Truth Telling Under Uncertainty

“Thou shalt not lie.” Perhaps the most misquoted commandment of them all is actually not that broad:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Exodus 20:16, ESV)

As my pastor explained when we recently studied this passage in church, the point of this commandment, along with all of the other commandments, was to set up a working society. In particular, a society that generally obeys this commandment allowed for a functional legal system. The distinction is still important in the US today: Perjury, or lying under oath, carries much harsher penalties than lying while not under oath.

For Christians, though, Jesus does away with this distinction:

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37, ESV)

This passage is perhaps a bit confusing. It occurs in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, as one of a series of guidelines collectively raising the bar for the standard of conduct of Jesus’ followers beyond what the Ten Commandments require. Beyond not murdering, Christians should not hate. Beyond not committing adultery, Christians should not lust.

In this context, it’s clear at least to me that Jesus isn’t telling his disciples not to use profanity, or never to show up in court and thereby have to swear an oath (although the Quakers famously interpreted this passage it in that direction). Instead, Jesus is saying that an oath should not be necessary to ensure the accuracy of what you say. Beyond not perjuring, Christians should not lie.

As a Christian, I take this seriously. As I interpret it, lying is not simply any false statement but an intent to deceive. Answering a question on a test wrongly is not lying, unless you then try to deceive the grader into thinking your answer is fine, such as with the classic “proof by page flip.” And if you’re thinking about what this means in board games where some of the roles require lying to not instantly lose, well, I already wrote about that in The Spiritual Side of Board Gaming, but the short version is that I see games like that as role-playing, and any lying we do as part of the act. There are concerns about this role-playing making us more desensitized, able and therefore tempted to lie in the future, similar to the concern that violent video games will make their players more prone to real-life violence, but the act of lying while playing such a role is not in itself a violation.

But sometimes it isn’t always so straightforward. Take a classic, common example, estimating arrival times, like this guy:


Say I’m running late to a meeting with some friends, and I want to tell them how long they’ll have to wait for me. I am personally prone to frequently underestimating this time, saying I’ll be there in five minutes when I actually make it in ten. And that’s potentially excusable: Maybe I simply misremembered how long it would take, or forgot about some construction blocking my path. It’s not that I want to deceive my friends…

Or is it? Since noticing that I frequently err on the low end of such time estimates, I also came across a term for this phenomenon: The planning fallacy:

Buehler et. al. (1995) asked their students for estimates of when they (the students) thought they would complete their personal academic projects. Specifically, the researchers asked for estimated times by which the students thought it was 50%, 75%, and 99% probable their personal projects would be done. Would you care to guess how many students finished on or before their estimated 50%, 75%, and 99% probability levels?

  • 13% of subjects finished their project by the time they had assigned a 50% probability level;
  • 19% finished by the time assigned a 75% probability level;
  • and only 45% (less than half!) finished by the time of their 99% probability level.

As Buehler et. al. (2002) wrote, “The results for the 99% probability level are especially striking: Even when asked to make a highly conservative forecast, a prediction that they felt virtually certain that they would fulfill, students’ confidence in their time estimates far exceeded their accomplishments.”

Now that I’m aware of both the general and my specific tendency, I can see at least one reason that I give such optimistic estimates: I subconsciously don’t want to believe that I’m actually as late as I am, and I want my friends to think well of me for it, hoping they don’t glance at the clock when I do actually arrive. That’s explicit deception, with an added dose of self-deception as I try to justify to myself as well that I’m not actually that late.

So to fight that tendency, I’ve started trying to give a range of time to capture my own uncertainty. This usually involves starting with the estimate that pops into my head as a lower bound, and then adding 5 minutes or more to get the upper bound. And, predictably, I often end up near the end of that range, but at least I’m giving a more accurate impression to my friends that way.

