Robin Hanson recently inspired me to re-read Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.”  In a just world, social scientists of all descriptions would analyze this great work from a hundred different angles.  On my latest reading, though, what struck me was Tolstoy’s depiction of the role of lying in society:

What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie,

which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but

was simply ill, and that he only need keep quiet and undergo a

treatment and then something very good would result. He however

knew that do what they would nothing would come of it, only still

more agonizing suffering and death. This deception tortured him —

their not wishing to admit what they all knew and what he knew, but

wanting to lie to him concerning his terrible condition, and

wishing and forcing him to participate in that lie. Those lies —

lies enacted over him on the eve of his death and destined to

degrade this awful, solemn act to the level of their visitings,

their curtains, their sturgeon for dinner — were a terrible agony

for Ivan Ilych. And strangely enough, many times when they were

going through their antics over him he had been within a

hairbreadth of calling out to them: “Stop lying! You know and I

know that I am dying. Then at least stop lying about it!” But he

had never had the spirit to do it. The awful, terrible act of his

dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of

a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone

entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odour) and this was

done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long.

He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to

grasp his position.

Tolstoy’s on to something big: Human beings face intense social pressure to lie.  Yet human beings also face intense social pressure not to speak total nonsense.  Imagine, then, that everyone else says X, but X seems false to you.  What should you infer? 

1. You’re right and everyone else is wrong.  This view maximally gratifies your ego, but strains credulity.  You’re the only person who sees the world clearly? 

2. Your doubts are nonsensical.  This view is maximally humiliating, and fairly plausible.

3. You’re right and everyone else is lying.  This view is fairly gratifying for the ego, and fairly plausible too.

Which view should you adopt?  Tough call.  Defaulting to #3 give you too much credit.  But defaulting to #2 gives mankind too much credit.  After all, aren’t people a pack of liars?

Your quandary gets worse once you realize that – abject conformists aside – everyone who thinks for himself is in the same epistemological boat as you are.  Everyone you meet might be silently wondering: Have I figured out what everyone else already knows but refuses to say?  Have I stumbled into risible error?  Or am I perchance the one-eyed man in the land of the blind?

There’s one more factor, though, that makes our world extra confusing.  On reflection, virtually everything you know is based on trust in other people!  Life’s too short to personally verify more than a sliver of facts.  Unless you actually replicate the experiments in your physics textbook, even your knowledge of “hard science” rests on your unproven – and often false – belief that big groups of people don’t converge on shared lies.

If you take my concerns seriously, you could retreat into total skepticism.  You could retreat to the Cartesian view that you’ll only believe facts you can directly check.  The more sensible response, though, is to audit your society – and prominent subgroups within.  Pick socially approved views at random, gather relevant facts you can personally verify, then measure the discrepancy between what everyone says and what you really know.  This exercise won’t answer all your questions, but at least you’ll know how reliable mankind – your ubiquitous informant – really is.

Not satisfied?  Here’s something else you can do: When other people know nothing beyond “what everyone says,” be slow to ridicule their doubts.  Under such circumstances, doubts aren’t just defensible; they’re a strong symptom of truth-seeking.

Global warming is a case in point.  The vast majority of people who believe in global warming have only one real piece of evidence: Climatologists believe in global warming.  In fact, most believers don’t even have that.  All they really know is that many non-climatologists say that climatologists believe in global warming.  As far as most non-experts are concerned, the real issue is simply, “Are big groups of people lying?” 

If this sounds paranoid, recall the plight of Ivan Ilych.  Big groups of people often lie.  Maybe you have enough first-hand knowledge to say, “Not in this case.”  Yet most people – even people who agree with you – lack such first-hand knowledge.  Ridiculing skeptics may make them shut up.  But when you do so, you’re promoting not truth, but mere conformity.