Prerequisites: The Quaker and the Parselmouth.


First, a quick summary.

In the prerequisite post, Benjamin Hoffman describes three kinds of people. These people are hypothetical extremes: they're the social and epistemic equivalents of perfect spheres interacting in frictionless vacuums. There are Quakers, who always tell the truth and keep their word when they say they'll do something. There are Actors, who always say what seems good to say at the moment and who don't reliably keep their word even if they swear and oath. Lastly, there are Parselmouths, who can lie freely to Actors but speak only the truth to other Parselmouths and (by implication) speak only truth to Quakers.

I approve of this distinction. It is abstracted and the real world is never this clear, but in my experience it does get at something useful to understand. I think truthtelling is a powerful institutional advantage, and wish more people were Quakers in this taxonomy[1]. Benjamin points out that Parselmouths are somewhat odd, in that habitually telling lies likely erodes the instinct or maybe even ability to tell the truth; it may not be possible for real people to stay consistently Parselmouths without slowly becoming Actors.

Speaking truth is hard. It's hard work to figure out what the true state of the world is. It's hard to quickly and accurately state what you think is true; the English language makes "I believe there's a ninety percent chance of rain tomorrow" a much longer sentence than "it's going to rain tomorrow." There's a lot of extra emotional sharp elbows you wind up throwing when someone asks you how you liked the (burned and unseasoned) casserole they brought to the potluck. Quakers of the world, I salute you. Actors of the world, I get it. 

My first claim is that it's reasonable to be a Parselmouth.


Storytime! The following story details events that happened about two decades ago, when I was several feet shorter than I am now. Some details have been substantiated by other people who were around at the time, but many likely have morphed over the years.

When I was a kid, I had to get a bunch of shots. My mom took me into the office, and I goofed around in waiting area for a little bit before a nurse waved me past the front desk and Mom and I went in. The nurse sat me down in the doctor's office on a big plastic chair and rubbed my shoulder with something cold while asking my mother questions, then she asked me to sit still for a moment and said "This won't hurt a bit. Are you ready?" I nodded. Then she stabbed me with a needle.

It hurt. I started crying, and continued crying for some time, well after the pain had faded to a dull ache. No amount of consoling from my parents or treats from the nurse changed this. I did not have the ability to articulate what made me upset then, but it was not the pain (even as a child, I had a remarkably high tolerance for pain when it had a purpose) but at confusion. It wasn't supposed to hurt- were they wrong about whether it would hurt? That didn't make sense, sticking a sharp thing into someone usually hurt them, why would someone think it wouldn't? Did I misremember what they said, and they said it would hurt instead of that it wouldn’t? Is my memory really that fallible? I was utterly confused, and couldn't make sense of what happened.

With the benefit of years experience, it's obvious what happened. The nurse lied to keep a small child still while giving them a shot. This story would repeat itself for years, and I would be bewildered and confused each time. The hypothesis that someone would simply lie would not occur to me until much later, after an epiphany on how the world regarded truth.

While painful, that understanding turned out to be a useful skeleton key to a lot of human interaction. Sometimes people just lie, and often for smaller stakes than you might think. Words are not truth, just sounds people make or symbols on a page. People lie, casually, easily, on important things and on trivial things, to get what they want or just because they don’t care. This not caring is not malicious, simply indifferent. 


Sometimes stating factual mistruths is totally fine. I claim an important distinction is whether the bulk majority of people involved know which statements are which.

There are some obvious cases. If you pick up a book from the Fantasy aisle of the bookstore and it has a dragon on it, the person who wrote the words inside that book has pretty much carte blanche to say whatever made up things they want in that book. There are slightly less obvious cases; I regret to inform you that both professional wrestlers and stage comedians have flexible relationship between what comes out of their mouths and what the ground state of reality is like. Then there's the dubious examples where it's fiction but an onlooker might get reasonably confused, like found footage horror movies or anything in a newspaper that comes after the phrase "studies show."[2] Fiction is good fun for millions of people the world over and any injunction against lying needs to make space for that.

