My Favorite Liar

[the following recounts an exceptionally powerful teaching technique employed by an economics professor of mine at university; teaching fact-checking and skepticism by salting it into the content of his delivery]

One of my favorite professors in college was a self-confessed liar.

I guess that statement requires a bit of explanation.

The topic of Corporate Finance/Capital Markets is, even within the world of the Dismal Science, a exceptionally dry and boring subject matter, encumbered by complex mathematic models and obscure economic theory.

What made Dr. K memorable was a gimmick he employed that began with his introduction at the beginning of his first class:

"Now I know some of you have already heard of me, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar, let me explain how I teach. Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day." And thus began our ten-week course.

This was an insidiously brilliant technique to focus our attention – by offering an open invitation for students to challenge his statements, he transmitted lessons that lasted far beyond the immediate subject matter and taught us to constantly checksum new statements and claims with what we already accept as fact. Early in the quarter, the Lie of the Day was usually obvious – immediately triggering a forest of raised hands to challenge the falsehood. Dr. K would smile, draw a line through that section of the board, and utter his trademark phrase "Very good! In fact, the opposite is true. Moving on … "

As the quarter progressed, the Lie of the Day became more subtle, and many ended up slipping past a majority of the students unnoticed until a particularly alert person stopped the lecture to flag the disinformation. Every once in a while, a lecture would end with nobody catching the lie which created its own unique classroom experience – in any other college lecture, end of the class hour prompts a swift rush of feet and zipping up of bookbags as students make a beeline for the door; on the days when nobody caught the lie, we all sat in silence, looking at each other as Dr. K, looking quite pleased with himself, said with a sly grin: "Ah ha! Each of you has one falsehood in your lecture notes. Discuss amongst yourselves what it might be, and I will tell you next Monday. That is all." Those lectures forced us to puzzle things out, work out various angles in study groups so we could approach him with our theories the following week.

Brilliant … but what made Dr. K’s technique most insidiously evil and genius was, during the most technically difficult lecture of the entire quarter, there was no lie. At the end of the lecture in which he was not called on any lie, he offered the same challenge to work through the notes; on the following Monday, he fielded our theories for what the falsehood might be (and shooting them down "no, in fact that is true – look at [x]")  for almost ten minutes  before he finally revealed: "Do you remember the first lecture – how I said that ‘every lecture has a lie?’"

Exhausted from having our best theories shot down, we nodded.

"Well – THAT was a lie. My previous lecture was completely on the level. But I am glad you reviewed your notes rigorously this weekend – a lot of it will be on the final. Moving on … " Which prompted an rousing melange of exasperated groans and laughter from the classroom.

And while my knowledge of the Economics of Capital Markets has faded in time, the lessons that stayed with me was his real legacy; I’ve had many instructors before and since, but few that I remember with as much fondness – and why my favorite professor was a chronic liar.

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  • http://www.lalla-mira.com Lalla Mira

    I wish I had teachers like this professor.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/felix_typekey/ Felix

    I had a 9th grade biology teacher who tried a similar trick. In true, bored 15 year old fashion, I made that class a living hell for him by catching every tiny misspeak he spoke.

  • Mike

    I’m going to do this with my nephews. I think it is a great lesson to learn.

  • http://econoblag.blogspot.com/ Daniel Reeves

    Wonderful stories like this are why I consider becoming a teacher. I would love a job where I would get to lie to impressionable students, especially teenagers.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/kaichang/ Kai Chang

    @Felix

    We had a long conversation about this after class was over, and my professor mentioned that one of the important secondary effects of this technique was expose elements of his lecture that was ambiguous; places where different classes consistently flagged a comment or statement as a falsehood when it was not.

    The technique helped him isolate the elements of his talk that wasn’t clear, so the only thing wrong in his lecture was the one falsehood he deliberately injected into the talk.

  • Pseudonymous

    Now that is a wonderful idea. Did any other lecturer copy it?

  • http://elcenia.com Alicorn

    This reminds me of something my eighth grade history teacher did. He told us he had a bad habit of tipping his chair onto the rear legs, and if he ever did it while we were there, we should interrupt him as loudly as possible and shout, “Miller! Chair!” This served to focus, at least, our visual attention. However, he never actually tipped his chair the entire year.

  • Brian Moore

    Wow, a very good idea. Obviously suited for classes where the lectures consisted of basic conveyance of information, rather than other types.

    What was the reward for catching the lie each day?

