This is a theme running through my blog — I am trying to get at truth, and uncover deception (especially self-deception) from a variety of angles. The biggest concept, though, is trying to pass truth along to those who will hear it.
Truth as a professional value
Actuarially, I believe in truth. This may seem an odd thing to say, given we actuaries work with outcomes that are, by nature, uncertain. However, uncertainty is the truth of reality, and quantifying that is our work.
Truth exists, and key truths are important to convey – and sometimes I must look at multiple ways to effectively convey that truth. I have tried multiple techniques to convey important messages: a handful of bullet points, one key graph, or even a simple subtitle for a study. Whether I’m seeking truth or trying to communicate it, the search doesn’t end but continues as a cycle.
In the linked piece, I talk specifically about spreadsheets and preventing (and detecting) spreadsheet error. I am not trying to be deceptive in choosing that topic, instead of, say, public pension valuations.
But obviously, those aren’t the truths I write about on this site.
On truth more generally, and why truth is important in public policy
I have talked about truth explicitly in a few posts. This is top-of-mind in talking about public pensions… and communism and more.
In the above video, I mention the danger and destruction of official government lies surrounding public pensions and finance.
It has also been destructive with the current pandemic:
To be fair, PoliMath wrote this immediately after:
Legal Insurrection: Dr. Fauci Confirms Early in Pandemic, America Was Lied to About Face Masks
One of the frustrating things about the Coronavirus Pandemic has been conflicting information. In the case of face masks, many people have noted that you’re now required to wear face masks to enter places like stores, but months ago we were told not to bother with masks.
Now we know why.
The authorities saw what happened with toilet paper and feared the public could do the same thing with face masks.
In early April, here in Massachusetts, you couldn’t find a mask anywhere. Now, my local CVS has a bin full of them at the front of the store, right near checkout.
Add this to the politicization of the virus and the damage is done. People will be much more skeptical of the expert class going forward.
There have been multiple reverses on public policy and I think they’re lying about their lying. I will get to that in a minute.
The problem is when you have public policy folks who blatantly lie – or, at least, provide extremely contradictory poses within the same day. This is not a tactic one can use frequently — you can lie to prevent panic… once. Once the initial panic situation is over, people will realize you lied… and then not trust you in future, similar situations.
If there is no independent way I can check that what you’re saying is true, and you’ve already demonstrated the willingness to lie about something really important… why should I trust you?
“Because I told you so” doesn’t work on adults, and it has diminishing efficacy on children.
The real lie: that “they” know what’s going on
The core lie, in my opinion, was that various official organizations/people had a good grip on what was going on. I don’t think people downplayed risk and minimized the pandemic initially — I think they just didn’t know. The lie was speaking as if they did know, rather than communicate the uncertainty they were dealing with.
I’m used to uncertainty in my kind of work, so I try to make it clear what data I’m basing my conclusions on, the source of that data, any wonkiness I see in that data, etc. There are ways to communicate uncertainty without having people panic. But if one communicates as if one is certain, and it turns out reality differed quite a bit from your original proclamations… no, people are not going to believe you in the future.
I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole, but I think they (meaning the CDC, WHO, and similar organizations) still don’t have a good handle on the transmission of the virus. Right now, there is a hot dispute over the transmission pathways for COVID-19. That there is still a dispute does not surprise me nor anger me.
What does anger me is that public health officials acted as if they knew a lot more than they actually did.
I know about faking definitive knowledge — I’ve done it in the past for entertainment purposes over things that didn’t matter at all (I used to make up trivia facts to see what absurd “facts” I could get people to swallow, because I had a reputation of knowing a lot of useless trivia.) After a while, that amusement palled (mainly because people caught on, so I had to do something different).
So I’ve always had a skepticism for people speaking authoritatively; you don’t have to be a very good actor to get it across. Have the correct credentials, slap on a lab coat, make sure you’ve got glasses, and speak like you have been handed tablets directly from Mount Sinai, and you’re gold.
Or at least, that was true when not much was at stake. When reality decides to step in and contradict you fairly rapidly… that’s a problem.
Building Knowledge over the Years through Correction
I don’t expect anybody to believe something I write or say just because I wrote or said it. I link to my sources and my spreadsheets so people who are interested in checking my data can do so. Sometimes I know my data are iffy, so I try to make sure I convey that. I have no problem running corrections and encourage corrections:
Again, if you find an error, even if it’s a fiddly detail, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
I’m a fiddly detail person, and I do not mind being pointed out that I got an item of fact wrong. It’s more important that what I end up with is eventually correct in terms of fact. Now, my opinions — you can try to convince me there, but I’m pretty damn bullheaded.
