Do We Want the President to Be a Good Liar? with Emotions Expert Paul Ekman

Most voters value honesty when they head to the polls, but politicians know that being too honest could be counterproductive.

Paul Ekman: The most malevolent application of my work would be for people to learn how to not get caught when they perpetrate serious lies. How to actually become better at lying. In most interactions we have with other people, we seek honesty. In fact, on most of the public opinion polls that have been done, it comes up as the first or second most important criteria in terms of who we’re going to have as a friend, the relationships we want with our children, with our partner or spouse. We want them to be honest with us. 

I’ve been asked by a sitting president — I won’t say which one — to enhance their credibility, in other words make them more successful as a liar. And of course I would never vote for a president who I didn’t think could lie. We don’t want our political leaders, when they deal with other political leaders, to put all their cards face up. We don’t want them to be untrustworthy either. So it’s a fine line that’s walked between truth and dishonesty. [Henry] Kissinger, not a politician that I enormously admire, but in his book on diplomacy he said it’s accepted if we conceal our true beliefs, our bottom line. But to ever actually say something false ruins you for future diplomatic encounters. So you can conceal, but you can’t falsify.

When my wife comes and says I just bought this new dress. What do you think of it? She wants me to say, "That’s smashing." But I say that I don’t flatter her. So if I think it’s the wrong color or the wrong cut that’s what I’ll tell her. That’s not what she wants. She wants the smashing. But I’ve tried to convince her over more than three decades that it’s useful to have someone who will tell you the truth. 


Esteemed psychologist Paul Ekman makes a pretty good point about contemporary politics. Most voters value honesty and consider it an important criteria when they head to the polls. But politicians who become too honest tend not to last very long. It's good to remember that a major component of politics and conducting foreign policy is the ability to conceal your real feelings from opponents. In that sense, it would be smart for someone running for president to find ways to enhance their credibility — especially when not telling the whole truth.

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A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

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  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
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First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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