The Truth

There’s a villain named Doc Scratch in Homestuck who got me thinking about what it means to be a skeptic or a scientist, as well as what it means to be human in an uncertain world. He is a nearly omniscient being who manipulates the cast into furthering his master’s goals. One of his big things is that he never flat out lies. He’ll tell “temporary lies” for the sake of jokes, which necessitates revealing the lie in the punchline. When he’s called out for “lies of omission,” he has a very good response:

Lies of omission do not exist.
The concept is a very human one. It is the product of your story writing again. You have written a story about the truth, making emotional demands of it, and in particular, of those in possession of it.
Your demands are based on a feeling of entitlement to the facts, which is very childish. You can never know all of the facts. Only I can.
And since it’s impossible for me to reveal all facts to you, it is my discretion alone that decides which facts will be revealed in the finite time we have.
If I do not volunteer information you deem critical to your fate, it possibly means that I am a scoundrel, but it does not mean that I am a liar. And it certainly means you did not ask the right questions.
One can make either true statements or false statements about reality. All of the statements I make are true.

(I’m amusing myself by duplicating MSPA’s antics. If you can’t read it, highlight it.)

We’re story tellers, not just to other humans, but to ourselves. We don’t record all the details of an event the way a camera would, we simplify it into a story where we mostly keep the details that we consider relevant while dumping minutiae. We put this story in our memory and when we call back that memory, we reconstruct it from those elements. Our biases color the interpretation, and we can easily drop details that contradict the story we want to tell each other or tell ourselves. We can also embellish by making up details to convince ourselves of the story’s trustworthiness. Recalling the memory can also change it.

Knowing that our memories are unreliable is one reason we need documentation. An experimenter’s memory may be distorted over time, but if his experiment’s results are recorded as they come in, self-deception from biased memory becomes less likely. Cameras are generally more trustworthy than eyewitnesses, and journals are generally more reliable than your personal recall.

Another aspect I want to bring attention to is the point about asking the right questions. Like Doc Scratch, the universe doesn’t “lie” by capriciously violating its laws to produce deceptive results. If we don’t control for a confounding factor in an experiment’s design, it’s equivalent to being sloppy in asking a question.

We aim to ask questions like “Does A cause X?” If, however, we know that B can cause X and don’t design the experiment with a to exclude B or hold B constant between experimental and control groups, we’re being sloppy and asking “Does A or B cause X?” without realizing it. When the affirmative answer comes in, we fall victim to the sloppy question because it remains possible the positive outcome was actually the result of B’s known influence, while A did nothing.

The universe isn’t malicious like Doc Scratch, but a lot of pseudoscientists are, and in effect, they use his tactics to allow us to deceive ourselves if we aren’t careful and self-aware. There are also plenty of people who don’t acknowledge the complexities of human experience and don’t realize they’ve been deceiving themselves while leading others down the same road. Science is hard work because we acknowledge the difficulty and complexity in asking questions of an uncertain universe. It’s the only way we can trust our results. Self-deception, on the other hand, is quite easy.

2 responses to “The Truth

  1. Just want to thank you for this. It came, coincidentally – or was it synchronously 😉 – at a time when I was coming up for air after a few days’ immersion in the slippery doublethink of Hindu philosophy, propounded by a (and you have no idea how funny this next bit is) philosophy of science post-grad student with a “first”, who denounces “doubt” and “skepticism”, and believes that the Vedas are scrupulously rational, so a person can verify them, yet also “not of human agency” (whilst being of Indian origin somewhere around 500 BCE) AND express all the fundamental knowledge we (white Western supremacists) think we’ve discovered, called Quantum Mechanics. So what you wrote about the value of skepticism is refreshing. I told him something similar, but not as detailed as your version (and, of course, it slid off him like shit off a shovel). They don’t notice their own irony, do they. This guy *doesn’t accept* scepticism. Is there anything more hillariously deluded, from a supposed philosophy major? Excellent blog.

  2. The non-living part of the universe doesn’t lie, but the living part, more accurately the part subject to evolution, lies all the time. A bug looks exactly like a leaf. A tasty butterfly looks like a bitter butterfly. A, I forget what it is, male thingy looks like a female thingy in order to sneak into the harem of another male thingy. An insect mimics a bee’s “requesting nectar from coworker”‘s movements in order to get nectar. A bird pretends to be wounded in order to draw a predator away from its nest. It is an endless list.
    The idea behind lying is that you know how something reacts to various stimuli so you manipulate stimuli in order to get the reaction you want. Thinking creatures can do this. Evolution-undergoing things can do this, although “what it wants” is then limited to gene survival.
    By the way, I think you’re harsh when you say an experimenter is sloppy when she does not account for all confounding variables. How can anyone account for ALL confounding variables? There are things that nobody knows exists and you can’t account for things you don’t know exist. That’s why the ideal experiment is one that tries to distinguish between two hypotheses, as opposed to just fooling around with a single hypothesis. But, yes, it is sloppy to fail to account for all the confounding variables that the experimenter and the community at large can think of. Who would have thought that an insect could look exactly like a leaf until she’d actually seen one? An experimenter needs a broad education in order to be able to think of confounders that could show up.
    “No such thing as lies of omission.” Bah! Like I really believe that he was just giving an undirected response to stimuli and not crafting his response to guide the questioners into false beliefs. “I’m not lying, it’s just a complete coincidence that the false beliefs you have after interacting with me invariably happen to advance my own interests.”

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