Authenticity vs factual accuracy

ClearerThinking recently published a study showing an important difference between how Clinton and Trump supporters perceive honesty. The short version: Clinton voters think that sincere honesty is reciting a list of factually accurate statements. Trump voters think that sincere honesty is poor impulse control.

My writing on authenticity seems relevant here, as an attempted steelman of the poor impulse control model of honesty:

Lying, to me, is not just telling an untruth that one consciously knows to be untrue. Integrity is a sacred value to me. It might be my strongest-held ethical value. And that doesn’t just mean not lying on purpose. I feel that I have an affirmative duty to seek the truth, to follow up on nagging doubts and loose ends and bits of my beliefs that don’t quite line up. Telling someone something that, if I thought a bit harder, I could see to be untrue, feels to me like a kind of lying - telling a knowably-untrue thing, even if the knowledge is only potential.


I think that when people think of authenticity as the state of not having a filter, they have an idea of truthfulness that makes sense in an environment with much less trust. They don’t even consider the idea that the person they’re talking with will be able to reliably tell them true things - they may not even bother fully processing the literal content of verbal statements. They’re looking, instead, for verifiability.


This explains the paradox where I'm read as more authentic when I'm less spontaneous and more intentional in my interactions. By default, I tend to be in a calculative mode, which is less conducive to producing instant readouts. When I deliberately push myself into a less calculative and more emotive state, this doesn't give people an unbiased measurement of what it's like to be me. It doesn't show them where my center of mental gravity is. But it shows them something in a way they can quickly grasp and verify on a gut level.

Authenticity is the quick-read thermometer of social interactions. It doesn't tell you everything, it's not necessarily representative of the entire object being measured, but it tells you something precise about what's happening right now in the spot being measured.

This now seems like a straightforward description of an idealized Hillary Clinton trying to make sense of a world full of idealized Trump supporters, and steelman their heuristics around trust.

My friend Thomas Eliot put the dichotomy more charitably: "Clinton supporters think that the most important thing about saying the truth is saying nothing but the truth (not making mistakes or saying false things), while Trump supporters think the most important thing is saying the whole truth (not being duplicitous or concealing your true thoughts). Both of these have value, which is why in courts we ask people to say the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

I don't think my social circle needs to hear a defense of the "factually accurate" model of honesty; I think it's obvious to most of us why you'd want to prefer literal truth to the alternative. I do think that both sides are also overestimating how interesting their preferred version of honesty is on its own.

The authenticity model of favors outright sociopaths, narcissists, and people with too little of an explicit model of what they're doing to realize that they're about to betray someone. I think this is basically the world-view of the sort of person for whom Trump's style is optimized - the only thing that's real is feelings and affiliations. Policy proposals are only important as intelligible concretizations of your feelings for your sort of people. Repeat simple proclamations about what you're going to do, in order to clearly and intelligibly signal that you find that sort of thing desirable, and are on the side of the sort of people it would seem to benefit. Hitler is on the record in Mein Kampf as favoring feelings and national affiliation over facts, and it seems like he was basically playing to similar underlying cultural forces. (And some Trump supporters, I assume, are good people.)

As I said in my 2016 election post, Trump is able to appeal to that mindset because, as far as I can tell, he has no real opinions about matters of fact, freeing him up to emote appropriately for the situation:

Some people claim that Trump's actually a brilliant negotiator and his apparently erratic stances are just a ploy to win a negotiation advantage. There's strong reason to believe that the public Trump is the private Trump, and there's no clever secret plan behind all this. Slate Star Codex wrote a review of Trump's own book The Art of the Deal, and came away with the opinion that Trump doesn't really believe that understanding policy content is relevant – he thinks that everything is negotiation. Trump's ghostwriter for the book reports that it's even worse than it looks – that Trump barely had the attention span to sit for interviews as a basis for the book, and mostly pays attention to whether he's getting attention.

To a (much) lesser extent, in the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders played to a similar dynamic. His policy proposals were often less coherent and compatible with the facts in a strictly literal sense than Clinton's, but they were much, much easier for voters to understand:

The most decisive reason to like Sanders's goal of free college, however, didn't become clear until the campaign itself began. The great thing about free college is that people know what it means and some people are excited about it.

Clinton's college affordability plan, a much more complicated compact aimed at the goal of allowing students to graduate debt-free, utterly fails on this score. It is true that her plan is more fiscally progressive — delivering more help to poor students and less to non-poor ones. It is also true that I have never met a person who is excited about this plan, even among people who are excited about Clinton in general.

Sanders's plan, by contrast, is a huge applause line at his rallies and something that Sanders's supporters frequently cite as a key reason they are backing him.

On the other hand, there are serious flaws to the "factually accurate statements" model of honesty. Any type of honesty based on inhibitions against lying, rather than an affirmative desire to seek and speak the truth, is compatible with massive, culpable falsehoods of omission and misleading emphasis. There's a related systemic bias where whoever controls the terms of the discourse gets to make it easier to voice some people's concerns in an articulate and coherent way than others'.

Clinton was fundamentally dishonest too, in the presidential debates, despite sticking to the facts, as I also pointed out in my 2016 election post:

No competent economist would ever privately describe the economic benefits of a policy by saying that it would “create jobs.” If you take that description literally, it is an admission that our economic policy is not about letting people create things they want and enjoy leisure, but about creating the need for people to work. It’s about increasing costs, not about increasing benefits. Economists don’t even believe that “creating jobs” is a thing. Hillary Clinton knows what economists have to say, but publicly promised that her economic policies would create jobs.

Then there’s the rule of law. When discussion of the supreme court appointments came up, Trump wanted to appoint pro-life judges who would enforce the second amendment. Also the other amendments, but mainly the second. Clinton wanted judges who “understand how the world works” and would stick up for LGBTQ rights, and the rights of minorities more generally. The option of appointing judges who would honestly try and figure out what the law says and decide cases on the merits was not even on the table.

None of this makes Trump voters' frequent open racial animus okay, or Trump's disregard for democratic norms or the norms of global politics by which great powers don't get into major open conflicts with one another as often as before. But it's still a real problem.

7 thoughts on “Authenticity vs factual accuracy

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  2. Luke Somers

    In regards to the last point -

    It's not at ALL dishonest - and especially not fundamentally dishonest - to say your policy will create jobs, and that's good. The worker cares about the being paid part. Other workers care about the drop in competition for their job. That's not a bad thing for them!
    Of course, in order to create private-sector jobs (which is what they are talking about, generally), the government needs to shift the business landscape to open up cases where those workers can do something useful enough that it would be worthwhile for business owners to pay them. That's good for the economy as a whole, but since it's not aimed directly at the people the typical politician is addressing, it's not the focus when addressing audiences of mostly-workers.

    1. Benquo Post author

      This seems like a crucial point so I'm glad you're engaging with it.

      I don't think that this is dishonesty in the sense of a literal factual falsehood - but the underlying frame seems like a pretty bad one. The medium-run interests of many workers are misaligned with overall economic progress, to the point where we need sorta backwards rationalizations to "explain" how productivity-enhancing changes benefit them. It's not actually the case that Clinton's economic team first evaluated their economic proposals on the metric of job creation. They picked the ones that they thought *were good ideas*, by some other metric, and then looked for a metric they could sell it on.

      That the metric is technically accurate isn't really the point.

      The most honest way to deal with this is by openly talking about the underlying misalignment and proposing ways to fix it - e.g. by a commitment to financially compensate people whose jobs become redundant due to productivity-enhancing economic changes, or combining additional labor market flexibility with a stronger system of income supports and more public provision of services.

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