A Theocratic Thought Experiment

WE invite you to join your Curmudgeon in a little thought experiment. Imagine, just for a moment, that lying were a crime in America. That’s right — speaking or writing a falsehood could get you some jail time.

Most of us would probably go about our lives unaffected by such a law, but some groups might be hit pretty hard. For example, how would an anti-lying law impact the creationism industry?

Let’s be more specific about the anti-lying law. Suppose it were a federal statute, so it would be applicable throughout the United States. It should have a frightening name that evokes memories of Room 101 from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The guts of the law would be something like this:

Section 1001. Statements generally:

(a) Whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States, knowingly and willfully—

(1) falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact;

(2) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or

(3) makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry;

shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years …

Such a law wouldn’t apply to purely religious organizations, presumably. They’re not lying, just preaching. But how long would it take for all the anti-evolution organizations to shut down? After all, they are entirely devoted to lying about science.

How long would it be before all the creationist museums shut down and creationist websites moved to foreign, spam-friendly jurisdictions, where they would be free to ignore this law? Our guess is that it would be only a matter of days, no longer. A law like that would be truly terrifying.

Despite the endless complaints of creationists about how they’re being persecuted, no such law applies to them, and no one wants such a law. Scientists neither need nor desire political power. They rely on evidence and reason, and they prefer that everyone enjoys the right of free speech. All that scientists have ever wanted is the freedom to do their work without political or ecclesiastical interference. As a consequence of the same freedom which scientists enjoy, creationists are also free. They’re free to lie all day long, and that’s what they do for a living.

Let’s continue our thought experiment, but this time with a little twist. Instead of merely applying to all lies, which would devastate the creationists, suppose the creationists achieved political power and enacted their own law like the one in the box, but their law also defined creationism as truth and evolution as a lie. That law would apply to scientists, science teachers, science writers — even to science bloggers such as your humble Curmudgeon. Then what? Then, as you can easily imagine, we’d all have to shut down or flee to some other country.

You’ve patiently read this far, knowing of your Curmudgeon’s political eccentricities. “Poor guy,” you’re thinking, “he’s a bit daft about governmental things, always imagining that the vision of the Founders is being undone.” Yes, we know what you’re thinking, and we appreciate your indulgence.

You’re thinking that there’s little danger of anything like that actually happening. After all, we have separation of church and state in America — at least for now. The creationists are trying to change things, as you know, but for the moment they don’t seem to be making any progress. It’s unlikely that they’ll ever succeed.

Anyway, why worry? America is the land of freedom. Scientists don’t want such a law and the creationist theocrats won’t get one, so there’s no problem. None whatsoever.

There’s nobody else who would want a law like that — right? Besides, no matter who wanted it, the American people would never tolerate a law even remotely like the hideous Section 1001 that we put in the box at the start of this post. Or would they?

We hate to ruin your day, but take a look at US Code, Title 18, Section 1001. That’s where we got the boxed language. There’s a Wikipedia article on it, but it’s brief and not very informative: Making false statements.

Once again, we know what you’re thinking: “Wow! When did Bush and the Republicans spring that thing on us?” Actually, it’s been around for decades. We’re not sure when that law was first enacted, but the notes at the end of this copy from the US Printing Office indicate that it’s been around since maybe the 1940s. That’s back when you-know-who was President.

Hey, okay — so there really is such a law. But don’t worry! So far, it only works in favor of federal officials. You’re safe. Perfectly safe — as long as you don’t talk to any feds. And as long as the creationists don’t get any ideas.

Pleasant dreams, dear reader.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

add to del.icio.usAdd to Blinkslistadd to furlDigg itadd to ma.gnoliaStumble It!add to simpyseed the vineTailRankpost to facebook

. AddThis Social Bookmark Button . Permalink for this article

15 responses to “A Theocratic Thought Experiment

  1. Martha Stewart knows all about 18 USC 1001. Here is an article on how to avoid running afoul of the statute:

    [Y]ou can politely decline to be interviewed by the FBI agent [or other government agent]. Tell the agent that you have an attorney and that “my attorney will be in contact with you.” If the agent persists, say that you will not discuss anything without first consulting counsel. Ask for the agent’s card, to give to your attorney. If you have not yet hired a lawyer, tell the agent that “I want to consult a lawyer first” or that “an attorney will be in touch with you.” The absolutely essential thing to keep in mind is to say nothing of substance about the matter under investigation. It is preferable to do this by politely declining to be interviewed in the absence of counsel. If the agent asks “why do you need an attorney?” or “what do you have to hide?” do not take his bait and directly respond to such questions. (Do not even say that you have nothing to hide.) Simply state that you will not discuss the matter at all without first consulting counsel and that counsel will be in touch with him. If the agent asks for a commitment from you to speak with him after you have consulted or retained counsel, do not oblige him. Just respond that you will consult with your attorney (or “an” attorney) and that the attorney will be in touch. And by all means do not get bullied or panicked into making up a phony reason for refusing to talk. You are not obliged to explain your decision to anyone.

  2. Thanks, John Pieret. That’s an excellent article. (Martha didn’t write it, which is the impression your comment might give, but that’s swiftly cleared up by clicking over there.) What the author says about the FBI also applies to the IRS, and probably every other agency as well.

  3. How come Inhofe is still running around instead of sitting in a cell?

  4. Tundra Boy asks:

    How come Inhofe is still running around instead of sitting in a cell?

    Just Infoffe? All of Washington DC should be locked up.

  5. Should lies always be constitutionally protected as free speech? To some further degree we already limit speech in precisely this way. It is a crime to lie in a criminal investigation or in a court. It is a crime to falsely claim to be a police officer, lawyer or doctor (in many places). Then there’s the Stolen Valor Act which is being challenged here in Denver on free speech grounds. I don’t think lying should be criminalized per-se however.

