Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, April 23, 2003

The truth about lying: Course explores history of deception


Ladies and gentlemen, with nothing up his sleeve, Michael John Gorman ripped up a white envelope containing a dollar bill and made the money reappear inside an orange. Sliced open, the fruit revealed a tightly furled but fully restored bill bearing the same serial number as the one Gorman had torn to pieces.

All told, it was a fairly convincing act of deception.

Gorman, a lecturer in the program in Science, Technology and Society, is co-teaching what has got to be the coolest course being offered this quarter -- Deception: Perspectives from Science, Technology and Art -- with magician Persi Diaconis, the Mary V. Sunseri Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, who holds appointments in the departments of Mathematics and Statistics.

Zachary Pogue, an undergraduate in the program in Human Biology, participates in a card trick performed by mathematics and statistics Professor Persi Diaconis. Photo: L.A. Cicero

The class, which began, appropriately enough, on April 1, explores not only magic tricks but several other forms of deception, including mechanical contrivances, forgery, confidence tricks and psychic reading. It also examines the art of detecting lies and of debunking the paranormal.

"Lying has been described as one of the most fundamental human activities," according to the course syllabus. "George Steiner has argued, in After Babel, that deception was at the root of the development of human language." (However, the syllabus is careful to point out that "the purpose of this course is not to teach students how to lie and deceive.")

On the first day of instruction, a discussion about lying revealed how layered and murky the topic is. St. Augustine argued that lies are never acceptable, but medical practitioners might believe otherwise, Gorman said. He read an excerpt from a frequently cited article by Dr. Lawrence Henderson that was published about 70 years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine:

"Above all remember that it is meaningless to speak of telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to a patient. ... So far as possible do not harm. You can do harm by the process that is quaintly called telling the truth."

Susan Holmes, associate professor of Statistics, sat in on the class and participated by demonstrating a magic trick. Rajaie Batniji a co-term student looks on. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Agreeing with Henderson, a student in the class spoke up to assert that if lying instills hope and mental strength in a patient -- and this, in turn, makes the patient more likely to get well -- lying makes sense.

The question of whether lying is sometimes justifiable has been worried over for centuries by theologians from various religious traditions, Gorman said. Consider the notion of taqiyah, the Shi'ite Muslim doctrine of legitimate dissimulation, which permits the concealment of religious beliefs if revealing them would place you in extreme physical peril, or similarly imperil your fellow Muslims.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Jesuits could rely on two forms of deception -- mental reservation and equivocation -- to worm around "outright" lying while also guarding against the prospect of being found out and executed during undercover missions in England. Mental reservation involves a false statement that is spoken aloud, followed by a phrase or sentence that is thought -- but not spoken -- and makes what was previously said true. Gorman gave this example (the italicized part of the sentence would remain unspoken): "I did not murder her on June 1 with a piece of frozen fish."

Equivocation is the use of words or expressions that have more than one possible meaning. A student in the class volunteered this example: You can say you did not sleep with so-and-so, meaning only that you did not fall asleep in the same bed together.

And what of deception in magic tricks? Gorman's trick -- the one involving a dollar bill and an orange -- originally called for burning the money in the envelope. But, after contemplating the possibility of setting off the room's sprinkler system, Gorman decided that ripping it to pieces would suffice. Of course, a skeptic may wonder whether he palmed the dollar bill before sealing the envelope (especially given the absence of green scraps amid the pile of torn paper on the floor). The more compelling question, however, was whether the dollar bill, which Gorman had borrowed from a student in class, was in fact the same one that appeared inside the orange. A skeptic may wonder whether Gorman actually recited the serial number of a bill previously inserted into the orange via surgical removal of its node, which was later replaced with glue.

In any case, lying in magic tricks is a slippery subject that's often debated among magicians. According to Diaconis, overt lying is viewed with disfavor. "To say, 'I give you my word of honor: I haven't looked at the face of the card,' and that's not true -- well, the brethren would frown upon you," Diaconis said. "But to say, 'Here's an empty can,' when in fact it's double-thick and filled with water, that's not considered a lie."

Confederacy -- that is, when a magician is in cahoots with one or more audience members -- is frowned upon, too, Diaconis added.

Methods of misdirection, the art of distracting spectators' attention from key elements of a trick, is another subject discussed among magicians, he said. "If I'm going to do something, and I don't want you to look at my hand, I might look at you, and then you'll look at me and not my hand," he explained.

He described one bold use of misdirection by his late friend David Bamberg (aka Fu Manchu), a famous magician who worked in South America: Bamberg told spectators he would remove a metal ring from a rope being held, on either end, by two members of the audience. "I thought, 'How the hell is he going to do this?'" Diaconis recalled. "And all of a sudden, I heard somebody screaming in the balcony, and a woman got thrown over the side. It was a rubber dummy. Everybody laughed, and when I looked back, [Bamberg] was standing there but the ring and the rope weren't quite in the same configuration. That's a little brazen, but you get the idea."

Persi Diaconis

Michael John Gorman