Can crimes be discussed literally?

post by Benquo · 2020-03-22T20:17:05.545Z · score: 72 (31 votes) · LW · GW · 22 comments

This is a link post for http://benjaminrosshoffman.com/can-crimes-be-discussed-literally

Suppose I were to say that the American legal system is a criminal organization. The usual response would be that this is a crazy accusation.

Now, suppose I were to point out that it is standard practice for American lawyers to advise their clients to lie under oath in certain circumstances. I expect that this would still generally be perceived as a heterodox, emotionally overwrought, and perhaps hysterical conspiracy theory.

Then, suppose I were to further clarify that people accepting a plea bargain are expected to affirm under oath that no one made threats or promises to induce them to plead guilty, and that the American criminal justice system is heavily reliant on plea bargains. This might be conceded as literally true, but with the proviso that since everyone does it, I shouldn't use extreme language like "lie" and "fraud."

This isn't about lawyers - some cases in other fields: 

In American medicine it is routine to officially certify that a standard of care was provided, that cannot possibly have been provided (e.g. some policies as to the timing of medication and tests can't be carried out given how many patients each nurse has to care for, but it's less trouble to fudge it as long as something vaguely resembling the officially desired outcome happened). The system relies on widespread willingness to falsify records, and would (temporarily) grind to a halt if people were to simply refuse to lie. But I expect that if I were to straightforwardly summarize this - that the American hospital system is built on lies - I mostly expect this to be evaluated as an attack, rather than a description. But of course if any one person refuses to lie, the proximate consequences may be bad.

Likewise for the psychiatric system.

In Simulacra and Subjectivity, the part that reads "while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others" was, in an early draft, "physicians are actually nothing but a social class with specific privileges, social roles, and barriers to entry." These are expressions of the same thought, but the draft version is a direct, simple theoretical assertion, while the latter merely provides evidence for the assertion. I had to be coy on purpose in order to distract the reader from a potential fight.

The End User License Agreements we almost all falsely certify that we've read in order to use the updated version of any software we have are of course familiar. And when I worked in the corporate world, I routinely had to affirm in writing that I understood and was following policies that were nowhere in evidence. But of course if I'd personally refused to lie, the proximate consequences would have been counterproductive.

The Silicon Valley startup scene - as attested in Zvi's post, the show Silicon Valley, the New Yorker profile on Y Combinator (my analysis), and plenty of anecdotal evidence - uses business metrics as a theatrical prop to appeal to investors, not an accounting device to make profitable decisions on the object level.

The general argumentative pattern is:

A: X is a fraudulent enterprise.
B: How can you say that?!
A: X relies on asserting Y when we know Y to be false.
B: But X produces benefit Z, and besides, everyone says Y and the system wouldn't work without it, so it's not reasonable to call it fraud.

This wouldn't be as much of a problem if terms like "fraud", "lie," "deception" were unambiguously attack words, with a literal meaning of "ought to be scapegoated as deviant." The problem is that there's simultaneously the definition that the dictionaries claim the word has, with a literal meaning independent of any call to action.

There is a clear conflict between the use of language to punish offenders, and the use of language to describe problems, and there is great need for a language that can describe problems.

For instance, if I wanted to understand how to interpret statistics generated by the medical system, I would need a short, simple way to refer to any significant tendency to generate false reports. If the available simple terms were also attack words, the process would become much more complicated.

Related: Model-building and scapegoating, Blame games, Judgment, Punishment, and the Information-Suppression Field, AGAINST LIE INFLATION, Maybe Lying Doesn't Exist [LW · GW]

22 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-03-22T23:45:34.670Z · score: 27 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
In Simulacra and Subjectivity, the part that reads "while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others" was, in an early draft, "physicians are actually nothing but a social class with specific privileges, social roles, and barriers to entry." These are expressions of the same thought, but the draft version is a direct, simple theoretical assertion, while the latter merely provides evidence for the assertion. I had to be coy on purpose in order to distract the reader from a potential fight.

I want to quibble with this a little bit (and maybe this is that fight you were trying to avoid), but to me the draft version doesn't seem so direct and simple.

In a sense it's simple, but if I just read that statement in isolation, it's less clear to me as a reader what you mean by it. Maybe largely because I'm not sure what you mean by the "nothing but". If you took out the "nothing but", I would agree that it's a clear and direct (and true!) statement. But with the "nothing but" it seems obviously false on many interpretations, so I'm not quite sure how to make sense of it.

