What Do We Do When Lies Are Quite Appealing?

Perhaps you have noticed that people will believe what they want. Objective truth often seems to be a scarce commodity. Right now, arguments about misinformation and disinformation are dominating much of our political discourse. So this seems like a good time to consider that sometimes lies are quite appealing. Because we face daily decisions about whether to give voice to pesky truths. Or instead, to let an appealing lie gain acceptance.

News Avoidance

A recent paper in Science Advances suggests a useful frame for thinking about misinformation. Jennifer Allen et al suggest that the problem of “fake news” might be exaggerated. In fact, they say, most people consume news from conventional news sources – largely from TV. But most people are not consuming much news. This study found that news accounts for less than 15 percent of the average American media diet. People want entertainment more than news and information, it seems. Disinformation, in the form of fake news, makes up a tiny part (0.15 percent) of the media that Americans consume.

Thus the problem is more likely to be misinformation from conventional sources or the avoidance of information sources altogether. Entertainment is much more appealing.

So let’s consider three examples of conventional information sources serving as misinformation sources.


We see a lot of clickbait coming from otherwise respectable institutions. When he asserted that “sugar is poison,” endocrinologist Robert Lustig garnered massive attention. Of course, the assertion is not literally true. But it worked for him and his career as an anti-sugar crusader. It was great clickbait.

Likewise, we see universities issuing press releases about diet and nutrition that are more about attracting attention than conveying scientific truth. Magical anti-inflammatory diets offer a recent example.

Weight Loss

Obesity is a chronic disease. Dealing with it is a long-term project. But the fiction of one-and-done weight loss is a whole lot more appealing. In the end, though, what matters more is managing this condition. Unfortunately, the number of people who will bite on promises of amazing weight loss is much bigger than the number of people who are seeking to inform themselves about obesity.

Health at Every Size™

As an antidote to the exploitation and futility of weight loss schemes, the trademarked concept called Health At Every Size is popular. You will find lots of good ideas here, including the need to reduce weight stigma and bias and the need to put health first, regardless of a person’s size. But you will also find the suggestion that obesity is not a serious health concern. Some in this movement will go so far as to claim (irresponsibly) that obesity is not a risk for poor outcomes with COVID-19. In a word full of blame and shame and lacking in help for obesity, that’s appealing. But it’s false.

Sticking with the Truth

Regardless of the great appeal of misinformation, truth works better in the long run. Objectivity and curiosity fuel the pursuit of truth. They are essential for science. Friedrich Nietzsche pointed this out quite nicely in the 19th century:

“Three cheers for physics! And even more for the motive that spurs us toward physics – our honesty!”

Click here for further perspective on the post-truth era and here for an exploration of how people discern what is true.

Pinocchio, illustration by Enrico Mazzanti / Wikimedia Commons

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November 15, 2020