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Eliezer_Yudkowsky comments on Not Technically Lying - Less Wrong

32 Post author: Psychohistorian 04 July 2009 06:40PM

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Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 July 2009 06:15:35AM 20 points [-]

Maybe I'm just deluding myself, or as Michael Vassar would put it, expressing codes of morality that I learned by being socialized by fantasy novels as a kid...

...but for me, one of the primary motivations against lying is "Once a man gets a reputation for lying, he might as well be whistling in the wind." At least if you get a reputation for Not Technically Lying, your words still mean things, they just have to be carefully double-checked. Depending on how much trouble you go to in order to Not Technically Lie, when anyone else would just lie and be done with it, it expresses an odd sort of respect for the truth. A lot of that would depend on context and motivation, I expect. And maybe if you aren't socialized by fantasy novels you just don't care about the difference at all.

I think there are grades of Not Technically Lying, too. For example, there's Not Literally Lying According To Sentence Syntax But Lying If You Added Words That Appear By Gricean Implication, like the missing "because" in the opening paragraph. In contrast, Subtly Changing the Subject or Not Answering the Original Question, actually seem to me substantially less similar to outright lies - the original sentence becomes a lie if an implied word "because" is said out loud; Subtly Changing the Subject is more... semantic.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 06 July 2009 09:28:35AM 7 points [-]

It seems the main reason to put serious intellectual resources behind NTL is because you get to feel justified in the fact that you're telling the truth. At least liars will (generally, in my experience) actually feel bad when you catch them. If you have a reputation for NTL, unless I think I'm much, much smarter than you, I can't trust you, and even then I probably can't trust you unless I cross examine you after any vaguely ambiguous statement. Liars may have less respect for the truth, but if they at least feel guilty and generally try to avoid lying, they have more respect for me than someone who has no problem saying anything technically true to get what he wants.

I also don't think the whistling in the wind thing is, well, true. Or, at least, I think it's really, really hard to get a reputation for being a liar, and, even if someone gets one, that person's words are still of some value, unless they're actually pathological. I don't think I've really heard of anyone who has a real reputation for lying. And a few lies here and there won't do it, since if they did, pretty much everyone ever would have a reputation for being a liar. I'd think it's gotta be very big, very wrong, and relatively visible among the relevant sphere of people, however large or small that sphere might be.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 05 July 2009 03:38:16PM 6 points [-]

If you can be accused of having intended to deceive it counts as a lie in most social functions. If you can't be, as in changes of subject or not answering the question, that counts as good manners. It can be infuriating to the questioner if you are less subtle than you think you are, but only really upsets fairly rare people. With those rare people though, it may be a better idea to just admit that you aren't willing to answer or to place a condition on answering. We have had conflicts over this in the past where you would have done better by doing so in any event.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 05 July 2009 07:11:15AM 11 points [-]

It seems likely to me that a reputation for Not Technically Lying, being highly unusual, would be highly salient, and so might lead to less trust than a reputation for lying at an average frequency – i.e., the null reputation, not salient at all.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 05 July 2009 03:35:25PM 15 points [-]

I'm pretty sure that this is correct.

More precisely, I'm pretty sure that one simply doesn't want to have ANY reputation regarding trustworthyness, truth, or whatever. Make issues of truth salient and you loose. Even a reputation for always communicating honestly (no efforts at deception) costs you status because it makes you a less valuable ally, less capable of desirable forms of partiality, and above all, weird. Being seen as a trusted neutral third party is at best a weak consolation prize, and one that is only possible if you are also seen as either a) not having your own agenda, or b) not having an agenda that anyone is allowed to question.

By contrast, politicians who are caught in lies repeatedly pick themselves up and go back to being high status politicians after wiping the dirt off their faces.

Comment author: cousin_it 05 July 2009 06:30:44PM *  4 points [-]

You can have in someone's eyes a reputation of lying to everyone else but being truthful to this particular person because they're special. I've seen such cases.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 July 2009 04:11:48PM 1 point [-]

costs you status because it makes you... weird

Pope's weird. Wouldn't have much status if he were normal, he'd just be Chair (not CEO) of a large international corporation.

Comment author: AndySimpson 06 July 2009 09:38:31AM 2 points [-]

The Pope is a good neutral third party. He has taken the consolation prize of being the World's Most Moral Man because he can't be Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama, both of whom have more friends and more power.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 05 July 2009 05:15:18PM *  2 points [-]

In addition to the obvious position-of-authority thing, it might be relevant that the Pope's weirdness is a factor of (or at least can easily be attributed to) his situation, not his disposition (as honesty would be).

