I’m an engineer.
At least I am, now. Once upon a time, I was a scientist-in-training. In graduate school, I decided I didn’t really have the temperament for pure science. I like to make things, not discover them and then argue with other academics for fifty years. I think if I’d grown up in a fairy-tale time, I’d probably have been a woodcarver, like Geppetto, the toymaker who created Pinocchio out of a block of wood. It’s why I quickly drifted into software design — it’s a place where I can make things, and see the puppet dance when I’ve done my job well.
A few years ago, I took on an engineering management gig, and I had to work with salesmen a lot more closely than I was accustomed to doing, as well as the rank-and-file bureaucracy of the company. I also had to deal directly with the CEO. It was … educational.
There are some very big differences between these two worlds, differences so vast that under most circumstances, engineers and salesmen cannot actually talk with each other. They speak the same language — in theory — but the meanings of their words and sentences are different. One of the most important jobs of the engineering manager is to (somehow) bridge these two worlds.
I can’t say I was successful. I handled the engineering side easily — the natural world is my world, and I’m used to it. I understand it. I understand the people who work in that world. But the sales and CEO side — that caught me by surprise, and I was too slow to realize I was out of my depth. I did learn enough from the experience to know that I never want to do that again.
Here’s the big difference between the two worlds. The natural world never, ever, ever lies. People lie nearly all the time.
I never realized until I found myself in the gap between the world of lying and the world of not-lying just how much of my training in the sciences was devoted to breaking me of this human habit of lying.
Think about how often you were “taught” to tell the truth. Honesty is the best policy. George Washington told his father about cutting down the cherry tree. Liar, liar, pants on fire.
Why would so much effort go into teaching us to tell the truth if, in fact, it came to us naturally?
As humans, we grow up in a social setting that encourages — even demands — that we keep careful track of an elaborate fantasy of lies which grows more complex as we get older. We lie to avoid giving offense. We lie to get out of trouble. We lie to get our way. We lie to salve our conscience. We lie to shame someone else. We lie to fit in.
We come to understand this human world of lies from the first words we hear as infants, even before we understand the meanings of those words; we are immersed in it as we grow up and become young adults.
And then — should we decide to go into the sciences — we encounter the natural world in all its intransigent truth-telling.
This is very, very confusing at first We learn mathematics as a way of grasping the true inevitability of natural law. We solve math problems, and then do lab experiments to convince ourselves that when we put a question to the natural world, it doesn’t bother to lie to us. It never has an off day. It never tries to cover up a mistake. It has no concern for how it shatters our opinions and theories and beliefs. It doesn’t care if it costs us our careers or our lives or the whole world.
By the time we’ve finished our training in the sciences, our minds — our thinking processes — have been radically altered, our brains rewired. We don’t think like “normal people.” We have become comfortable with not lying. We’ve even come to expect it of our world.
The rest of humanity does not go through this radical psychological makeover. Most of them remain solidly in the human world of lies, myths, stories, exaggerations, and the constant give-and-take of untruths.
Those who become (successful) salesmen and CEOs master the art of lying-for-profit. They understand in their bones that the “rational buyer” of economic theory is total vapor, just another lie in a long series of lies: people are not rational, informed, or adaptive in their decision making. They are emotional, uninformed, and brand-loyal to a fault. The successful salesman does not quote statistics and features at the customer: he tells the customer things that make the customer feel good — secure, knowledgable, powerful, important.
So here is a typical interaction between a salesman and an engineer. The salesman has just returned from a visit with a big (ka-CHING!) client, and he says, “We need the product to levitate three inches off the floor and respond to thought waves.” The salesman has promised delivery by December.
The engineer’s eyes widen, and he shouts, “What?!? What kind of F***ING IDIOT are you? We can’t do that! You’re asking us to violate the laws of physics!”
Note that the engineer immediately assumes that the salesman is giving him a precise and truthful product specification. This is what an engineer expects of his world. He’s been told he has to deliver the impossible in a matter of months, and he’s outraged.
Now the salesman may, in fact, be a f***ing idiot — I’ve met them — but odds are he’s not. Most salesmen are not capable of drafting a product specification, much less conveying one accurately after a single meeting with a client. He’s instead telling a story about how the meeting went. He knows he isn’t going to get a product that levitates and responds to thought waves, at least not by December. He is communicating the customer’s wish-upon-a-star concept, and that the customer has set very high expectations that we “wow” them, and that we do it very quickly or we’ll lose the customer. He lied to the customer about delivery to keep the negotiations open; the customer knows the delivery date is a lie. The salesman expects the engineer to behave like a normal human being and negotiate in return, and also lie to better his own position. Instead, he’s been insulted, shouted at, and flatly refused. The salesman is outraged.
Engineer and salesman glare at each other in mutual misunderstanding and contempt.
All of this came to mind when I was reading Rachel Maddow’s recent article on Mitt Romney’s Whopper of the Week, this week trying to paint Obama as an Evil Government Overlord Destroyer of Medicare. Last week, as I recall, Obama was an Evil Government Socialist Expander of Medicare. Next week it will be Evil Government Expanding Socialist Destroyer of Medicare. The only consistency is Obama (blah-blah) Evil (blah-blah) Medicare.
Romney’s “message” is as incoherent as the babbling of a street-person deep in his Ripple. And yet … his numbers stay the same. They even go up a little when he tells whoppers like this.
As I was raking the yard this evening, I suddenly realized that this entire election has nothing to do with truth, policy, or common sense. It is a lying contest.
They are auditioning the candidates for the office of Liar In Chief.
That’s why Romney is doing as well as he is. He’s actually doing a terrible job of it — his lies are artless, shallow, unconvincing, and obvious. But he’s at least trying.
Obama, the poor fool, is trying too much to rely on his record in office, and seems almost as reluctant to utter an out-and-out falsehood as I would be, as an engineer. He and his handlers distort the truth, to be sure, but they aren’t really in the game. They aren’t giving Romney what-for in the lying contest. And that’s a big part of why Obama is doing as poorly as he is.
Obama needs a completely outrageous lie to tell the American people: “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage!” He needs to promise an economic miracle if every obstructive, mouth-breathing, corrupt, rotten Republican scum is run out of Washington on a rail, covered in tar and feathers, come this November. There’s a job waiting for every man, woman, and child, and your little dog, too! Riches and glory! Champagne for everyone! Just vote out the Party of No and we can dance in the streets!
Now there’s a lie worth some applause! It certainly kicks the living crap out of Romney’s incoherent babble.