Big Lies: from Socrates to Social Media

Big Lies: from Socrates to Social Media
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Release Date
September 27, 2022
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In his new book for young readers Mark Kurlansky’s lens is the art of the “big lie,” a term coined by Adolf Hitler. Kurlansky has written Big Lies: From Socrates to Social Media for the next stewards of our world. It is not only a history but a how-to manual for seeing through big lies and thinking critically.
Mark Kurlansky’s bestselling works of nonfiction view the history of the world through unexpected lenses, including cod, salt, and paper. In this new book for young readers his lens is the art of the big lie. Big lies are told by governments, politicians, and corporations to avoid responsibility, cast blame on the innocent, win elections, disguise intent, create chaos, and gain power and wealth. Big lies are as old as civilization. They corrupt public understanding and discourse, turn science upside down, and reinvent history. They prevent humanity from addressing critical challenges. They perpetuate injustices. They destabilize the world. 

As with his book World Without Fish, Kurlansky has written A History of Big Lies for young readers, the future stewards of our world. It is not only a history but a how-to manual for seeing through big lies and thinking critically. “I hope that you will keep asking yourself what is true as you read this book and live your life,” he entreats readers at the outset. “If the Age of Enlightenment is not to be followed by the Age of Chaos, we have to think for ourselves.”

A History of Big Lies soars across history, alighting on the “noble lies” of Socrates and Plato, Nero blaming Christians for the burning of Rome, the great injustices of the Middle Ages, the big lies of Stalin and Hitler and their terrible consequences, and the reckless lies of contemporary demagogues, which are amplified through social media. Lies against women and Jews are two examples in the long history of “othering” the vulnerable for personal gain. Nor does America escape Kurlansky’s equal-opportunity spotlight. 

The modern age has provided ever-more-effective ways of spreading lies, but it has also given us the scientific method, which is the most effective tool for finding what is true. In the book’s final chapter, Kurlansky reveals ways to deconstruct an allegation. Is there credible, testable evidence to support it? If not, suspect a lie. A scientific theory has to be testable, and so does an allegation. Who is the source? Who benefits? Is there a money trail? Especially in the age of social media, critical thinking counters lies and chaos.  

“Belief is a choice,” Kurlansky writes, “and honesty begins in each of us. A lack of caring what is true or false is the undoing of democracy. The alternative to truth is a corrupt state in which the loudest voices and most seductive lies confer power and wealth on grifters and oligarchs. We cannot achieve a healthy planet for all the world’s people if we do not keep asking what is true.”

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A Definitive History of "Big Lies"
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Who knew that the term "fake news" has been in use since the late 1800s? Mark Kurlansky, the author of such titles as Frozen in Time, The Story of Salt, and Battle Fatigue, that's who. Using his impressive research skills, lots of information to bolster his claims, and a smidgen of frustration, Kurlansky shows us how lies have stretched across history and culminated in a president who, according the the Washington Post Fact Checking Team, told over 30,000 lies during his four year tenure in office. This book is clearly aimed at readers who have serious doubts about right wing media, so people who think that reports about Q Anon are credible will probably not enjoy this book as much as I did.

Modern "fake news" makes an appearance later in the book, but the bulk of this tome centers on disinformation and its spread in the past. And there's a LOT of it. From the ancient Greeks, to how people reacted to science during the Enlightenment to the "killer clown" fears of 2016, dozens of notable disinformation campaigns are dissected and used to illustrate the various ways that information can be skewed and used to further personal and political agendas.

This isn't arranged chronologically, but rather thematically. There are chapters on why people don't believe science, on how lies are frequently spread about women and he disenfranchised, on how lies can be constructed to lay blame, and even on how photographs have been used for lies for as long as they have been around! These chapters are interspersed with amusing cartoons about Russian spies creating disinformation bots, which are a nice break, since there is a lot of information to be digested.
Good Points
Russia is covered quite a bit, and I learned a lot about Stalin that makes understanding current politics concerning that country easier to understand. There's also a good examination of witch hunts through time, and Orwell's 1984 crops up quite often.

There are so many different topics that I wanted to investigate, just to make sure that Kurlansky had his sources straight; after all, he discusses Wikipedia, and how it can be a good place to start research, even though information found there should be checked further. This is something I tell my students; even though Wikipedia itself doesn't set out to lie, since anyone can edit information, it's good to double check with other sources. This would be a great book to use in a class about current events or global issues, because students would find it very easy to find a topic that they would like to investigate further.

There's a lengthy list of sources, as well as an index. THe index is only two pages long, but is organized not in a strictly alphabetical way, but in categories: e.g. Defense Against Lies, Motives for Lying, Tactics of Liars, etc. Since I would use this book to look for coverage of specific historical events, this wasn't as helpful. For example, I wanted to revisit the information about Truman and the atomic bombs after World War II, but wasn't able to just look up "Truman". A future edition of this helpful book would be improved if an alphabetical index were included.

I know there must be other books about media literacy, but this was definitely one of a kind in its historical scope! Most of the other books I've seen are aimed at teachers and librarians who are constructing media literacy lessons, but this is an engaging book that will appeal to readers who love history and are trying to place their own lives within its framework. This would make a thought provoking family or classroom read, and lead to a LOT of fact checking!
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