Yuval Harari in Conversation with Dan Ariely at the 92|Y on “Fake News”

I was fortunate to witness a fascinating conversation between Yuval Harari (the author of Sapiens and Homo Deus) and Dan Ariely.

I sent a copy of my entire notes to the Farnam Street Learning community but I wanted to share with you one of the most insightful parts on “fake news” and the power of science.

Dan Ariely: I want talk a little bit about honesty. Fake news. I noticed in the Hebrew edition of the book, there was chapter that the headline was Something True: Why We Don’t Want to Know the Truth or something like that, and that chapter was gone…

But if you think about this new relationship we have with the truth in the last few months, do you think that that’s a significant change? I look at this and I’m horrified, but maybe I’m looking too shortly. Maybe in the long term it doesn’t matter. I need some control.

Yuval Harari: I’ll say this. This whole thing of fake news and lies being spread, it’s terrible, but there’s absolutely nothing new about it. I mean, this is the era of false truth. I would like to know when was the era of truth? I missed it. I missed the party. Was it the 1980’s? Was it the 1930’s? Was it the Middle Ages? When was the era of truth? I don’t think there is anything in the fake news of today that Joseph Goebbels, the minister of Nazi propaganda would have found unfamiliar. Fake news has been with us for thousands of years. Just think of the Bible.
In American courtrooms people swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth with their hand on a Bible.

So there are lots of experiments on dishonesty. We’ve had people who steal money, from us. And one of the ways we tempt people to steal money, we have all kinds of ways, but one of them is we give people a six-sided die. “Why don’t you toss this die and we’ll pay whatever comes up.

On a six, we’ll give you $6. Five, $5, and so on. But you can paid either on the top side or the bottom, you decide but don’t tell us.” So, the night of the experiment, I say, “Decide top or bottom. Do you have it in your mind? Yes?” Now roll the die, and it came five on the bottom and two on the top. And I would say what do you pick? Now, if you pick bottom, no problem. You say bottom and you get $5. If you pick top you have a dilemma, you say the truth, top and get $2 or you change your mind.

And this time when people have a sheet of paper and they say I’ve picked, so they write the T, roll the die, came up five and two, I choose five, I choose two, they do it many times, again and so on. And when you do it 20 times you find that people are incredibly lucky. Their luck is a very nice feature and focuses on the six-one die toss. But when people swear on the Bible, before doing this, cheating goes away. So, swearing on the Bible gets cheating to go away even for atheists, even for self-affiliated. It’s a good mechanism.

I didn’t say it wasn’t effective.
That’s definitely true, and again, looking back at history, it’s obvious to me that no large-scale US society can function without some shared mythology, some shared fictions, about something. About God, about human rights, about freedom, about the nation, you always has to have this kind of shared common mythology in order for society to function.
I was just commenting about this year of fake news as being something new. It isn’t, it’s been with us for thousands of years.

Does the intensity matter? Just because there was always dishonesty does it mean that there is no substantial increase? By the way, there’s a story in the bible that God goes to Sarah and says, “Sarah you are going to have a son.” And Sarah laughs and she says, “How can I have a son when my husband is so old?” And God says, “Don’t worry you’ll have a son.” And then God goes to Abraham and says, “Abraham you are going to have a son.” And Abraham says, “Did you tell Sarah?” And God says, “Yes.” And then God says, “And what did Sarah say.” And God lies, and God says, “Sarah said how could she have a son when she is so old?” And, religious scholars wondered how does God lie.

And what was their conclusion? It’s okay to lie to please a woman. Let me understand it, dishonestly has been with us. And think the recognition is that there are many human values, honesty is one of them, but not all human values are compatible all the time. What do you do when human values collide? How do you feel about somebody else? How much do you care about the truth? But nevertheless, it looks to me that now, the places that I would keep of the truth compared to other human values has changed. And I think, we’ve always had it. It doesn’t capture the whole picture. The whole picture does say that there are a lot of things now that measure more than the truth, and the thing about the truth…

But it was always like that, also, the truth was never the highest priority of human society. It was the highest priority of some individuals, but never of society as a whole. Because society as a whole does not function on the basis of truth.
And if you take two of the most powerful institutions of humankind, let’s think about science and scientific community and let’s think about religion and churches and so forth. I think that none of them have truth as their chief values.
As individuals, yes, but as institutions, no. I think the chief value of science is power. And the chief value of religion is order, organization. Religion is all about getting order in society, and science is mainly about gaining power, gaining power all over the world. They use truth, to some extent on the way to achieving power or to achieving order, but this is not saying.
Yuval Harari

Do you find it’s more about power?

I mean science, as an institution, is interested in gaining the power — to gain control over the world — to be able to gain control over diseases, over the human body, over the environment, over rivers and animals and forests. You have to submit a grant to somebody to fund, it all comes down to money, in many cases.
It’s also an institution- If you’re a freelance scientist, you just explore the truth. Okay. But in an institution, a university, you need money to finance so you submit a research grant, and you have to convince the authority not of the truth. You have to convince the authority that what you want to do will somehow make us more powerful. Will somehow enable us to produce a new weapon. Will somehow enable us to produce more food. Will somehow enable us to gain control over previously uncontrollable, or deadly disease. And this is really what gets the money. Of course, it means to also be truth to some extent. Does it work and who wants it?

But the center of control, so when you say control, it sounds like some personal dysfunction. You want the feeling of control.

No, not the feeling of control — control. This is about really controlling disease. Engineering is about really being able to build a dam that will stop a river from flowing.

But the language of control, makes it seem like it’s a psychosis. Like something unpleasant or undesirable, when you could have said, science has the desire to improve the human condition. And we want to improve the human condition in all kinds of ways because it means understanding what’s going on and trying to do better in society. It’s such a nicer framing.

Can we have both? It’s not untrue predictions, of course the question of how we frame it. But looking at hundreds of years of scientific institutions and scientific progress, not in all cases, but in many cases, the basic thinking is that in order to improve the human condition, we need to be able to control something. It’s not like, “Okay, let’s all do yoga, and this will improve the human condition.” It’s more like “How do we build a den? How do we cut down a forest? How can we produce…?” And things like that. There are exceptions I know, but trying to present the big picture of 500 years of modern science, I think it was much more about gaining control than about…, in terms of improving the human condition or how to improve the human condition.

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