    Outside of the benefits mentioned above, it seems like a the best part consisted in making the class interactive (like Alicorn says). The students had to wait, not just for class to end, but for an event to occur that they must react to. I think many of the reasons that traditional “lectures” work so poorly is because most people are not designed to simply absorb information. We need to interact with it, question it, test it, roll it around in our minds — and this professor seemed to accomplish this goal.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/L.A.Wahrenbrock/ NevadaBead

    I had an Agriculture Statistics prof during my college days that began every lecture by writing on the board “Figures Don’t Lie but Liars Do Figure”. At the beginning of the semester evryone was amused but by the end evryone understood that statistical analysis is all a matter of manipulation of the figures to demonstrate whatever it is you want to “prove” in the first place – be it by ommission or commission.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/L.A.Wahrenbrock/ NevadaBead

    I had an Agriculture Statistics prof during my college days that began every lecture by writing on the board “Figures Don’t Lie but Liars Do Figure”. At the beginning of the semester evryone was amused but by the end evryone understood that statistical analysis is all a matter of manipulation of the figures to demonstrate whatever it is you want to “prove” in the first place – be it by ommission or commission.

  • http://www.programmerskit.com Valerie

    I am a teacher…and I am going to start this next semester. My favorite thing to do is pretend to fall asleep at the board until the students can give me the correct answer. I have got a good little cat nap in that way. :-)

  • http://thanassis.com/blog thanassis

    Wonderful teaching gem! I’ll attempt it next time I teach.
    thanks for sharing

  • http://wttf.org/ jeremy

    I’m pretty sure my teachers did this too, they just didn’t tell us they were doing it.

  • Fenceman

    That’s an amazing tool for teaching. Sounds like a great professor!

  • nomnom

    All economics is a lie.

    All he did was trick you into thinking the other stuff was true, and you fell for it.

  • http://www.sammyliu.com Sam

    Wow this professor is brilliant. This is one of those good random sort of stories you can tell during awkward silences.

    *awkward silence* – “Did you know my favorite professor was a compulsive liar?”

  • http://www.53prime.com/ David Cimini

    What a great tactic. I had a math teacher in high school that would squirt kids with water if they got the answer wrong. I don’t believe he did that for very long, but it was humorous while he wasn’t in trouble.

  • http://www.defproc.co.uk dp

    So he’s not a priest, then.

  • Tesseracter

    I teach programming. i give some sort of reward when someone catches me in a syntax error on the board. it focuses me, i rarely would make a syntax error as an accident, but i try to sneak in the errors in nifty ways. i start easy, and move to more difficult errors as the lessons continue. my bonuses are either candy, raffle tickets, extra points on a test, or just praise.

    anyway, i think it is always good to question the authority of the people who tell you stuff. i have done it since i started school, and i try to teach it to anyone i can.

  • hybrid101

    same thing with our history teacher last year, we all just listened to him to catch the minutest of details and where he was going awry.

    he was one of the best teachers we had:D

  • http://xl-medium.net/WPblog/ Christopher

    A wonderful story. Thank you for sharing!
    -c-

  • http://www.scottberkun.com Scott Berkun

    There’s a good chance Dr. K was inspired by Neil Postman, who wrote in a 1995 essay (The Error of our ways):

    “All that is necessary is that at the beginning of each course, the teacher address students in the following way:

    During this term, I will be doing a great deal of talking. I will be giving lectures, answering questions, and conducting discussions. Since I am an imperfect scholar and, even more certainly, a fallible human being, I will inevitably be making factual errors, drawing some unjustifiable conclusions, and perhaps passing along my opinions as facts. I should be very unhappy if you were unaware of these mistakes. To minimize that possibility, I am going to make you all honorary members of Accuracy in Academia. Your task is to make sure that none of my errors goes by unnoticed.

    At the beginning of each class, I will, in fact, ask you to reveal whatever errors I made in the previous session. You must, of course, say why these are errors, indicate the source of your authority, and, if possible, suggest a truer or more useful or less biased way of formulating what I said. Your grade in this course will be based to some extent on the rigor with which you pursue my mistakes. And to ensure that you do not fall into the torpor that is so common among students, I will, from time to time, deliberately include some patently untrue statements and some outrageous opinions.

    There is no need for you to do this alone. You should consult with your classmates, perhaps even form a study group that can collectively review the things I have said. Nothing would please me more than for one or several of you to ask for class time in which to present a corrected or alternative version of one of my lectures.”

  • rystan

    One of my math professors in college used to give us true/false math tests. The only stipulation was that in order to get credit for the ones marked “false” we had to show what was false about it and what needed to be done to make the statement true.

