Truth: It's Not That Great


Rationality is pretty great. Just not quite as great as everyone here seems to think it is.

-Yvain, "Extreme Rationality: It's Not That Great"

The folks most vocal about loving "truth" are usually selling something. For preachers, demagogues, and salesmen of all sorts, the wilder their story, the more they go on about how they love truth...

The people who just want to know things because they need to make important decisions, in contrast, usually say little about their love of truth; they are too busy trying to figure stuff out.

-Robin Hanson, "Who Loves Truth Most?"

A couple weeks ago, Brienne made a post on Facebook that included this remark: "I've also gained a lot of reverence for the truth, in virtue of the centrality of truth-seeking to the fate of the galaxy." But then she edited to add a footnote to this sentence: "That was the justification my brain originally threw at me, but it doesn't actually quite feel true. There's something more directly responsible for the motivation that I haven't yet identified."

I saw this, and commented:

<puts rubber Robin Hanson mask on>

What we have here is a case of subcultural in-group signaling masquerading as something else. In this case, proclaiming how vitally important truth-seeking is is a mark of your subculture. In reality, the truth is sometimes really important, but sometimes it isn't.

</rubber Robin Hanson mask>

In spite of the distancing pseudo-HTML tags, I actually believe this. When I read some of the more extreme proclamations of the value of truth that float around the rationalist community, I suspect people are doing in-group signaling—or perhaps conflating their own idiosyncratic preferences with rationality. As a mild antidote to this, when you hear someone talking about the value of the truth, try seeing if the statement still makes sense if you replace "truth" with "information."

This standard gives many statements about the value of truth its stamp of approval. After all, information is pretty damn valuable. But statements like "truth seeking is central to the fate of the galaxy" look a bit suspicious. Is information-gathering central to the fate of the galaxy? You could argue that statement is kinda true if you squint at it right, but really it's too general. Surely it's not just any information that's central to shaping the fate of the galaxy, but information about specific subjects, and even then there are tradeoffs to make.

This is an example of why I suspect "effective altruism" may be better branding for a movement than "rationalism." The "rationalism" branding encourages the meme that truth-seeking is great we should do lots and lots of it because truth is so great. The effective altruism movement, on the other hand, recognizes that while gathering information about the effectiveness of various interventions is important, there are tradeoffs to be made between spending time and money on gathering information vs. just doing whatever currently seems likely to have the greatest direct impact. Recognize information is valuable, but avoid analysis paralysis.

Or, consider statements like:

  • Some truths don't matter much.
  • People often have legitimate reasons for not wanting others to have certain truths.
  • The value of truth often has to be weighed against other goals.

Do these statements sound heretical to you? But what about:

  • Information can be perfectly accurate and also worthless. 
  • People often have legitimate reasons for not wanting other people to gain access to their private information. 
  • A desire for more information often has to be weighed against other goals. 

I struggled to write the first set of statements, though I think they're right on reflection. Why do they sound so much worse than the second set? Because the word "truth" carries powerful emotional connotations that go beyond its literal meaning. This isn't just true for rationalists—there's a reason religions have sayings like, "God is Truth" or "I am the way, the truth, and the life." "God is Facts" or "God is Information" don't work so well.

There's something about "truth"—how it readily acts as an applause light, a sacred value which must not be traded off against anything else. As I type that, a little voice in me protests "but truth really is sacred"... but once we can't say there's some limit to how great truth is, hello affective death spiral.

Consider another quote, from Steven Kaas, that I see frequently referenced on LessWrong: "Promoting less than maximally accurate beliefs is an act of sabotage. Don’t do it to anyone unless you’d also slash their tires, because they’re Nazis or whatever." Interestingly, the original blog included a caveat—"we may have to count everyday social interactions as a partial exception"—which I never see quoted. That aside, the quote has always bugged me. I've never had my tires slashed, but I imagine it ruins your whole day. On the other hand, having less than maximally accurate beliefs about something could ruin your whole day, but it could very easily not, depending on the topic.

Furthermore, sometimes sharing certain information doesn't just have little benefit, it can have substantial costs, or at least substantial risks. It would seriously trivialize Nazi Germany's crimes to compare it to the current US government, but I don't think that means we have to promote maximally accurate beliefs about ourselves to the folks at the NSA. Or, when negotiating over the price of something, are you required to promote maximally accurate beliefs about the highest price you'd be willing to pay, even if the other party isn't willing to reciprocate and may respond by demanding that price?

Private information is usually considered private precisely because it has limited benefit to most people, but sharing it could significantly harm the person whose private information it is. A sensible ethic around information needs to be able to deal with issues like that. It needs to be able to deal with questions like: is this information that is in the public interest to know? And is there a power imbalance involved? My rule of thumb is: secrets kept by the powerful deserve extra scrutiny, but so conversely do their attempts to gather other people's private information. 

"Corrupted hardware"-type arguments can suggest you should doubt your own justifications for deceiving others. But parallel arguments suggest you should doubt your own justifications for feeling entitled to information others might have legitimate reasons for keeping private. Arguments like, "well truth is supremely valuable," "it's extremely important for me to have accurate beliefs," or "I'm highly rational so people should trust me" just don't cut it.

Finally, being rational in the sense of being well-calibrated doesn't necessarily require making truth-seeking a major priority. Using the evidence you have well doesn't necessarily mean gathering lots of new evidence. Often, the alternative to knowing the truth is not believing falsehood, but admitting you don't know and living with the uncertainty.