I am not going to pretend that it is pleasant to find out one has been in error. When I was a little kid, I absolutely hated getting corrected; it’s why I disliked English class so much, as my papers were bleeding red ink after the teachers were done (math wasn’t an issue for me). In college, it didn’t get a lot better for me. I still hated having my writing critiqued.
But now? I’m pushing closer to 50, and I’ve learned a lot in the past 20 years from people showing me where I was wrong. When I was a kid, I was so used to getting most of my knowledge from books, but that’s a very small slice of the human knowledge out there… I have found it more efficacious to find the people who really know something, and then go ask them.
Also, I don’t mind people differing in opinion with me — I know the distinction between opinion and fact. I don’t mind people trying to persuade me to change my opinion, even. I have changed my opinion on things, but generally it hasn’t been due to the action of one person, but years of evidence that has piled up.
My goals generally don’t change, but when I get empirical evidence that my prior policy preference doesn’t achieve those goals, I change my policy preference.
Just Don’t Lie
Truth used to not be my highest value. I was a very good liar. Actually, I could be a good liar again, if I wanted to make it a habit, but I do not see any good that would come out of it.
Long ago, I remember a post I had on livejournal where I talked about St. Augustine (of Hippo, mind you) and his attitude towards lies. He was very harsh, even against “white lies” (e.g. lies to prevent hurting other people’s feelings)
As I get older, I have seen how lies, even “white” ones, have been corrosive.
The lies incorporate themselves into relationships and poisons the situations.
I don’t feel like detailing the lowest form of lies, where those being lied to can detect the lies… and feel the contempt of the liar who assumes the lied-to will simply go along. (Yes, I’m talking about politics here, but not only politics)
I could say — if you’re going to lie, at least don’t tell an insulting lie. But no.
Just don’t lie.
The problem is, of course, is that many of the official “lies” are really plain untrue things that the speaker does not realize are untrue. It requires a certain level of self-awareness to know what it is that you really know, what you’re pretty sure about, and what you’re just making up because it feels right to you.
I have not had my trust shaken in public officials over these various pronouncements that they later reversed… mainly because I already had no trust in them. I knew “science” wasn’t being used as the basis of policy decisions, because actual science did not have good enough results to provide the certainty the officials were pretending to have.
A lot of the decisions have been based on a balance of reducing risk that they know about against what people will put up with. To repeat myself, if officials did not know how people were going to react, they should’ve done a little reading about how people dealt with even worse pandemics:
That said, given what one learned from the Black Death – a disease with horrendous mortality rates [two forms had 100% mortality, and the “mild” form, bubonic plague, merely killed 80% of sufferers] – people generally went back to the city as things calmed down. Check out my video on Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year for more city-folk behavior, using London in 1665 as an example.
Here is where I talk about Defoe’s book:
It’s not too late for officials to read and learn from this. In the book itself, Defoe details the second (and subsequent) waves of the plague around 1665…this is pretty much the same plague that hit Europe every so often, from 1348 and after. The mortality was far worse than what we’re looking at now, and even so, people broke quarantine and doing all sorts of shenanigans that you see people doing now.
The technology may have changed, but human nature has not.
Without Truth, You Cannot Make Good Decisions
Ultimately, I want to get the facts right, because I am trying to figure out policy preferences based on the facts as I see them. If I am completely wrong on core assumptions, the rest will not work.
As mentioned before, I get emails (firstname.lastname@example.org) — and, unlike others, I do like getting emails correcting me on facts. I’m also fine with emails differing with me re: opinions, but facts are important because I like being right.
For me, being right isn’t about getting it right the first time — it’s about getting it correct eventually.
For all of two weeks when I was a kid, I was a communist. The theories of how the world should work under communism were beautiful… but then I realized people don’t actually behave that way. It’s the main reason communist systems either fall apart or have to become hardcore totalitarian governments — people simply will not conform to those utopian ideals.
Similarly, I used to be a hardcore libertarian, consuming Ayn Rand and others… and then, I had direct experience with people and systems in finance, and realized that government oversight of the systems was a very good idea.
The reason I had to throw the beautiful theories and systems away was some very ugly facts about how people actually are got in the way.
Truth is not always beautiful in the normal sense, and too many of us get suckered into believing a beautiful lie (the ones who believe in ugly lies… really make me wonder.)
The biggest lie of all is pretending to know the truth, when nobody really knows anything.
There is nothing wrong with saying I don’t know, when you don’t know.
If you’re supposed to know, then it’s okay to say, I don’t know… YET. And then go do your work and find out.
It’s not clear to me that any officials involved will have learned anything from the past 4 months, but you never know.
It’s going to take a long time for any of these people to try to build up any sort of authority again. They may think it was worth it, but I have a feeling that history will not have much sympathy for their lies, except as a universal human failing.