    The first time he did this no-one passed the test because we all figured that, using the law of averages, he’d make at least half of the answers “true” to give us an even split between “true” and “false”.

    The “evil” man instead made it so that every test, every single statement was false, thus forcing us to find the flaw in every single question on every test.

    • Daniel

      I think it would be interesting to do something like that in a statistics test. If the teacher made them true or false at random, it would be just as likely to get a combination of true and false because that’s the answer as because that’s a mistake. As it is, teachers have a significant chance of pulling stunts like this, so it’s actually more likely to get an interesting pattern if you get the answers right. If the students understand statistics, they’ll realize they didn’t get it wrong.

  • http://myalpinepath.blogspot.com Alpine Path

    Cool :) I too had such a teacher for Circuits class. She made us find the mistake in circuits, componenets or their values. She taught us the fun and usefulness of datasheets. But this is lovelier! Kudos to Dr.K and teachers like him :)

  • http://tobycentral.blogspot.com Toby

    OK. I’m going to be the jerk who bursts the bubble…

    If it was that great of a method, wouldn’t you not have forgotten just about everything about the class? It seems that the only thing you came away with was “Oh, that quirky professor!”

    As an aspiring teacher, I’m all for creative teaching methods, but my best professors have used methods that enabled me to retain the information for the rest of my life — not just
    for the test.

    • Susan

      @Toby

      Most likely you have retained that information throughout your life thus far because it is meaningful and usefully relevant to you. When material is not *used* regularly, when there is no direct application or need for it day-to-day (or even month to month) in someone’s life then it eventually grows dim in the memory.

      If the nitty-gritty details of Capital Market are not relevant to her job, hobbies, social activities, and other aspects of her recent living experiences then it is not surprising those details have been forgotten as retaining that knowledge has long-since stopped serving and real and useful purpose.

  • http://www.credible.blogspot.com Michael Price

    Damnit! Every time I come up with a good idea someone else has had it first decades ago! I knew I should publish some writings before I find out my ideas aren’t original.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/tim_tyler/ Tim Tyler

    The lie in the “technically difficult” lecture was here:

    “Each of you has one falsehood in your lecture notes.”

    There must have been some other lie in the first lecture which no-one spotted.

  • bob the spaniard

    I like to pee on things when i get drunk. Motorbikes, door handles, the neighbors lawn, dodgy old professors….

  • http://www.overmatter.com/2008/03/overcoming-bias.html OverMatter

    Overcoming Bias: My Favorite Liar

    “[the following recounts an exceptionally powerful teaching technique employed by an economics professor of mine at university; teaching fact-checking and skepticism by salting it into the content of his delivery] One of my favorite professors in colle…

  • Mike

    That’s EXACTLY the kind of thing I would do.

  • erin marie

    thats brillant.

    too much of the american education system is to take it from behind. to listen and be quiet and remember.

    critical thinking and analysis is something that isnt stressed. by encourgaing the students to debate his very words, they learned to debate things within a broader sense as well.

    brillant.

  • alexis

    fantastic!!! love it
    sheeptag

  • Jim

    This points out the truth of the old saw, “There are teachers and then there are educators.”

  • Hasan Özdemir

    The approach seems pretty amusing. However,Teachers don’t let students water the subject.

  • http://tribes.tribe.net/34443ba5-2497-455e-8a77-a17b9c86a359/thread/ad057448-6680-4a93-b69d-b8fac3f6238b#7c5ce550-35b1-4022-85cf-d23b0f296576 tribe.net: www.overcomingbias.com

    hmmmm

    February 24, 2008
    My Favorite Liar

    [the following recounts an exceptional…

  • http://www.accolo.com RPO

    As a college student, this would help to reinforce information. I would undoubtedly enjoy this professor.

  • Frank

    Sounds like a prick.

  • http://www.techienation.com DigitalMind

    Wow !! What a great teaching technique ! I can see how this makes people pay attention a lot more and makes people REALLY study what they learn.

  • Matt

    that’s a fantastic idea… it seems like it’d be hard to implement, though. i imagine it would take a truly gifted teacher

  • http://www.dekut.com//story.php?id=81673 Dekut.com

    My Favorite Liar

    One of my favorite professors in college was a self-confessed liar.

  • http://www.askaphd.org AskAPhD.org

    Great teaching technique! Thanks for sharing in such a nice article!

  • http://hdragomir.com Horia Dragomir

    Yes, it is usually the teachers and professors that give you life lessons along with their course that stick with you the dearest.

    I most fondly remember the guy that made me crash my computer rather than the guy that taught me how to write the code to prevent that. Even though they were one and the same.

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