Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pathologies 101

The Michael Lacour story is giving me flashbacks, as I have run across a pathological liar in my life.  First, a quick review of LeCour's lies: he apparently lied about the research he "did"; he apparently lied about the funding; and he apparently has even lied about the teaching award he "received".  What is left of his CV?  Did he really go to the undergraduate institution that is on his CV?  Probably? Maybe?  All we know for certain is that he went to UCLA for his PhD.

That LaCour has apparently lied about everything should give us pause before we blame the job market, the pressures of 21st century academia, and whatever else.  Why?  Because the signs are there that LaCour is a pathological liar.  I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, nor do I play such roles on TV.  But I did experience a pathological liar in college, so this all feels familiar.

I was attracted to a woman who kept telling me amazing, incredible stories about herself and what she experienced.  She was utterly convincing either because she believed the lies themselves or because she was really good at lying because she had a lot of practice.  I forget the event that caused me to see through the lies, but it was after several months.  Once I realized that she was lying, all the lies became incredible--not to be believed.  All of it was a lie, not just a few things--every dimension, every facet of this person was a deception.  After I figured it out, I found that there were two groups of people--those who continued to fall for the lies and resisted those who had seen the light and those who had seen the light.  I think I broke one friendship after trying to inform my friend that she was hanging out with a pathological liar.

This may not be apply to LaCour, but it might be.  That people believed his lies because of  three dynamics:
  • He was really good at it--through practice and perhaps believing in the lies himself.
  • The big lies are harder to disbelieve than the small ones.  We don't expect scholars to lie about large hunks of their record.  They may fudge some analyses to get statistical significance, but create a dataset?  
  • We are too busy in this profession of doing the daily work to start from a position of extreme distrust.  We may be quite critical of the work we read, but we do not start from thinking that everything is a sham.  We start from a position of trust.  And is that so wrong?  No.
Since LaCour has taken down the various versions of his CV, I cannot say that what would have set off alarms if I was on a job search committee and looked at his file.  His research was seen as excellent by specialists in that area, his teaching award did not seem that extraordinary.  Maybe it would have been the size of his grants, but even that probably would have just impressed and not alerted.  Why?  Because it is hard to believe that anyone would lie about their funding like this.  Such huge grants?  That would be so easy to disprove so, of course, he would not lie about it....

But that is the trick--the lies were so big that they were hard to disbelieve until they were not.  Again, once one moves from belief to disbelief, all the lies seem obvious and it is easy to doubt.  But before that moment of clarity, before that epiphany, it is so very easy to get sucked in by the lies.  

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