Why Speak Truth?

The title of this blog, Overcoming Bias, marks a theme here: I try to look past appearances and correct biases, to see and say things as they are.  Periodically someone will ask: what’s so great about truth?  They commonly presume I’ve made a strong claim, such as that it is always better to believe and say the truth, no matter what the cost or topic.  I make no such claim.

Instead I’ll just note that it is a big world, and people vary in many ways.  A great many people give lip service to the truth, talking as if it was their highest allegiance.  Far fewer folks, perhaps none, are actually this way.  But since folks vary, there will be a furthest tail of this distribution, and those most-truth-seeking folks might appreciate relevant things to read.

In the vastness that is the web, there should be some places where folks who most want to see and say truth can congregate.  Of course far more folks want to claim the mantle of truth-teller than want to pay its real costs.  So you should treat with skepticism any claim that I’ve actually achieved this status far more than most folks.  And I make no such claim.

I will, however, suggest that truth seeking and telling can make useful and important contributions to the world.  The tendencies that we have inherited, genetically or culturally, to deceive ourselves and others no doubt contain wisdom, at least about when such behavior is in our personal interest.  But since the world is changing rapidly, our inherited tendencies can’t always get it right; someday they may go very wrong.  Somewhere, someone should think carefully and truthfully about recent or upcoming changes, ready to warn others about where our inherited self-deceptions could go off the rails.

This post dedicated to the high quality comments of TGGP.

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  • Eric Falkenstein

    It reminds me of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, where his emphasis on the phoniness of adults mainly highlights his insociability rather than his keen insight. Personally, I too find the truth most interesting. Yet I also think, truthfully, I might be more successful if I could unselfconsciousnessly embrace the disingenuousness appreciated by various cliques I am affiliated with. Thinking about it this way, means I can’t do this effectively.

    Knowing the truth prevents some problems, but not playing the game comes off as some sort of DSM mental defect, in the way any truth-telling politician would be immediately spurned by his colleagues and voters. The focus highlights you prioritize an abstract goal (identifying truths) over some practical result that is in a group’s primary interest (eg, more funding, greater status to a particular method that a group excels in).

  • http://www.nescia.nl/blog/ Anna B

    Yet I also think, truthfully, I might be more successful if I could unselfconsciousnessly embrace the disingenuousness appreciated by various cliques I am affiliated with. Thinking about it this way, means I can’t do this effectively.

    Knowing the truth prevents some problems, but not playing the game comes off as some sort of DSM mental defect.

    I have the same problem. I spent quite some time in distress with my head on the desk of my study advisor, asking him why we were collectively using models that were just not true (talking physics, here).

    In the end he gave me a verbal pat on the head and sent me on to philosophy of science. Much as I am very happy with how it turned out so far, I can’t help but wonder in what way I could have stayed happy with physics.

  • David Brown

    “Of course far more folks want to claim the mantle of truth-teller than want to pay its full costs.” According to a proverb, “The great thieves punish the little ones.” Does any system of money and power have its lies and half truths? According to Michael Lewis, author of “Liar’s Poker” and other books about Wall Street, “They don’t create value — the people on Wall Street.” Is the person selling you something quite unlikely to tell you the complete picture with nothing but the plain truth? In intelligence and honesty, eighty percent of people think they themselves are above average. Is valuable truth likely to be difficult to find and sometimes unpleasant to hear? Is the truth-teller likely to be a narrow fanatic in one domain and a skeptical ignoramus in all other domains?
    Consider two thoughts from “The Midas Touch” by John Train:
    1. … you must be completely honest with yourself about what you know and what you do not know.
    2. … Buffett … talks of his one-line employment form, whose only question is, “Are you a fanatic?”
    In his book “What Mad Pursuit” (p. 150) Crick suggests, “If you want to understand function, study structure.” By always remembering that molecular structures underlie human behavior, are you likely to be a thorough-going skeptic? Is the committed truth-teller likely to be almost always in a state of uncertainty and hesitancy?

  • http://nimbupani.com Divya

    Something is “true” only assuming a set of conditions it depends on are also “true”. When most people claim to speak the truth, they neglect to mention the set of associated conditions they are depending on for their claim.

    I would assert that anyone who claims to be the “truth-teller” is usually someone who loves to force their opinion on the world. Many people go through great sacrifices to be that “truth-teller”, and so many people assume, because of the sacrifies, that person must be telling the truth. Though it might not be the case.