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 05 July 2009 07:19:08AM 3 points [-]

It may be clearer to say that Not Technically Lying will actually get you a reputation for being crafty and untrustworthy, because people will have to put so much extra effort into figuring out how they should react to what you say, rather than just being able to trust it.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 06 July 2009 12:15:07AM 2 points [-]

Is it actually possible to get a reputation for NTL?
I think the closest you can get is a reputation for whining in weird ways when called on clear-cut lying (and probably less specific than that). Is it even possible to get such a reputation among nerds? ie, people who have a poorly calibrated sense of what's a weird reaction

Comment author: Nebu 06 July 2009 07:11:47PM 9 points [-]

Is it actually possible to get a reputation for NTL?

Yes. I have such a reputation amongst some of my friends. In fact, one time I was hanging out with two friends, one of which knew of this reputation (Amy) and one of which didn't (Beth), and so the following conversation occured:

  • Amy: Oh, but you probably shouldn't go on the roller coaster.
  • Me: Why not?
  • Amy: Don't you get motion sickness on airplanes and stuff? You could throw up on the rollercoaster.
  • Me: I've never thrown up while on a roller coaster.
  • Amy: But have you ever been on a roller coaster?
  • Beth: Amy! (Tone is as if Amy had been particularly rude to me or something.)
  • Amy: What? He never actually said he's been on one.
  • Beth: Yeah, but clearly he means that...
  • Me: (interrupting, 'cause I did want to get on the roller coaster and wanted to eliminate this conversation which was delaying my goal) I'll explicitly state that yes, I have been on roller coasters before, and I have never puked while on one.
Comment author: Douglas_Knight 07 July 2009 02:06:56AM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the story!

I say it doesn't count. There's probably a bit of "no true Scotsman," but hear me out. My current position is that people don't get a reputation for being honest or dishonest (cf Psychohistorian); reputation probably consists of a list of allies and measures of loyalty to a generic ally.

For some meanings of "reputation" you didn't have one: Beth didn't know (though I'd need more details). Moreover, your reputation among your friends wasn't about your honesty, it was about a game you played. It wasn't that you used NTL to manipulate people, or how to extract secrets from you.

I am a little impressed that you got the reputation at all. Are you and your friends nerds? (how about Beth?)

So my new questions:
1. Can one have a reputation for being dishonest, as opposed to a reputation for not having allies?
2. Can one have a reputation for being honest? can that be positive? maybe a reputation for being honest about who are your allies?

Comment author: Nebu 09 July 2009 05:10:19PM 1 point [-]

Are you and your friends nerds? (how about Beth?)

Yes, we're nerds. I don't about Beth because she was Amy's friend rather than my friend, and I never really spoke to her again after that.

Also, I think in my circle of friends, NTL is considered "honest", so if your definition of "reputation" allows that I had a reputation of being an NTL-er (an NTL-ar?), then I'd also have one for being honest.

Comment author: Cyan 06 July 2009 12:48:14AM 7 points [-]

In fact, people will probably remember you saying what you misled them to believe instead of the technically true thing you actually said.

There's an anecdote in Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman in which as a frat brother in college Feynman stole a door off someone's room and hid it in the basement. After two or three days, the head of the frat house called everyone to a meeting and asked them all one after another, "Did you take the door?" When Feynman was asked, he replied in a sarcastic tone of voice, "Yes, I took the door." People heeded his tone instead of the literal meaning of his words, and when he finally relented a couple of days later, no one recalled the phrasing of his technically true reply.

Comment author: Nebu 06 July 2009 07:14:24PM 5 points [-]

I believe Feynman did not even use a sarcastic tone of voice. Feynman stole the door, and when everyone was arguing about it, Feynman said he knew how to solve it: Have everyone swear on their honor not to lie, and then ask them point blank whether or not they took it. So the head of the house went through each member, asking them to swear, and then asking if they took the door. When they reached Feynman, he swore, and then said that yes, he did take the door in a deadpan serious voice. They told Feynman to stop joking around, and then just went on to the next member in line, asking them to swear and whether or not they took the door, etc.

And like you said, when they later found out that Feynman had indeed taken the door, nobody remembered that he had actually said "yes" when asked.

Comment author: orthonormal 06 July 2009 07:33:57PM *  6 points [-]

Feynman didn't want to set himself up for the NTaL; his idea wasn't the honor pledge but a plea for the anonymous thief to return the door as secretly as it was taken, with a heaping of praise for the thief's ingenuity. (Feynman was honest, but nobody ever accused him of humility.)

But when someone else came up with the honor-pledge solution, he did the only thing that comported with his ethic of literal honesty.

"Jack, did you take the door?"

"No, sir, I did not take the door."

"Tim: Did you take the door?"

"No, sir! I did not take the door!"

"Maurice. Did you take the door?"

"No, I did not take the door, sir."

"Feynman, did you take the door?"

"Yeah, I took the door."

"Cut it out, Feynman, this is serious! Sam! Did you take the door..."— it went all the way around. Everyone was shocked. There must be some real rat in the fraternity who didn't respect the fraternity word of honor!

