On Deception and Evil

It may seem a bit peculiar to turn to the topic of evil on a finance blog, since money brings out the worst in most people.

However, while debates in the economic realm are usually couched in terms of efficiency, in the end we all live in a world that is a great deal more complicated than any economic model. Most of us care about things like quality of life, social relations, and maybe even ethics as well as material outcomes.

The folks at the blog Overcoming Bias don’t write about economics; their interest is cognitive bias and how it influences decisions and policy discussions. One of its writers, Eliezer Yudkowsky, has a good post today on how clarity of language can help combat evil.

This may seem like an extreme claim, and I’m not quite as optimistic as Yudkowsky as to how much good clear expression can do, but his idea has some merit. Misuse of language can muddy debate, stall action, and create allegiance for dubious causes, so there is at least some truth in his view.

I am increasinglydubious of the human ability (or more accurately, willingness) to see the truth (to the extent truth can be known). A seminal paper by Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown, “Illusion and Well-Being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health” determined that people who are considered to be mentally healthy are deluded. They overstimate their abilities, their odds of success, how they are regarded by their peers, and their degree of personal control.

Similarly, consider the prevalence of lying. Most people lie to ourselves about how much we lie. Psychologist Robert Feldman has found that the average person tells two or three lies during ten minutes of conversation, and some people tell as many as a dozen. And would we lie so much? it suggests that managing our relationships (a social task) is more important than truth (a cerebral function). So the frequency of lying suggests that we are constantly engaged in shaving the truth, and if we do that so routinely with others, we can certainly lie to ourselves just as easily.

But Yudkoswky’s post is well argued, and he comes by his forceful views honestly. He spends some of his time thinking about global catastrophic risks (meaning how humanity might destroy itself in or be unwittingly done in) and how to mitigate them. That frame of reference alone is enough to give one a heightened sense of urgency.

From Overcoming Bias:

Orwell saw the destiny of the human species, and he put forth a convulsive effort to wrench it off its path. Orwell’s weapon was clear writing. Orwell knew that muddled language is muddled thinking; he knew that human evil and muddled thinking intertwine like conjugate strands of DNA:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification…

Orwell was clear on the goal of his clarity:

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.

To make our stupidity obvious, even to ourselves – this is the heart of Overcoming Bias.

Evil sneaks, hidden, through the unlit shadows of the mind. We look back with the clarity of history, and weep to remember the planned famines of Stalin and Mao, which killed tens of millions. We call this evil, because it was done by deliberate human intent to inflict pain and death upon innocent human beings. We call this evil, because of the revulsion that we feel against it, looking back with the clarity of history. For perpetrators of evil to avoid its natural opposition, the revulsion must remain latent. Clarity must be avoided at any cost. Even as humans of clear sight tend to oppose the evil that they see; so too does human evil, wherever it exists, set out to muddle thinking.

1984 sets this forth starkly: Orwell’s ultimate villains are cutters and airbrushers of photographs (based on historical cutting and airbrushing in the Soviet Union). At the peak of all darkness in the Ministry of Love, O’Brien tortures Winston to admit that two plus two equals five:

‘Do you remember,’ he went on, ‘writing in your diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four”?’

‘Yes,’ said Winston.

O’Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.

‘How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?’


‘And if the party says that it is not four but five — then how many?’


The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.

I am continually aghast at apparently intelligent folks – such as Robin’s colleague Tyler Cowen – who don’t think that overcoming bias is important. This is your mind we’re talking about. Your human intelligence. It separates you from an ape. It built this world. You don’t think how the mind works is important? You don’t think the mind’s systematic malfunctions are important? Do you think the Inquisition would have tortured witches, if all were ideal Bayesians?

Tyler Cowen apparently feels that overcoming bias is just as biased as bias: “I view Robin’s blog as exemplifying bias, and indeed showing that bias can be very useful.” I hope this is only the result of thinking too abstractly while trying to sound clever. Does Tyler seriously think that scope insensitivity to the value of human life is on the same level with trying to create plans that will really save as many lives as possible?

Orwell was forced to fight a similar attitude – that to admit to any distinction is youthful naïveté:

Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?

Maybe overcoming bias doesn’t look quite exciting enough, if it’s framed as a struggle against mere accidental mistakes. Maybe it’s harder to get excited if there isn’t some clear evil to oppose. So let us be absolutely clear that where there is human evil in the world, where there is cruelty and torture and deliberate murder, there are biases enshrouding it. Where people of clear sight oppose these biases, the concealed evil fights back. The truth does have enemies. If Overcoming Bias were a newsletter in the old Soviet Union, every poster and commenter of this blog would have been shipped off to labor camps.

In all human history, every great leap forward has been driven by a new clarity of thought. Except for a few natural catastrophes, every great woe has been driven by a stupidity. Our last enemy is ourselves; and this is a war, and we are soldiers.

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One comment

  1. Anonymous

    People will lie if it has an advantage – in fact, I’d make a stronger statement that people will lie as often as tell truth unless there’s a clear disadvantage to it.
    More importantly yet, people who think they are telling the truth, and basing their decisions on that will be as often as not mistaken, which, from the perspective of their counterparties is only a small difference from a lie.
    Not to mention all those who will – most successfully – deceive others by telling carefuly picked pieces of truth in a context where people will be inclined to misinterpret, or even disbelieve them. You can’t imagine how often people will consider a plain truth that doesn’t fit their world view (or their view of yourself) a clear lie – and often they even think you use that to make a joke!
    So, clear communication won’t help, because for that there has to be willingnes on _both_ sides. And if we know anything about humans, we should know that they are as willing to lie as to be decieved in the first place.

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