In contrast, the "while you cannot acquire..." version seems much clearer to me about what it's claiming and complaining about.

comment by Nisan · 2020-03-22T23:37:52.887Z · score: 21 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even setting aside the norm-enforcing functions of language, "the American hospital system is built on lies" is a pretty vague and unhelpful way of pointing to a problem. It could mean any number of things.

But I do think you have a good model of how people in fact respond to different language.

comment by ricraz · 2020-03-24T15:18:04.048Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, "built on lies" is far from a straightforward summary - it emphasises the importance of lies far beyond what you've argued for.

The system relies on widespread willingness to falsify records, and would (temporarily) grind to a halt if people were to simply refuse to lie.

The hospital system also relies on widespread willingness to take out the trash, and would (temporarily) grind to a halt if people were to simply refuse to dispose of trash. Does it mean that "the hospital system is built on trash disposal"? (Analogy mostly, but not entirely, serious).

everyone says Y and the system wouldn't work without it, so it's not reasonable to call it fraud.

This seems like a pretty reasonable argument against X being fraudulent. If X are making claims that everyone knows are false, then there's no element of deception, which is important for (at least my layman's understanding of) fraud. Compare: a sports fan proclaiming that their team is the greatest. Is this fraud?

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2020-03-24T17:26:02.839Z · score: 30 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If X are making claims that everyone knows are false, then there's no element of deception

"Everyone knows" [LW · GW] is an interesting phrase. If literally everyone knew, what would be the function of making the claim? How do you end up with a system that wouldn't work without false assertions, and yet allegedly "everyone" knows that the assertions are false? It seems more likely that the reason the system wouldn't work without false assertions, is because someone is actually fooled. If the people who do know are motivated to prevent it from becoming common knowledge [LW · GW], "It's not deceptive because everyone knows" would be a tempting rationalization for maintaining the status quo.

comment by mr-hire · 2020-03-24T23:27:34.157Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
If literally everyone knew, what would be the function of making the claim? How do you end up with a system that wouldn't work without false assertions, and yet allegedly "everyone" knows that the assertions are false?

This is answered in Benquo's last post, take a look at stages 3 and 4 to see how this situation can arise.

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/fEX7G2N7CtmZQ3eB5/simulacra-and-subjectivity [LW · GW]

comment by Dagon · 2020-03-24T20:30:56.096Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
"Everyone knows" [LW · GW] is an interesting phrase.

This is key. There's a very weird kind of knowing - somewhere between amnesia and willfully ignoring the problem - when bad data is aggregated into statistics, and those who know that the data is bad decide to rely on the statistics anyway, because it's the best they have.

comment by Dagon · 2020-03-22T23:50:49.620Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The answer to your title question is pretty clearly "no". "Crime" is itself an ambiguous word, and will be motte-and-baileyed (unintentionally in many cases) among "violates a law as written", "causes serious societal harm", and "is commonly prosecuted as a crime".

This isn't (just) a problem with language - confusing words can be mitigated by using more words (sometimes a lot more). It's a problem with simultaneous divergent motives for communication. People WANT multiple things from that reporting: they want liability protection, they want personal deniability, they want actual measurement, they want punishment for defectors, and they want to save time on things they don't find valuable. There's no language or wording fix for that.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-03-22T23:40:11.836Z · score: 10 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems related to the noncentral fallacy [LW · GW]. A descriptor may be technically accurate but have misleading connotations.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2020-03-23T17:37:38.148Z · score: 8 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed, it seems very similar to (maybe exactly like) the "Martin Luther King was a criminal" example from there.

comment by ryan_b · 2020-03-23T19:24:35.946Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me precisely the opposite: my reading is that Benquo is driving exactly at how to talk about the problem of systemic falsification of information.

If the post is noncentral, what is the central thing instead?

comment by Pattern · 2020-03-22T23:54:15.622Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What are these 'misleading connotations'?

comment by ESRogs · 2020-03-23T21:10:00.140Z · score: 3 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did you read the linked essay?

comment by Pattern · 2020-03-24T20:26:20.917Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. (Content-wise, the linked essay is also the post.**)

What part of the essay do you find to be misleading (explicitly or implicitly*)?

*Connotation

**The linked essay is at the address, but doesn't include the address, so actually the post includes more than the linked essay.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-03-26T01:18:40.678Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
What part of the essay do you find to be misleading (explicitly or implicitly*)?