. . .

Sometime later I finally admitted to taking the other door, and I was accused by everybody of lying. They couldn't remember what I had said. All they could remember was their conclusion after the president of the fraternity had gone around the table and asked everybody, that nobody admitted taking the door. The idea they remembered, but not the words.

Comment deleted 05 July 2009 02:21:52PM [-]
Comment author: whpearson 05 July 2009 08:19:26PM 2 points [-]

Indeed we have a word for it "spin" and a political profession associated with it as well. Although spin can cover outright lies the majority of the time it is just selective truths being told.

Comment deleted 05 July 2009 08:38:49PM [-]
Comment author: MineCanary 06 July 2009 12:48:06AM 0 points [-]

We distrust someone using their SKILL and intelligence to deceive us--perhaps because it further obscures the truth, because we feel that if they can outwit us like that, the world suddenly becomes smoke and mirrors and we don't know what side we should be fighting for.

If someone tells a lie, that keeps the game simple--no word play, no clever tricks that might have to be reasoned past, producing an existential angst that there may be nothing beyond the spin. With a lie, well, it can be easily falsified, and it can even be culturally accepted--because, hey, we all say we didn't eat two cookies when everyone had one or wanted one but didn't get it in time. But we don't all try to confuse people and make them THINK--especially in settings where it's socially agreed we don't/shouldn't have to.

Comment author: Emily 05 July 2009 08:12:29AM 4 points [-]

Grice's maxims are a very interesting factor to introduce here, and I think encapsulate very well what Psychohistorian is saying. You might argue that breaking any of them (Quality, Quantity, Relevance, Manner), with the possible exception of Manner, is a form of lying. Breaking Quality is direct lying. Breaking Quantity is excluding true information that is necessary for the listener to really understand what's going on. And what PH did here is a good example of breaking Relevance: introducing the computer information where it was actually irrelevant, thereby creating a not-technically-a-lie out of the fact that we assume he is complying with Grice's maxims.

Manner is a less obvious case. You might argue that you were not-technically-lying by breaking Manner if you spewed mountains of true information and buried the part that you want to not-technically-lie about among all the other true stuff so that no one took any notice of it. But that could also be expressed as breaking both Quantity and Relevance.

Comment author: MineCanary 06 July 2009 12:53:09AM *  5 points [-]

I'm smiling, shaking your hand. "Yes, this was a very productive conversation! I'm sure glad I met up with you and we had this discussion!"

You think I'm going to help support you in your efforts to do whatever you're going to do with the ideas or information you've shared with me tonight. Instead, I'm going to report it to another group that will stop you from doing what you want, take your ideas, or exploit the information in a way counter to your goals.

I've just lied by breaking the maxim of Manner.

[Edit: It's arguable that breaking Quantity would also cover this--I didn't say WHY it was productive--but it seems clear to me that it's essentially a violation of Manner.]

Comment author: HalFinney 05 July 2009 09:32:07PM 3 points [-]

"once a man gets a reputation as a liar, he might as well be struck dumb, for people do not listen to the wind." - Colonel Richard "Pop" Baslim, from Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein. One of my favorite books, growing up.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 July 2009 08:10:47PM *  1 point [-]

Distinguishing NTLs by their syntax or semantics won't yield ethically useful conclusions for a utility maximizer because semantics and syntax, categorically conceived, lack any direct relationship to the NTL's consequences. You need a pragmatic standard; the common-law standard for fraud is a good starting point. For an act to count as fraud, the deceiver must intend to deceive and the deceived must reasonably rely on the false information. If the doctor tells the patient the saline solution is his most powerful sedative, would a reasonable person be justified in assuming the solution is a sedative, or would a reasonable person necessarily ask what the substance is? The answer, of course, depends on making the "reasonable person" more precise, but, if that's the kind of inquiry that's ethically appropriate, it points to the importance of preserving the patient's autonomy, even when deceiving him, and it speaks for some NTLs as better than lies. Some NTLs serve to maximize the patient's autonomy by allowing him to be unreasonable if he chooses and cooperate with his own deceit, while not foreclosing further inquiry if the patient really wants the truth. From this standpoint, I think "Don't distract me" is a more deleterious deception. The doctor silences the patient and ignores the possibility that the patient may choose to be informed, rather than comfortable. An outright lie that isn't credible could serve the same purpose and obtain the same ethical evaluation, except for the difficulty in manufacturing a suitable lie.

Comment author: cousin_it 06 July 2009 09:29:05AM *  0 points [-]

I just had a funny thought. In the spirit of your theory of Newcomblike problems, you will lie (or NTL) if you can extrapolate that the other person would have been thankful for it. On the other hand, adopting this strategy makes stupidity and self-deception beneficial to you, so scratch that.