Lemmings, as you probably have heard, sometimes jump off cliffs en masse, plunging into the ocean below. The lemmings that survive the initial impact soon drown in the icy water as they swim out to sea.

It’s not clear how or why this mass mania besets lemming colonies. It has been suggested that it has to do with population control; when lemming populations boom, lemmings follow a leader over a cliff by the thousands, by the tens of thousands, to bring their population back into balance. That’s one theory, anyway.

The one thing everybody seems to be able to agree on is that lemmings serve as the perfect metaphor for groupthink and the danger of foolishly following the crowd—particularly when “the crowd” has ideas that the speaker or writer disagrees with.

In case you’ve ever doubted that lemmings actually commit mass suicide every few years, here’s a short clip from White Wilderness, a 1958 Academy Award-winning Disney nature documentary, that shows lemmings in action:

There’s a problem with this footage, however: it is completely fake. Those lemmings are going off the cliff because film crew members are throwing them off. This sequence was filmed in Alberta, Canada, which has no lemmings. The lemmings in the video were brought from elsewhere, and there were only a few dozen of them. The filmmakers used camera tricks (and a turntable) to give the impression that there were thousands of lemmings. Also, besides not having any lemmings, Alberta doesn’t have any oceans. That’s a lake or river that the lemmings are swimming in.

In the nature documentary-making business, a certain amount of trickery is accepted. After all, what are your chances of actually having everything set up in the right place and the right time when the lemmings decide to commit mass suicide?

The chances, as it turns out, are zero. Because lemmings don’t jump off cliffs. The one thing we all know about lemmings turns out not to be true. Even though the legend of lemming suicide goes back many years before White Wilderness, there’s no empirical evidence that such a thing has ever happened in the world God made. (Lemmings do, apparently, undertake mass migrations when their populations boom, and they have been known to fall off cliffs and drown accidentally, but no first-hand observer has ever reported seeing large numbers of lemmings leaping off cliffs.)

I’ve been thinking about those documentary makers. How do you get to the point where you are willing to throw lemmings off a cliff? I suppose when you’re doing a segment on lemmings, you feel some pressure to depict them doing the one thing we all “know” lemmings do. The mass-mania story makes for good tv, to say nothing of its value as a metaphor for groupthink. It wouldn’t have paid to ask whether the story were actually true.

If the lemming legend is a cautionary tale about what happens when we blindly follow the crowd, the White Wilderness documentary is a cautionary tale about what happens when, in argument or storytelling, we care about our own ideologies more than we care about the truth. By ideologies I mean this: We get it in our heads what needs to be true in order for things to work out the way we want them to work out. Once we commit to what needs to be true, we start to say or do whatever we think is going to work for us. The ends justify the means.

I’ve never thrown lemmings off a cliff, but I do understand the temptation to juice up an anecdote, to lie just a little bit in order to make my point a little more compelling. There have been times when I have been mightily tempted not to double-check the veracity of an internet story or a folk etymology because it so perfectly suited my purposes. And, no doubt, I have let slip some squirrelly evidence because it  served my agenda.

The key phrases in the previous paragraph are “my point,” “my purposes,” and “my agenda.” The more I care about an argument as mine, the less I care about the truth (or, if you prefer, reality), which isn’t mine, or yours, or anybody else’s. When I’m overly committed to a story or theory of the world that I want or need to be true, it doesn’t pay to ask what actually is true. But somebody pays when I choose not to tell the truth. Reality always has the last word. 

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