The main reason I'm posting this here is because I want it to be publicly recorded that I wrote this post in 2023. That way, I can show people in the future that I didn't just make this up on the spot; it's been around since long before whatever it is they're asking me about this time. I don't have a blog of my own, so this is where I'm putting it. Still, some of you might find it interesting, or want to use it yourself.

 

If I've sent you this post, you've probably just asked me a question, to which I responded something along the lines of "I refuse to confirm or deny that." Maybe you asked if I wrote a particular story, or if I had sex with someone, or if I robbed a bank. When you heard my refusal you likely became more suspicious, assuming it means that I really did write/bang/rob the story/person/bank.

This is the explanation of why that's not necessarily the case.

 

Why are you refusing to answer my question?

Suppose - and as generally holds throughout this post, I'm not saying this is true or false, just asking you to consider the hypothetical - I had never committed a crime in my life, any crime, with the singular exception of... let's say, public urination. With a bag over my head, so people didn't know for sure that it was me. The police are nevertheless able to narrow the suspects down to a pretty small list, with me on it, and they ask me if I did it.

Some people would just lie to the police. The crucial element here, though, is that I don't want to lie about this. This entire policy is about avoiding lies, and about being able to maintain my privacy while staying completely honest.[1] If I'm refusing to lie, but I also don't want them to know the truth, I can't answer the question at all. So I say, "I refuse to confirm or deny that."

But then suppose the police ask me if I killed someone - which I didn't do. And they ask if I robbed a bank, and if I sell drugs, and all sorts of other questions about crimes that I've never done before. I always tell the truth: "No, I didn't do that." And of course, now the police know that the answer to the public urination question was yes, because that's the only one where I refused to answer the question.

The only policy which doesn't tell them my secrets, other than outright lying, is to refuse to confirm or deny whether I committed any of the crimes - even the ones that I really didn't commit.

 

All right, but doesn't that mean that you must have committed some crime in the first place? After all, if you hadn't, there would be no harm in answering the question for every crime that exists.

This policy doesn't just apply to crimes that I've committed so far. There are a lot of other possible situations I could be in, and answering inconsistently gives up information.

For example, if I haven't committed any crimes yet, but will in the future, then the moment that I change from always saying "No" to always saying "I refuse to confirm or deny that," the police know I've just done something -

 

So you're planning to commit a crime?

No! Or rather, I refuse to confirm or deny that I'm planning to commit a crime, but no, that is not a valid conclusion from what I said earlier! First off, even if I anticipate only a small chance of committing a crime many decades from now, it's still worth following this rule just in case - don't give me that look, I'm not done talking yet. Furthermore, this doesn't just apply to crimes.

Suppose you're asking whether I had sex with person X.[2] For the same reasons as before, I can't just refuse to confirm or deny whether I've had sex with the people if the answer is "Yes," because then the difference in my responses gives it away. ("I haven't had sex with W, I can't tell you about X, I haven't had sex with Y, I haven't had sex with Z...)

And if I had never had sex with anyone, but had committed crimes, then by answering "No" about the sex questions, but "I refuse to confirm or deny that" about the crime questions, I would be revealing that I had committed at least one crime. Therefore, I would still have to refuse to answer the sex questions, even if I was a virgin.

There's also some things about logical decision theory and cooperating with hypothetical versions of myself, but I don't think any of that is necessary to prove the point. Yes, I expect that at some point in my past, present, or future, there is a reasonably high chance that I am asked a question that I don't want to honestly answer. And that's enough to show that I need to refuse to confirm or deny some things.

 

What exactly is the general policy you're following?

Refuse to answer any question for which one of the possible answers to that question would, if true, be something I would want to conceal - regardless of whether said answer actually is true. Also known as "Glomarization."[3]

 

Isn't that pretty difficult to follow all the time?

Yes! In fact, as much as I would want to always Glomarize, I often have to make exceptions out of practicality. If someone asks what I did today, then in theory, I would have to refuse to answer, because one of the possible answers is "I stole your car." But most of the time, I end up just answering the question.

So what would be similar to strict Glomarization, but still permissive enough that I don't have to refuse to answer every question? Well, I start with a cost-benefit analysis. If the police ask whether I was the Bag-Headed Peeer[4], the cost of telling the truth in the case where the truth is "Yes" exceeds the benefit of telling the truth in the case where the truth is "No." So here, I Glomarize. But in a different scenario, this switches around: suppose I win a $1,000,000 lottery for which Canadians are not eligible, and I need to give the lottery person my address in order to get the money - but I have a mild preference for privacy about my address. In this situation, the cost in the case where I live in Canada is much less than the benefit in the case where I live elsewhere. So here, I tell the truth, because across all possible cases, Glomarization would hurt me.

