory" main characters via Wikipedia; Holden Caulfield via Flavorwire.com; and Jim Parsons who plahys Sheldon Cooper, a main character from "The Big Bang Theory" via Wikipedia.