[Review] On the Chatham House Rule (Ben Pace, Dec 2019)

by Ben Pace 2 min read10th Dec 201910 comments

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This is a brief review of On the Chatham House Rule by Scott Garrabrant.

I tend to be very open about my thoughts and beliefs. However, I naturally am still discrete about a lot of things - things my friends told me privately, personal things about myself, and so on.

This has never been a big deal, figuring out the norms around secrecy. For most of my life it's seemed pretty straightforward, and I've not had problems with it. We all have friends who tell us things in private, and we're true to our word. We've all discovered a fact about someone that's maybe a bit embarrassing or personal, where they don't know we know, and so we've e.g. carefully moved a group conversation around not putting pressure on that person to explain why they were unavailable last Tuesday. Discretion is a tool we all use implicitly, and often successfully. 

And yet, in the last two years, I've had to think very carefully about norms around secrecy, and found increasingly difficult problems that have substantially changed my behaviour.

I think the main change is that I much more regularly start interactions with 5-25 minutes of conversation about the expected disclosure norms. And furthermore, I regularly decline information that comes with strong nondisclosure norms attached, after spending a minute talking about the terms and conditions of secrecy.

Now, why do I do this? And what has changed? I'm not certain.

I think I've not enjoyed the weird politicisation of language that happens behind secrecy, where people use abstract words a lot, and then don't correct you when you misuse them, because they can't tell you the thing they were actually thinking of. I especially don't like talking with people who aren't even telling me that they're hiding secret information that informs their opinions, sometimes this feels outright deceptive. 

More than either of these though, I don't like being in that position myself. I like to just say my thoughts out loud in conversation. It's very, very limiting to not be allowed to just answer when someone asks me why I believe what I believe. Note that there's a big difference between not letting certain information out, and recomputing how you would reply and what thoughts you would have if you had never heard that information in the first place.

Riffing off of meta-honesty: it's very hard to be meta-open about openness norms. 

"I see, so you don't want to tell me your opinion on <topic> because you have secret information. I think this is mostly pretty bad for your and my ability to talk and coordinate on this topic. Here are <detailed reasons>. Can you tell me why you disagree with those reasons?" 

"No, because that would be giving away my secret information about <topic>."

This is a conversation I've seen happen, where a researcher I respect sat down with a friend of mine to discuss secrecy, and 10 mins into the conversation the researcher realised they weren't able to say their reasons because of secrecy concerns.

One of the main points of Bostrom's career is that not all ideas should be let out, certainly not in any order. We must become much wiser as a civilization before the maximally free exploration of ideas is universally safe, and I don't think that many people are wrong to keep information secret. My main concern about secrecy is that people do not put in the work to ensure that the public discourse is maintained once people and organisations go dark. But that's a story for another day.

Figuring out how to do secrecy well is important, and hard. Scott's post On The Chatham House Rule takes a fairly common set of explicit secrecy norms, and shows how much more demanding they are than anybody expected, and how lack of clarity around that has lead to their failure to work. It's a helpful example of showing how trying to have such norms is difficult and requires careful thought. I think secrecy is very hard, and we now know that just saying "Chatham House Rules" does not work.

(This post is similar to Lessons from the Cold War on Information Hazards: Why Internal Communications is Critical. However, my affect when reading that post is more like "Hah, those silly americans, they don't know how to run a government," whereas my affect toward the Chatham House Rules post is more like "Wow, this time it was us who thought this secrecy norm made sense and got it wrong," so this post has a more visceral reaction for me.)

When it was first posted I thought it was just an irritating technicality, and didn't think much of the post. But now I see it as part of a broader pattern where secrecy norms have much more wide-ranging implications than one often expects, and require a lot of careful thought to get right. I appreciate having such a clear public example to point to of how simple secrecy norms, that everyone thinks are simple, are not simple at all, are confusing, and break easily. It is nothing like the last word on the subject, but a useful early step in the conversation.

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