I didn't say the essay was misleading. I said a descriptor could be misleading. That's what the article I linked talks about, and the post discusses a similar phenomenon, where true descriptors are interpreted as attacks (and I claim that some of the examples in the post seem to be similar to Scott's examples of non-central members of categories).

The linked essay is at the address, but doesn't include the address, so actually the post includes more than the linked essay.

I do not understand what this sentence is saying. When you say "address", are you talking about the URL?

comment by Pattern · 2020-03-26T03:18:52.835Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
are you talking about the URL?

Yes.

I said a descriptor could be misleading.

What descriptors do you find to be misleading?

comment by ESRogs · 2020-03-26T18:55:52.740Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Same ones Scott talks about in his essay. E.g. "MLK was a criminal."

And remember, misleading connotations. The descriptor itself is technically correct.

comment by Pattern · 2020-03-27T03:36:32.220Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Since whether or not something "is" a 'central' example is defined relative to an ontology, I am asking "what is your ontology", in particular that the OP's remarks serve as a 'non-central' usage?

comment by ESRogs · 2020-03-29T06:39:49.689Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This ontology, essentially: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/WBw8dDkAWohFjWQSk/the-cluster-structure-of-thingspace [LW · GW]

comment by Decius · 2020-03-24T23:44:36.337Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why is it a useful description to call the legal system a criminal organization, to define physicians as a social class, to describe X as a fraudulent enterprise, or other things in that class?

The only reason I can see is to make an attack against the thing you are describing, because if you do not intend the attack then the description is not useful- if describing an institution as a criminal organization doesn't mean that it should be dismantled (or better), then describing an institution as a criminal organization means nothing.

If saying that a title is nothing more than a social class doesn't also say that the title is without significant meaning, then saying that a title is nothing more than a social class is an exercise in definitional naval-gazing (by which I mean both a somewhat hyperbolic sense of the literal meaning and also as a dismissal of the practice of using tautological descriptions that parse as attacks without meaning them as attacks).

And so forth.


If you want to describe the problems, you have to describe, or at least cogently assert the problems. The problem that you are asserting about the American legal system seems to be related to the idea that it accepts some kinds of implicit coercion in plea bargains, but forbids other forms of coercion, and makes people claim that they haven't been coerced at all when accepting plea bargains? You never actually said why that's bad, and I honestly don't believe that it is bad- Sure, it's a little bit hypocritical; it might even be a violation of law. And the practice of plea bargaining is problematic from the start- but it would be even more problematic if there was no attempt to ensure that suspects were free from untoward coercion.

When you suggest that physicians are "actually nothing but" a social class with certain characteristics, you aren't communicating anything about the core point that being good at healing people is insufficient to become a physician. Those two words are the attacking part of the statement: "Physicians are a social class with specific privileges, social roles, and barriers to entry." is not an attack, it's an uncontroversial background statement that could easily lead into a point.

I can see why fudging times in healthcare might be bad, since recording inaccurate information about treatment could possibly result in making decisions based on inaccurate information, and developing bad norms about "insignificant" falsifications risks people falsifying more significant details. But I have to draw from my own knowledge to reach that conclusion; you seem to stop at "the system would grind to a halt if people simply refused to [follow the normal behavior in the system]", without reference to the bad things that the normal behavior in the system might cause.


"X relies on asserting Y, when we know Y to be false" is not intrinsically a problem. In most cases where "Asserting Y when it is common knowledge that Y is false" is a problem, it is a problem because it can lead to asserting Z when it is not common knowledge that Z is false and where belief in Z might be a problem.

comment by Pattern · 2020-03-26T03:23:10.437Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You made a jump from:

asserting Y, when we know Y to be false

to

Asserting Y when it is common knowledge that Y is false

The difference between the two may be relevant to the contents of the OP.

comment by Decius · 2020-03-30T22:28:55.814Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The latter is a strict subset of the former, but it is the big one if "everybody knows that Y is false".

In the cases where asserting Y when Y is false, but it is not common knowledge that Y is false, the path to a problem likely passes through "People actually believe Y, because they have been told Y by someone who knows if Y is true."

comment by Ericf · 2020-03-23T21:09:44.004Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One answer: #toolazytolink Taboo Your Words when they could be seen as an attack. Instead of "lie" use "document reasonably expected results in lieu of actual measures outcomes" or whatever the specific instance is.