Manti Te’o is a linebacker for Notre Dame and widely regarded as one of the best players in college football. During the past season, a story emerged that his girlfriend had leukemia and lingered near death. She died just before a big Notre Dame game. But Te’o was loyal to his teammates and played through his heartbreak to help Notre Dame win the game and go undefeated in the regular season.
It’s a great story. Unfortunately, it’s not true. The girlfriend never existed. The blogosphere has been obsessing over whether Te’o is the perpetrator or the victim of the hoax. I have a different question: why did we believe the story in the first place?
I think we were fooled by Te’o for the same reasons we were fooled by Lance Armstrong, Greg Mortenson, and Bernie Madoff. We were active participants in the deception. We wanted to believe their stories. I’m an avid cyclist and I certainly wanted to believe Armstrong’s story. What a great story it was. It gave us faith in our human ability to overcome great obstacles. So I fell prey to confirmation bias. Consciously and subconsciously, I attended to evidence that confirmed my beliefs. I ignored evidence that contradicted them. When Armstrong finally came clean, I felt he cheated me. I also realized I cheated myself. I had a double dose of regret.
Of course, there are people whose marvelous stories don’t need embellishment. Mother Teresa certainly comes to mind. She’s already beatified and seems well on her way to sainthood. Nelson Mandela was probably politically expedient from time to time but, by and large, the legend fits the man. Jackie Robinson wasn’t a perfect man but he really did do what he was famous for. (Hmm … why am I having difficulty identifying a contemporary white male to put in this category?)
So, how do we distinguish between those who claim to be saintly and those who actually are? Here’s my proposed Saintliness Rule. When a story makes someone sound saintly, put on your skeptical spectacles. Use your filters that help you suspend belief (as opposed to disbelief). Be patient, review the evidence, be doubtful. Be skeptical but not cynical. After all, there really are some saints out there.