(Another childhood story: an uncle of mine once took me fishing, and when we came back after a day of catching no fish we managed to do an unintentional comedy duet where I systematically disagreed with every line of his fish story until my grandfather took mercy on him and took me aside to explain that these were not supposed to be taken as literal truth.)

Some factual mistruths are, if you actually examine what is happening, successfully communicating to both sides of a conversation what's going on.

If you ask a native speaker of American English if they can come help you with something and they reply "In a second," and you get confused when they are not there a sixtieth of a minute later, I am in fact sorry. This bothered me too for a long time, and eventually I made peace with it. There is no law of the universe connecting the sounds "ˈsɛkənd" with the amount of time that's around the time it takes a human heart to beat. In some contexts "ˈsɛkənd" means the unit of time about equal to a heartbeat, in other contexts it means the count between first and third, in the context where you just asked for help and someone said "in a second" it means something like "soon, but not right now."

I have picked many variations of this fight over the years, and I've given up. I'm on the side of the linguistic descriptivists now.

There is this: I don't think everyone knows how this works. Existence proof, I didn't know it for what feels like a long time so saying "everyone knows" twenty years ago would have been wrong. Everyone does not know. People are going to keep bumping into this at least as long as there are literal minded kids running around, and probably a lot longer since some of those kids grow up to become literal minded adults and their stance on truth transforms into a fiercely held principle. I try to pay attention enough to notice when someone is taking my words literally and code switch or at least warn them.

The thing the word "Literally" does in a lot of colloquial American English sentences is to function as an intensifier. "He's the best in the world at that game" and "He's literally the best in the world at that game" often are said with the intent to mean basically the same thing. No actual authoritative comparison to the rest of the world was made. 

This is frustrating. It would be useful to have a way to mark "this statement is in Quaker mode" in the middle of a conversation. Sadly, as far as I can tell every attempt English has used to have that kind of marker has gotten suborned to function as an intensifier. The English word "very" supposedly comes from "verrai" meaning "true."

There are some carveouts where factual mistruths are generally agreed not to be allowed. The American legal system takes a dim view of people lying under oath while in a courthouse. Some contracts aspire to be factually true about what's going on. (Though "until death do us part" is still in many marriage vows despite appalling divorce rates, and the enforceability of some documents which resemble legal contracts like End User License Agreements is questionable.) Some people have, between them on a personal level, managed to create spaces where factual mistruths are Not Supposed To Happen. Once in a while, whole communities try for it. As Benjamin points out in the Quaker and the Parselmouth, the actual real life Quakers are still around.

And then there's LessWrong.


LessWrong sometimes calls itself a truth seeking community.[3] As I write this, the about page says "We seek to hold true beliefs" and (I claim) implies that we seek to profess true beliefs. I love this community in large part because I find The Truth to be a thing of beauty, worthy of song and poetry, worth dedicating ones life to its pursuit. 

But groups are not uniform, and the amount of earnest truthfulness varies. The fact that someone is commenting on LessWrong does not mean that you can trust them absolutely. It doesn't even mean for sure that they care about Truth the way that you might. Maybe they're new here. Maybe they do care about truth but have a different idiomatic case like the "just a second" example above you aren't aware of. Maybe they're trying but failing to uphold those ideals, and the failure hurts and it hurts worse to admit it.

(Or maybe they don't care at all. Some people just like to watch the world burn, after all.)

(That list of reasons is not exhaustive.)

It would gladden my heart to hear that somewhere there was a shining city upon a hill where the truth was spoken freely, a place where Actors durably weren't allowed to tread without changing their ways. Here and there, when the tradeoffs are right, try and help that project out when I can. It's not my central goal, but it would be good to have.

Part of the problem is that Eternal September where newcomers need to acculturate, but I think a bigger problem is that of group coordination. The attempts I've seen to drag the whole Rationalist community kicking and screaming into the Truth, to all hunt Stag instead of Rabbit, haven't worked. You can try and hold yourself to this standard, you can patiently make the case to yet another Actor or Parselmouth that the Quaker way is better, and maybe you should, but I think colloquial and casual usage is going to keep being a way people talk.

“I speak to everyone in the language they understand," said Ender. "That isn't being slick. It's being clear.”

-Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card


Confession time. I claim myself as a Parselmouth in this taxonomy. The Quakers have my sympathies, but I no longer can consider myself one of them.

It used to take me an awkwardly long time to respond to things people said to me. I don't mean a small gap as I waited for them to finish speaking, I mean a full five to ten seconds of dead air. See, if you asked me "what did you do today?" then I needed to think over my day, summarize the important parts, decide how that made me feel, put this into words, then check to make sure those words we true from all likely angles. This often required several revisions, mentally rewriting multiple drafts of the sentence before beginning to speak. “Where are my keys?” They’re on the counter- no, wait, I don’t actually know that because I’m not looking at them- I last saw them on the counter- is “the counter” sufficiently distinguished from other counters?- wait I’ve been thinking about this for too long aaaah. “When will you be there?” “Very likely before eight p.m. but I would estimate between five and six p.m. conditional on my car not being out, otherwise- wait, sorry, I’m giving too much information and in a weird format and aaaaaaaaahhh.”

Nowadays I just say “five thirty, I’ll let you know if I’m running late.” I don’t actually work through whether this is accurate, but it fits a momentary intention and I can answer within a second of the other person ending their sentence. Likewise, if someone says they’ll grab milk while at the store, I’m no longer baffled by the lack of milk in the fridge that night. Doing what they said they would isn’t a momentous oath, it’s just a momentary intention.

(I’d like to make a note here that, throughout all of Quakers and Actors, Benjamin never treats Actors as intentionally lying as part of a deliberate strategy, just being really unreliable. This endears the author to me and I’m continuing that usage, though I would like to take a moment to establish that intentional and malicious liars do in fact exist and productive habits for interacting with Actors will catastrophically fail when you come into contact with such people. This kind of liar is outside the scope of this post, and while I am not saying I would do that there is value to be gained in practicing CONSTANT VIGILANCE against this.)

I agree with Benjamin that being in Actor mode wears down the instinct towards the truth, and I also think that the known fact that someone lies sometimes is significant evidence that they might be lying at this very moment. You should never completely trust that a Parselmouth is in Quaker mode. 

(You should never completely trust a Quaker either! Zero and one are not probabilities! They might be wrong, they might have decided this is the thing that is worth lying for, they might have been replaced by their identical twin! CONSTANT VIGILANCE.)

The reverse, however, is also true. I think being in Quaker mode wears down your facility with lies, the oil of social integration and flexibility. It makes you vulnerable to the lies of others, unable to anticipate and predict that they might mislead or misinform. If Quakers and Actors ever actually existed and mixed, I suspect that Quakers would find themselves frustrated and deceived again and again because they were not expecting mistruths to happen.

I can notice this in my own mind in the short term. When I move from a long weekend interacting with entirely rationalists who are at every turn reminded of who and what this community is to Monday Morning chatting with a stranger next to me at the train station, I'm slower to come up with quick and glib answers to "how are you doing?" The first few conversational exchanges when I show up to a rationalist meetup I have to correct myself for giving off the cuff answers which are fast and easy but perhaps not maximally truthful.  

Perhaps I’m just committing the typical mind fallacy. It seems to be a true fact about my own mind that to be a Quaker would mean finding the world a confusing place, full of unpredictable dangers, untrue words that I would be defenseless against. Summarized heavily, I view my options as:

  1. To be a Quaker and live amid chaos. 
  2. To be an Actor and give up much of my ability to collaborate long-term. 
  3. To be a Parselmouth and code switch depending on who I’m speaking to, accepting the damage to my truth telling ability as well as mistakes due to misidentification. 

Of these, I choose 3.

To be clear, at my worst I think I'm only as untrustworthy as an idealized Actor. These aren't modeled as con men or malicious, only as people who don't view speech acts as binding on future actions. Most of the time, according to my own evaluation, I'm slightly more honest, forthright, and fulfill more of my verbal commitments than the median person around me. If your takeaway from this essay is that I'm going to try and lie to you and get you to do something against your interests for my own benefit, I don't think you've understood me properly. The whole point of this essay was to make it easier for people to model when I would and would not state things which are not true. I'm kind of putting in extra effort here, and I try to err on the side of honesty.

