The Pathology of Lying

The Pathology of Lying

Dr. Marc Siegel calls for truth-telling.


Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair I’m not, but recently I made a journalistic and perhaps ethical error in my Ask Dr. Marc column. An editor friend and patient of mine wrote a medical question to my personal e-mail address. Since the problem was minor and the question ironic–addressed to “Dear Dr. Marc” and signed “A faithful reader,” I assumed it was intended for my column, and I sent it on to my Nation editor. It was subsequently published along with my answer.

All reader questions for Ask Dr. Marc are submitted via an e-mail form whereby anyone who writes must check a box agreeing that they’re allowing The Nation to publish the letter. But since this letter came to me via my personal e-mail, the writer never encountered that form or permission box.

For some reason, I was also under the impression that my friend who wrote the question would be contacted prior to publication of her letter, but I soon found that this wasn’t the case when she wrote me angrily that my using her letter without her explicit permission was a violation and a reason to fire me as her physician.

Initially, no amount of apologizing was sufficient to assuage her feelings, but over time, she decided to overlook my error. I believe that because my actions weren’t intended, and were followed by sincere remorse, that this somehow ameliorated the offense. Do readers agree?

Wouldn’t the public feel better if President Bush announced that he made a mistake tying the war in Iraq to his certainty of discovering Weapons of Mass Destruction that now can’t be located? I think many people would be reassured at least as much by humility as by the continuing cowboy routine.

I must confess that I had problems with the term WMD from the outset, since anthrax, sarin, and other chemical and biological weapons are difficult to deliver on a grand scale, and are hardly comparable in scope to the potential devastation of a nuclear bomb. But is the fact that the weapons weren’t found the major issue, or is it the Administration’s inability to come clean with an apology and a sincere attempt to make amends? And how about, “We’re sorry, but we grossly underestimated what it would take to rebuild Iraq?” Needless to say, deceit has always been an integral part of politics. But it seems the mendacity is growing.

A wise head once advised me that it was always better to tell the truth than to have to try to remember the latest story you made up to convince people that you were honorable. Truth-telling, the saying goes, enables one to sleep well at night. Hopefully, it’ll also become more important in winning elections.

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