This Is How to Invent a Lie: An Essay from the Author of Lies, Incorporated

Here is a dark secret of Washington, D.C.:  If you want to halt an ideological opponent from advancing their cause, you can hire armies of lobbyists or make dozens of campaign contributions, but often the most potent weapon in your arsenal is a lie—the bolder and more outrageous, the better.

Dig into any significant issue debated during the last seven years and you will find a lie at the core of one side’s arguments. These lies are rarely random or accidental creations. They are born into the world by an industry that I term “Lies, Incorporated” in a book with that title.

There are such well-known lies as the one about President Obama’s health care bill requiring death panels or those told by those denying climate change, but Lies, Incorporated’s work also played a prominent role in such issues as the fight for marriage equality.

As cases challenging state laws barring gay marriage and the federal Defense of Marriage Act began to make their way through the courts, the Witherspoon Institute—a conservative think tank—granted $700,000 to Mark Regnerus, a University of Texas sociologist, to study the impact parents in gay partnerships have on their children.

A series of emails from Witherspoon’s president, Luis Tellez, makes clear the actual motivation behind the study. “It would be great to have this before major decisions of the Supreme Court,” Tellez wrote the professor.

The think tank president also wrote to his funders that he was “confident that the traditional understanding of marriage will be vindicated by this study as long as it is done honestly and well.”

Unsurprisingly, the study’s results conformed to the think tank’s ideology. The New Family Structures Study found that children of gay parents face negative economic, social, and psychological consequences as results of their upbringing.

After significant backlash, Social Science Research, which published the study, tasked one of their editorial board members, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, to review the study. Darren Sherkat made his opinion of Regnerus’s study clear. “It’s bullshit,” he told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The American Sociological Association also criticized the study, saying it “provides no support for the conclusions that same-sex parents are inferior parents or that the children of same-sex parents experience worse outcomes.”

Yet this ideologically motivated research had its intended effect. Multiple briefs filed with the Supreme Court referenced the study, including one from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and another by the legal team tasked by the House of Representatives with defending DOMA. Government officials opposing marriage equality were still referencing the study’s conclusions in 2015.

This is Lies, Incorporated’s methodology. Hire a researcher who produces work supporting your ideological goals. Let allies in both government and the media use the work to justify their beliefs. Never acknowledge the lack of truth behind your efforts.

If this strategy was rarely deployed, it could be ignored. But as my book Lies, Incorporated demonstrates, this sinister methodology has been used in battles over health care, guns, voting rights, immigration, climate change, and nearly any issue where a well-funded opposition wishes to halt progress.

To advance progress, Lies, Incorporated will have to be defeated. The whole way to accomplish this goal is to confront their lies head on and make sure liars are no longer welcome in the public square.

—Ari Rabin-Havt