I try to speak nothing but truth to those who I observe and estimate to speak truth, and if you are a Quaker in this taxonomy I would like to know so I can reciprocate.  By default however you should not assume everything I say is something I would swear an oath to; I am a Parselmouth, and only feel compelled to speak the truth and nothing but the truth to those who I believe feel compelled to speak the truth to me.

(You should not trust anyone completely, CONSTANT VIGILANCE.)

  1. ^

    I originally used "dichotomy" here. In the comments of this post, Brendan Furneaux pointed out that that properly means a division into two, in the process teaching me the words trichotomy and polytomy. I am delighted by this addition to my vocabulary, and also if I made the straightforward substitution it wouldn't read as well. Thank you for the new words and the suggested replacement!

  2. ^

    This is a joke about how a thing which people quite reasonably expect to be true is often not actually true. I don't have a high opinion of newspapers and their ability to interpret scientific studies these days.

    Explaining the joke can ruin the joke but in this essay it seems unusually worth it to try and be strictly accurate. Also, this makes for a good example: if I hadn't included this footnote, would that joke been acceptable for a Quaker to say? How about a Parselmouth? What if I have reason to believe that people sometimes don't read the footnotes, does that change how acceptable it is?

  3. ^

    This is untrue. Communities do not have mouths to speak or fingers to type. A community speaking is a type error. This metaphor of a gestalt groups of humans being reified as capable of action is one I disagree with. That's an essay for another day however, and here I use the metaphor.

New Comment
10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Once upon a time I stumbled upon LessWrong. I read a lot of the basic material. At the time I found them to be worldview-changing. I also read a classic post with the quote

“I re-read the Sequences”, they tell me, “and everything in them seems so obvious. But I have this intense memory of considering them revelatory at the time.” 

and thought "Huh, they are revelatory. Let's see if that happens to me".

(And guess what?)

There are these moments where I notice that something has changed. I remember reading some comment like "Rationalists have this typical mind fallacy, where they think that people in Debates and Public Conversations base and update their beliefs on evidence". That kind of moments remind me that oh right, everyone is not on board with The Truth being Very Important, they just don't really care that much, they care about some other things.

And I swear I haven't always had a reflex of focusing on the truth values of statements people say. I have also noticed that most of the time the lens of truth-values-of-things-people-say is just a wrong frame, a wrong way of looking at things.

Which is to say: Quaker isn't the default. By default truth is not the point.

(Which in turn makes me appreciate more those places and times where truth is the point.)

PS: Your recent posts have been good, the kind of posts why I got into LessWrong in the first place.

I hate to make a comment just to be pedantic with a definition, but it honestly confused me the first time you used the word "dichotomy" in this post to refer to a division into three, rather than two, categories, and then disturbed me every subsequent time. It's possible that this is informed by my training in biological taxonomy, where we also use the contrasting word "polytomy", meaning a division into more than two parts. In this case, you could use the less common "trichotomy", meaning division in exactly three, including the same nuance as "dichotomy" that the division is absolute and idealized. Alternatively, "taxonomy", "classification", "categorization".

Despite those three moments of confusion, I really enjoyed the post; more so because I had not previously seen the original.

You are both pedantic and correct. Despite the prefix "di" being right there, I had not until today realized that dichotomy would mean exactly two, or that obviously other words would exist for other numbers. I've replaced it with "taxonomy" which scans about the same, since I suspect I would not be the only one to not know trichotomy on the first reading. Thank you!

I really appreciated both the original linked post and this one. Thank you, you've been writing some great stuff recently.

One strategy I have, as someone who simultaneously would like to be truth-committed and also occasionally jokes or teases loved ones ("the cake you made is terrible! No one else should have any, I'll sacrifice my taste buds to save everyone!") is to have triggers for entering quaker-mode; if someone asks me a question involving "really" or "actually", I try to switch my demeanour to clearly sincere, and give a literally honest answer. I... hope? that having an explicit mode of truth this way blunts some of the negatives of frequently functioning as an actor.

You are welcome, and thank you for saying so!

I think the triggers for quaker-mode are a decent way of handling it. I try and use both triggers and to switch based on mood and to remember which people are more Quakerish and which are more Actorish, but that pile of heuristics is not always reliable. It mostly works! Sometimes it doesn't, and then I sort things out as best I can.