SituationAnswer AAnswer BCost if ABenefit if BWhat do you do?
Interrogated by police"I did it.""I didn't do it."Go to jail?[5]Police like you moreGlomarize
Won the lottery"I live in Canada.""I live [elsewhere]."Less privacy$1,000,000Tell the truth

I also need to consider the relevant probabilities in the calculation, and possibly randomize a bit to keep things secret with only a little cost. If 99% of my days are spent on innocent things and 1% on bank robberies, I don't have to Glomarize 100% of the time to hide when I've robbed a bank, just 2% of the time, or 10% if I want to be extra safe. Of course, the downside here is that this policy does give people some evidence about how frequently I have something to hide, or at least helps them establish an upper bound.

 

I'm skeptical that you actually do this as frequently as you're implying.

Unfortunately, I don't really have any witnesses that I can cite at the time of writing. There's everyone in my family, who can confirm that I really do refuse to answer questions fairly often, and I think there were some cases where they later discovered I wasn't hiding anything (and some where they discovered I was). But that's not an option, because I'm not actually willing to confirm or deny who my family is.

Luckily, for everyone but the first person who I send this post to, I'll be able to tell them about the people who I sent it to before them! So unless you happen to be that first person, there will be other people who can testify to my weirdness by the time you're reading this.

 

Why did you say "that's classified"?

That's just how I say "I refuse to confirm or deny that" some of the time! "Classified" sounds cooler than "refuse to confirm or deny," like I'm a secret agent of some sort. Whether I am in fact a secret agent of some sort is of course classified.

 

Why did you list "wrote a story" earlier in the post?

People sometimes get accused of writing stories under a pseudonym. I, like many authors before me[6], think it's fun to fuel speculation about which stories I secretly have or haven't written, and which other authors on the Internet I am or am not. It's also helpful in case I write something taboo I don't want associated with my real name.

 

Is there anything I can do if I really want to know the answer anyway?

Change the incentives! For example, suppose you're my boss, and I don't want to discuss politics because I think you'd fire people who disagree with you. If you want to know about my political beliefs, then prove you've previously had no problem working with people, even when you hated what they stood for politically. If you're not able to prove that... well, that's why I'm not answering your questions.

 

(2024 Addendum[7])

  1. ^

    Of course, there's an additional reason not to lie to the police even if I wasn't generally honest - it's illegal.

  2. ^

    I don't actually care much about people knowing who I have or haven't had sex with, but there are other reasons I would want to hide this sort of thing: respecting the other person's privacy, or if the person is so unpopular that people will refuse to associate with me if they know I've had sex with them, or if they're on the run from the law and I don't want to reveal that they were at my house - crap, now I'm back to talking about crimes again.

  3. ^

    Glomarization is named after a boat that the CIA wanted to keep secret.

  4. ^

    How many e's are supposed to be in that word?

  5. ^

    According to the first few Google results, there's usually just a $500 fine, but if it's a repeat offence or in front of a large crowd, the punishment increases and you do likely end up in jail.

  6. ^

    Or perhaps zero authors before me.

  7. ^

    In the couple of months since I wrote this FAQ, it has come to my attention that the most important aspect of Glomarization is not coming up with the ideal responses or non-responses for wilder and wilder hypothetical scenarios in advance. It is actually following through with the policy.

    I would like to reaffirm that - even if there are, evidently, some situations in which I rather idiotically get caught up in the heat of the moment, and tell the truth - the overall policy that I follow when I am thinking clearly is still to remain silent about anything that would get me in big trouble if it were true, whether or not it is true.

    One more response I should be willing to say more often: "Oops, I should have been Glomarizing earlier. I'm not discussing this any further." Even if it feels kind of embarrassing to say that in the middle of a conversation.

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Why do you believe this complicated policy is better than simply lying?

[-]Zane143

Because I want to keep the option of being able to make promises. This way, people can trust that, while I might not answer every question they ask, the things that I do say to them are the truth. If I sometimes lie to them, that's no longer the case, and I'm no longer able to trustworthily communicate at all.

Meta-honesty is an alternate proposed policy that could perhaps reduce some of the complication, but I think it only adds new complication because people have to ask you questions on the meta level whenever you say something for which they might suspect a lie. That being said, I also do stick to meta-honesty rules, and am always willing to discuss why I'm Glomarizing about something or my general policies about lying.

Solely for the record, me too.

(Thanks for writing this.)

How many e's are supposed to be in that word?

Embrace the diaresis! Say "peeër."