    The problem with being a skeptic is, if you are too serious about being one, you are indistinguishable from the “truth-teller”.

    • Roga

      how beautifully put Divya

    • Contemplationist

      We can recurse on that indefinitely. Someone pointing out the possibility of a self-proclaimed truth-teller seeking to force opinions on people, could possibly be signalling a higher-level skepticism than the truth-seeker, skeptic himself has claimed.

  • Jef Allbright

    Robin, to the extent that you remain focused on reducing your observations to atoms of Truth, you continue to miss the context necessary for more pragmatic truth

    Identifying and acting effectively in regard to perceived bias is at the heart of intelligence, but there’s a crucial distinction, an epistemological flip inside-out, between the effectiveness of one who acts with appropriate regard for nuance from within a context of inherently increasing uncertainty, and one who, like Archimedes, would lever his world into proper position, if only for a place to stand outside the system.

  • komponisto

    This was also the topic of one of Yudkowsky’s first posts here.

  • http://aretae.blogspot.com aretae

    Once upon a time, I asserted that a Geek was someone who found some topic sufficiently interesting so as to forget the standard monkey social games we all play.

    Later, my wife pointed out real life examples, and Robin provided the theory that suggested that effectively no one avoids the social games, we just switch the nominal topic of the game.

    The Hanson/Falkenstein status/envy theory seems to have better predictive power than any other human theory I’ve seen, and its application is one of the most impressive intellectual achievements I know. I don’t know if either of them can personally escape, in the moment, the game…but I’ve been reading at least Robin off and on for nearly 15 years, (before the birth of the “web”) and I remain almost in awe of his ability to identify even some of the games that he is himself playing.

    Bravo Robin. Please keep it up. It is inspiring.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10546265581296919974 Rob

    “Knowledge would have little charm if there were not so much shame to be overcome in order to reach it.” Nietzsche

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Thanks, Robin for the compliment. I’ll try to live up to the reputation my pseudonym has obtained with you (and possibly other readers).

    You have sometimes talked as if overcoming bias is universally obligate. At other times you have framed it as the personal preference of a quirky minority. You have acknowledged that there are personal costs to telling/believing the truth, so people must make tradeoffs. Usually market prices help tell people which actions to take based on the need for a service and that person’s comparative advantage, but you seem to view truth as something of a public good, and the deficit below the optimal amount is a sort of “market failure”. So just as with paternalism, what principles should one use to decide whether to be truthful or opportunistically [self]deceptive?

  • http://onestdv.blogspot.com OneSTDV

    I don’t know. The people seemed pretty happy in The Matrix.

    “I know this steak isn’t real, but it tastes so good.”

  • John

    Tired of opinionated writing? Ever left the library wondering why nobody—not one among all those GREAT MINDS over centuries past or present—could see their own prejudices? Ready to BREAK FREE from your own epistemic cages? Well, wait no longer, truth-seeker. Now with the invention of NEW THINKING, you too can see your own biases as if from outside, and cast them aside forever! Announcing a wholly different publication:

    Relevant reading for the seeker of truth!
    Free from epistemes!
    No opinions, only facts!
    Boldly peering far into the future!
    Warning others!
    Paying the costs!
    Saying somewhat controversial things!

    Yes, most-truth-seeking folks, read stuff RELEVANT to YOU:

    TRUTH-FILES:
    The truth is out there – just beyond your worldview.

    Get yours today!

  • Roga


    “The tendencies that we have inherited, genetically or culturally, to deceive ourselves and others no doubt contain wisdom, at least about when such behavior is in our personal interest. “

    I don’t deny the veracity of the aforementioned statement but I am puzzled by it’s logical or rational possibility. Just how does one
    deceive one’s “own self”? And where during the process of “deceiving ourselves” does the emergent “wisdom” come forth from?

  • Contemplationist

    I agree. TGGP is my model of a truth-seeker, besides you Robin!

  • Nikhil

    Man in Shack: The lord knows I am not cruel man.
    Ford Prefect: Ah– you say, `the lord’, so, you believe in–
    Man in Shack: My cat. I call him ‘the lord’. I am kind to him.
    Ford Prefect: Alright. How do you know he exists? How do you know he knows you to be kind or enjoys what you think of as your kindness?
    Man in Shack: I don’t. I have no idea. It merely pleases me to behave in a certain way to what appears to be a cat. What else do you do? …Please, I am tired.

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