Fake Norms, or “Truth” vs. Truth

Followup to: Applause Lights

When you say the word “truth”, people know that “truth” is a good thing, and that they’re supposed to applaud. So it might seem like there is a social norm in favor of “truth”. But when it comes to some particular truth, like whether God exists, or how likely their startup is to thrive, people will say: “I just want to believe” or “you’ve got to be optimistic to succeed”.

So Robin and I were talking about this, and Robin asked me how it is that people prevent themselves from noticing the conflict.

I replied that I don’t think active prevention is required. First, as I quoted Michael Vassar:

“It seems to me that much of the frustration in my life prior to a few years ago has been due to thinking that all other human minds necessarily and consistently implement modus ponens.”

But more importantly, I don’t think there does exist any social norm in favor of truth. There’s a social norm in favor of “truth”. There’s a difference.

How would a norm in favor of truth actually be expressed, or acquired?

If you were told many stories, as a kid, about specific people who accepted specific hard truths—like a story of a scientist accepting that their theory was wrong, say—then your brain would generalize over its experiences, and compress them, and form a concept of that-which-is-the-norm: the wordless act of accepting reality.

If you heard someone say “I don’t care about the evidence, I just want to believe in God”, and you saw everyone else in the room gasp and regard them in frozen shock, then your brain would generalize a social norm against self-deception. (E.g., the sort of thing that would happen if a scientist said “I don’t care about the evidence, I just want to believe in my-favorite-theory” in front of their fellow scientists.)

If, on the other hand, you see lots of people saying “Isn’t the truth wonderful?” or “I am in favor of truth”, then you learn that when someone says “truth”, you are supposed to applaud.

Now there are certain particular cases where someone will be castigated if they admit they refuse to see the truth: for example, “I’ve seen the evidence on global warming but I don’t want to believe it.” You couldn’t get away with that in modern society. But this indignation doesn’t have to derive from violating a norm in favor of truth—it can derive from the widely held norm, “‘global warming’ is bad”.

But (said Robin) we see a lot of trees and hear the word “tree”, and somehow we learn that the word refers to the thing—why don’t people learn something similar about “truth”, which is supposed to be good?

I suggested in reply that the brain is capable of distinguishing different uses of the same syllables—a child is quite capable of learning that a right turn and the right answer are not the same kind of “right”. You won’t necessarily assume that the right answer is always the one printed on the right side of the page. Maybe the word “truth” is overloaded in the same way.

Or maybe it’s not exactly the same, but analogous: the social norms of which words we are meant to praise, and which deeds, are stored as separately as left hands and leftovers.

There’s a social norm in favor of “diversity”, but not diversity. There’s a social norm in favor of “free speech”, but not pornography. There’s a social norm in favor of “democracy”, but it doesn’t spontaneously occur to most people to suggest voting on their arguments. There’s a social norm in favor of “love”, but not for letting some damn idiot marry your daughter even if the two of them are stupid and besotted.

There’s a social norm in favor of “honesty”. And there are in fact social norms for honesty about e.g. who cut down the cherry tree. But not a social norm favoring saying what you think about someone else’s appearance.

I’m not suggesting that you ignore all the words that people praise. Sometimes the things people praise with their lips, really are the things that matter, and our deeds are what fail to live up. Neither am I suggesting that you should ignore what people really do, because sometimes that also embodies wisdom. I would just say to be aware of any differences, and judge deliberately, and choose knowingly.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Everyone knows that being “aware” and “choosing knowingly” must surely be good things. But is it a real norm or a fake norm? Can you think of any stories you were told that illustrate the point? (Not a rhetorical question, but a question one should learn to ask.)

It’s often not hard to find a norm in favor of “rationality”—but norms favoring rationality are rarer.