Truth or Consequences

One of my highest allegiances is to truth. (Except in the title and at the beginning of sentences, and toward the end of this one, I will use the lowercase “truth” because many groups capitalize “Truth” to refer to things that are not true at all.) The Mormonism I was raised in teaches that fidelity to truth is a higher value even than fidelity to Mormonism. It does so in a way many Mormons don’t recognize by the frequent avowal that “The Church is true.” If truth can validate Mormonism, then truth can judge Mormonism; and if there is ever a parting of ways between truth and a religion, so much the worse for that religion.

This past week, I thought again about allegiance to truth when I heard that there was a ban on federal funding on research about the effects of guns. I was relieved to find that President Barack Obama had lifted that ban in January, 2013, But there are many who would like to reinstate a ban on federal funding of gun research.

In my personal life, in order to keep myself from avoiding the truth, I often say to myself: “Whatever you decide is true, you don’t necessarily have to do anything about it,” lest fear of what I should do given certain findings tempt me to not find out the truth. In this context, let me say clearly that even if we find that guns are very damaging, it doesn’t mean that we have to tighten controls over them, and even if we find that guns are not very damaging at all, it doesn’t mean we have to loosen controls over them even further. Let’s find out what is true, and then argue over what to do about it. 

Also, let’s not let our own failings in relation to the truth compromise our allegiance to the truth. We are all imperfect, and most of us at least occasionally tell lies. But let us nevertheless strive to set up social structures that avoid leading us into the temptation to tell lies, and that make it less likely that others will tell us lies.  

Though no one is perfect, a simple way to increase one’s incentives to tell the truth is to advocate in favor of truth-telling: the costs of lying oneself are higher when one has scolded others for lying. If your psychological makeup is of the standard variety, putting oneself at risk of the accusation of hypocrisy, one is likely to think twice about telling a lie in any particular circumstance.   

As I wrote in my column “Judging the Nations: Wealth and Happiness Are Not Enough,” in a stiff competition of well over 100 different characteristics of a nation, Dan Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, Nichole Szembrot and I found that the one people on average valued the most was

freedom from injustice, corruption, and abuse of power in your nation

and eighth most valued characteristic was 

people’s freedom from being lied to, deceived or betrayed.

People hate being lied to, and they hate the injustice, corruption and abuse of power that tend to go along with official lying. 

In order to find out the truth, careful research is often necessary. In some cases, that research is done by journalists. In other cases, it is done by scientists. When scientists make the case that they should be supported in their efforts to discover the truth, it is important that they in fact be devoted to finding out the truth, regardless of whether the truth fits in with their personal ideology or not. Given the subtle ways in which our subconscious minds steer us toward reinforcing our own preexistent biases, if we ever allow ourselves to consciously suppress things in order to further our side of the debate, we are in deadly quicksand. And whenever we lie in public to further our side of a scientific debate, we have gone far, far over the line, and deserve to be reprimanded severely. (And having previously subjected oneself to a financial temptation to lie in public debate provides no valid excuse for lying.)

Though it doesn’t always work this way, I think a fascination with the math behind applied statistics can be an aid in keeping one honest in empirical research. The love of that math can distract one at crucial moments from the temptation to follow one’s ideological prejudices. Also, it may well be that having just a touch of Asperger’s syndrome on the autism spectrum is protective against the temptation to follow one’s own ideological biases. And having techy friends to answer to who care more about getting the statistics right than getting the ideologically correct answer can also help.

As economists (speaking to those of you who are economists), let us work to strengthen the social pressure we put on each other to tell the truth in both shallow and deep ways. And as human beings, let us work to reduce the temptation we and others face to tell lies. I think we make ourselves less than we might otherwise be when our allegiance to the truth wavers. Let us instead make ourselves more.