Handling uncertainty is not just a problem on the individual level. Adding fuel to the dumpster fire of their already tarnished reputation, many media outlets famously predicted a sure Clinton victory last year:

All of these organizations were working from the same set of public polling, so this seems to me to be a clear-cut failure to properly deal with uncertainty. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, which famously expressed the least certainty, wrote extensively before and after the election about the factors that influenced their model’s treatment of uncertainty, particularly the number of people who told pollsters they were still uncertain.

But that’s old news now. These days, the biggest topic of discussion is what did or did not occur between Donald Trump, his associates, and agents of Vladimir Putin in the lead-up to the election. Everyone emphasizes that there’s a lot we don’t know, and some news reports have indeed turned up false. With so many anonymously-sourced articles (for fear of retribution), FiveThirtyEight is right there ahead of the curve explaining which anonymous sources are worth paying attention to, with helpful guidelines like these from Perry Bacon Jr., their Washington correspondent:

Quotes attributed to sources “familiar with the thinking” of a person are often quite reliable.

Why? A major newspaper like The New York Times or The Washington Post is not going to suggest that a source is familiar with someone’s thinking without being pretty sure of it. This is a fairly precise term. It also puts the news organization at a clear risk, as person X can obviously deny what an article has said he or she is thinking. […]

There is one person causing some specific problems with this kind of sourcing: Trump. The president seems to speak with a wide range of people, both inside and outside the White House. And many of these people then tell reporters that they talked to the president. That leaves a lot of people for journalists to credibly say are “familiar with Trump’s thinking,” but that does not necessarily mean that these sources give an accurate picture of what the president will do. The constant stories about staff shake-ups at the White House may indeed come from people who have heard Trump muse about changes that he will never actually follow through on.

And fitting, given the recent news, Bacon was right to indicate his uncertainty with that last “may”.

Helping readers navigate uncertainty is a crucial step in communicating the news truthfully. And this is especially important, because many people are paying more attention to politics than before Trump was elected:


Before getting too drawn into politics, let me bring the discussion back to our own lives. Deception can actually be quite tricky to find, because the examples of common lies that come most readily to mind are actually more often examples where the communication isn’t taking place along the literal words being said, such as saying we’re good or fine when asked casually how we’re doing, or saying that a dress doesn’t make a woman look fat.

In both of those circumstances, whether the words one is saying are true is a red herring to what’s really going on; the questions of “How are you?” and “Does this dress make me look fat?” aren’t really questions in the usual sense. Instead of literally wanting to know your inner emotional state, they are instead just extending a warm greeting to you, a greeting that you continue by saying, “I’m good.” (In Chinese, this is actually codified: “Ni hao” literally translates as “You good?” but is actually a greeting, not a question.) And instead of literally asking about the dress, she’s really asking you to affirm her beauty and slim figure, which you do by telling her that it doesn’t make her look fat. Naturally, this kind of coded language leads easily to miscommunication, but it isn’t a problem of deception to continue to speak in a well-understood idiom, even if the words one speaks are not true if (mis)interpreted literally.

A better example of common deception comes when we make excuses for our mistakes. I, for one, find myself frequently voicing some self-justification to defend my actions even when none is required: “Sorry, I was just…” At its best, my explanations help whoever I offer them some understanding of my life and more effectively work with me in the future. But that at least requires the explanation to be true, and I’ve unfortunately become very good at making up not-quite-true explanations that make me look good and quickly checking that they could hypothetically apply in this circumstance and only I will know the difference.

Like with estimating arrival or completion times, there is always a degree of self-deception tied to this. “Here’s the innocuous explanation for my actions that makes me look noble and good — see, self, you’re actually not that bad!” It’s an attitude utterly contrary to the Christian gospel, which calls us to actually recognize our own sins, folly, and need for a savior. Seeking to justify ourselves with an invented explanation makes it that much harder to forego the pretense that we are worthy of heaven and fall into the waiting arms of Jesus. This is why He can simultaneously call us to a higher moral standard and promise this:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, ESV)

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