One Parselmouth to another, I hope it works too.

There're so many ways to lie without actually saying lies. Especially when it comes to stating your intentions.

(Also, "I don't know when I come home today" communicates your lack of precise knowledge and your unwillingness to commit to an estimate. That you are not willing is a fact. Why should it not be communicated? People do it all the time because they care about these things.)

(Also, at our village's speaking club (of which I am proud), we regularly have people lying their heads off just for the fun of it. To break the image of a Foreign Language Too Holy for Saying Whatever You Want. I don't really understand why it's so much fun; lying without any real gains. But it is.)

For me, one of the key insights for thinking about this kind of situation was reading David Chapman's In the Cells of the Eggplant. In short, even with common knowledge that a group of people believe that Truth and Honesty are important, there will still be (usually less severe) problems of accurate communication (especially of estimations and intentions and memories and beliefs) that at least rhyme with  the problems Quakers have in dealing with Actors. Commitment to truth is not always sufficient even for the literal minded.

The nurse/shot example is an interesting one. In an ideal world the thing the nurse would communicate is, "There will be a little bit of pain, but you need to hold still anyway, because that little bit of pain is not important compared to getting the shot, plus you need to get used to little bits of inescapable pain in life, and my time is more valuable than yours." not actually something you can convey to a little kid, at least not quickly, nor would most generally react well if you did. It would plausibly be a disaster for the pediatric offices everywhere if you tried. Some kids can learn to hold still while knowing a shot hurts when they're still very young, while some grown adults still can't, so it's not like there's an age when a nurse who barely knows you can reliably change their approach.

English words (or words in any natural language) genuinely don't have precise enough meanings for use as Parseltongue-analogs. This is tied into A Human's Guide to Words, and also into what Terry Pratchett was pointing at in The Hogfather.

You could try to create artificial languages that do, and speak only in them when aiming for truth. Math and code are real-world examples, but there are useful concepts we don't know how to express with them (yet?). Historically every advance in the range of things we can express in math has been very powerful. Raikoth's Kadhamic is a fictional one that would be incredibly useful if it existed.

I appreciate the clarity of your distinctions. Being surrounded daily by obfuscation and lies (eg the media, politicians, and narcissists) makes for difficulties. Good nurses, or injecting doctors, successfully use distraction and play to reduce the likelihood of pain. When presented by lies eg 'This won't hurt,' or '(Ignore the facts, ignore what your eyes/senses/insights tell you) Because I say it it is the truth,' it interests me that people do not, often in great numbers, question the lies being told to them. Personally I find being lied to particularly upsetting, and believe I ought to have grown out of this as an old person! I now think of myself as an aspiring Quaker, who in fact functions as a Parselmouth.

but speak only the truth to other Parselmouths and (by implication) speak only truth to Quakers.

I would merely like to note that the implication seems contrary to the source of the name: I expect Quirrell and most historical Parselmouths in HPMOR would very much lie to Quakers (Quirrell would maybe derive some entertainment from not saying factually false things while misleading them).

That is a worthwhile note, and I would think about these roles differently based on which definition is in use.

If I was transported to a world where everyone is a Quaker I like to think I'd rapidly (though not immediately) switch to being basically pure Quaker. There might well be other kinds of Parselmouths that would lie as long as they were sure enough in not getting caught. Certainly norms like "you can lie to outsiders but never to your in-group" have existed, from organized crime to ethnic or religious bonds to children's conspiracies to hide who broke a vase. That might be closer to the examples in the linked post and in HPMOR.

Maybe it's worth coining terms to distinguish those. I make a genuine effort not to lie or mislead other rationalists. I don't feel bound to speak truth to panhandlers. 

As for the distinction between factually false and misleading, man, I have such profound cynicism and despair around accurate communication that someone could hide a small moon in the latitude I often have around misleading. Give me an intent-reading machine and that would change. I have written technical documentation professionally before and the experience of having your instructions called confusing because someone wasn't sure if when you said "the right mouse button" you meant their right or the computer's right is the kind of thing that sticks with you.