Lying To The Lab Coats

We’ve all read reports on medical studies that have reached significant conclusions about the consequences of certain behavior or the causes of physical or mental conditions. One question about those studies always lingers: if one of the elements of the study is self-reporting by participants, how do we know that the participants are really being truthful in what they are reporting — or, whether they are lying to the lab coats instead?

A recent discovery of misreporting by participants in a genetic study of the effects of alcohol consumption highlights the concern. Researchers determined that participants in the UK Biobank that provided the data for the study often underreported their use of alcohol and did not provide accurate information about their consumption over time. (The UK Biobank includes data from 500,000 volunteers who have, since 2006, agreed to be periodically questioned and tested about various activities and conditions.)

Even worse, the false information caused the researchers in the genetic study to reach inaccurate conclusions about alcohol use and its association with certain health conditions. When statistical analysis techniques were used to scrub the Biobank data of false information, for example, negative correlations between alcohol consumption and diseases like anemia, hypertension, and type II diabetes were significantly reduced — in some cases to near zero.

It’s not clear from the article linked above precisely how the researchers discovered the underreporting, but the fact that study participants lied to the lab coats about their use of alcohol shouldn’t surprise anyone. Human nature tells us to be dubious of the scrupulous accuracy of self-reported information on any potentially embarrassing topic — whether it’s smoking, drinking, daily exercise, amount of TV viewing, or consumption of ice cream and potato chips. The next time you read about a study that reached startling conclusions about something, take a look at how the data was generated, and if self-reporting was involved, consider whether the nature of the study might have tempted participants to fudge a bit in their reporting. And let’s hope the lab coats do likewise.

Lying To Your Kids

Should you ever lie to your kids?  And if you do, how will it affect them?

Parent Herald has an article that presents both sides of the issue.  Some parents contend that lying — they use the softer term “fibbing” — is an effective, crucial tool in the parental toolbox.  If your kids won’t quiet down or eat their vegetables at dinner, it’s OK to tell them a “white lie” in furtherance of achieving what the parent knows to be the greater good.  The “fibs” come out after other parental tools, like trying to make your kids feel guilty because “there are starving children in Africa” or “your father works hard all day and deserves some peace and quiet,” are found to be unsuccessful.

UnsincereThe other position argues that lying is a bad thing, period, and if kids understand that their parents are lying to them, the kids will be encouraged to lie as well.  This isn’t a good thing, because kids are natural, unapologetic liars.  In fact, they are unskilled, inveterate liars, who aren’t even bounded by concepts of remote plausibility, who lie even when visible evidence exposes their duplicity, and who wither under only the mildest cross-examination.  Parents really shouldn’t be doing anything to promote that dishonest tendency.  If your kids conclude, from your example, that lying is OK, imagine the effect it might have on them during the teenage years, when the temptation to lie, and the stakes involved, are so much greater.

I tend toward the latter position.  The only lie I remember telling the kids was about the existence of Santa Claus, which can be rationalized as an effort to promote and maintain the sense of childish wonder in how the world works.  I don’t remember using lies as a regular parental technique to get our kids to do what we wanted.  We recognized that they were naturally stubborn, as many kids are, and I’m not sure lies would have done much good — and I always thought our kids were smart enough to be able to sniff out a lie, anyway.  I also hate being lied to, because it’s insulting and demeaning, so why do something to your kids that you wouldn’t want someone to do to you?

Faking It

NBC News anchor Brian Williams publicly admitted yesterday that a story he had been telling about a wartime experience in Iraq was false, and apologized.  Williams had said, including as recently as a week ago, that while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003 he was aboard a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire and forced down.  That didn’t happen; Williams and an NBC crew were aboard a following aircraft that was unhit.

The Williams incident is interesting, because as the story linked above indicates, he initially accurately recounted that he was not in the chopper that was hit by rocket fire.  But over the intervening years the story morphed, and last week in a tribute to a soldier at a hockey game Williams said “the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.”  Why did the story morph?  Williams attributes it to the “fog of memory” after 12 years and constant viewing of the video of him inspecting the impact area, which caused him to “conflate” his experience with that of the soldiers in the stricken helicopter.

Of course, only Brian Williams knows how and why the real story became submerged beneath the fake one.  It’s hard to imagine ever becoming confused about whether you were in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket and personally felt the jolt of the impact and the fear about survival and the chaos of the forced landing — even if it was 12 years ago and you were a big-time newscaster who has had lots of exciting experiences since.

Many people might attribute the change in the story, instead, to the human tendency to exaggerate actual experiences to make our lives seem more interesting and worthy.  It’s a common phenomenon — who can forget, for example, Hillary Clinton’s debunked claim to have run across a Bosnian airport tarmac under sniper fire? — and it’s reflected in false resume entries, “fish stories,” and tales that grow in the telling over the years until the recounted story bears only a faint connection to the reality of the actual incident.

This doesn’t excuse a news reporter telling a false story, of course — but it does make you wonder how many of the personal incidents we hear about from public figures are true.  My grandmother used to say:  “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.”  It’s not a bad rule of thumb.