    But we can consider censorship apart from criminalization too. I’d like to see a more concerted effort to counter the lies that are causing many parents to skip the MMR vaccine. I think an argument can be made that herd immunity is really a matter of national security. I’m not saying that false information about the autism/vaccine links should be summarily removed from teh Internets, but… well maybe I am.

    I also know that such a move would only fan the flames of paranoia. There doesn’t seem to be any good response to it now. Forcing vaccinations would result in thousands of new Ruby Ridges and probably outright civil war. We’re just going to have the chance to learn by massive experimentation.

    Herd immunity points in the direction my politics. I believe that ours freedoms imply some corresponding responsibilities. I think that the right to free speech carries a responsibility to be generally truthful and to aspire to an elevation of discourse (which I appreciate you for doing here). I wish the Constitution more explicitly encouraged our attendant responsibilities or at least promoted the idea that there *are* responsibilities.

  6. Oroboros asks:

    Should lies always be constitutionally protected as free speech?

    Lies aren’t always protected speech, but the occasions when lies are punished seem to be very few. Commercial fraud is the biggie, along with the examples you gave. Perjury is rarely treated seriously. Oh, don’t lie on your tax return — doing so is very serious.

    Otherwise it seems that lying is a right, as much as speaking is. The problem is that if we call someone a liar he can sue us for slandering him. Tricky situation. And if the liar causes harm, as politicians and promoters of quack medical theories can do, there seems no way to hold them accountable for the damage they do.

  7. The problem is that if we call someone a liar he can sue us for slandering him.

    They’d be unlikely to win, for the same reason its hard to convict someone of slander in the first place. In both cases the “knowingly and willingly” is incredibly hard to prove. If you think what you’re saying is the truth, its not a crime to say it. To be convicted of these things you practically have to leave an Evil Master Plan lying around stating how you intend to call someone a liar in order to ruin their reputation, career, or whatever.

    The ‘knowingly and willingly’ requirement is what gives U.S. speech such freedom (for good and ill).

  8. eric says:

    They’d be unlikely to win, for the same reason its hard to convict someone of slander in the first place.

    I was thinking of getting sued, not prosecuted. Yes, creationists lie, and if you say they’re lying it’s the truth, so you’d probably win if you got sued for calling a creationist a liar. But litigation is expensive. It’s definitely something to be avoided.

    That’s why I usually just say that a creationist has written something idiotic, but not that the author is an idiot. Will that really protect me from getting sued? I’m not that big a target, so it probably doesn’t matter. But nobody knows what could happen.

  9. Well, anyone can be sued for anything. 🙂

    You’d probably win, I agree, but not by proving the creationist actually lied. If they sue you, you don’t have to prove anything – they do. They have the burden of proof to prove that you willfully lied. I.e. they have to prove that you actually think they are telling the truth, and that you claim they are lying in public in order to damage them in some way.

    That’s hard to do…especially since you don’t actually think they’re telling the truth. 🙂

  10. eric says:

    If they sue you, you don’t have to prove anything – they do. They have the burden of proof to prove that you willfully lied.

    I don’t think it works that way. They’d have to prove that I made a slanderous statement, and I imagine that calling someone a liar would qualify. My defense would be that I spoke the truth. Then the thing turns into a Kitzmiller style trial.

  11. They’d have to prove that I made a slanderous statement, and I imagine that calling someone a liar would qualify.

    IANAL, but AFAIK if its your opinion and does not involve facts (“eric lied when he said xyz” would involve facts, “eric is a dirty rotten liar” does not), its not slander. If you’re making a comment about a group (“creationists are liars”), its not slander.

    And if you’re going after a public figure (“Ken Ham is a liar”), New York Times vs Sullivan (1964) says they also have to prove actual malice or ‘reckless disregard’ for the truth. Its very hard to prove mental states like “malice,” so unless the defendent left a “Plan to Drag Ken’s Reputation Through The Mud” lying around, poor Ken probably doesn’t stand a chance.

    Here’s how it plays out. Ken drags you into court, your lawyer asks you why you made the statement “Ken Ham lies.” You say “because I think he misrepresents evolutionary science.” The court determines your reason wasn’t malice, and regardless of whether your statement is true or false you’re off the hook.

  12. eric says: “Here’s how it plays out.”

    I don’t think so, but since neither of us knows, we won’t make much progress speculating. When you blog, you can play it as you like.

  13. That was excellent …

  14. I liked it, but it wasn’t one of my most popular posts. That’s how it goes.

  15. Pardon the late comment, but I missed this thread.

    Curmudgeon: “…suppose the creationists achieved political power and enacted their own law like the one in the box, but their law also defined creationism as truth and evolution as a lie.”

    I’d be very curious as to which of the mutually contradictory creationist positions would be declared “true” and which would be declared “lies.”

    I often run a related “thought experiment” in which the creationists won in the courts starting with “McLean” (and “Edwards” if it were even necessary after a McLean win). In my “experiment” there would be the same trend towards “don’t ask, don’t tell what the designer did, when or how.” While the “hard evidence” for the strategy change (e.g. “cdesign proponentsists”) is the court losses, they still faced that massive problem of being unable to agree on an alternate chronology, which “kinds” share common ancestors, and many other issues.

    This hopeless disagreement stems from the fact that none of the “creationisms” can withstand the evidence. So even if they were given the opportunity to teach “scientific” creationism (a clever “heliocentric YEC” compromise) in the 80s, they would have been forced to start backpedaling as soon as students critically analyzed what both “scientific” YECs and IDers (if not “classic” OECs) definitely want them not to critically analyze.