“That house is white, on this side” — Fair Witnesses in Science





“Stranger in a Strange Land” is one of the masterpieces by Robert Anson Heinlein (1907- 1988). Written in 1961, the novel inverts one of the typical tropes of science fiction: instead of humans exploring alien planets, we have a Martian exploring Earth. The story teems with incredibly interesting ideas, intuitions, and observations. One of its legacies is the concept of “grokking” — understanding something by somehow “drinking” it. Another is that of the “Fair Witnesses,” a corporation of individuals trained to observe and report without ever being influenced by personal preferences or emotions. And you know how desperately we would need to have people like them in a world where lies are the rule. Above, an artificial intelligence system, that may behave as a fair witness.

From “Stranger in a Strange land” — Robert A. Heinlein, 1961

“You know how Fair Witnesses behave.” “Well … no, I don’t. I’ve never had any dealings with Fair Witnesses.” “So? Perhaps you weren’t aware of it. Anne!” Anne was seated on the springboard; she turned her head. Jubal called out, “That new house on the far hilltop-can you see what color they’ve painted it?” Anne looked in the direction in which Jubal was pointing and answered, “It’s white on this side.” She did not inquire why Jubal had asked, nor make any comment. Jubal went onto Jill in normal tones, “You see? Anne is so thoroughly indoctrinated that it doesn’t even occur to her to infer that the other side is probably white, too. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t force her to commit herself as to the far side – . . unless she herself went around to the other side and looked-and even then she wouldn’t assume that it stayed whatever color it might be after she left because they might repaint it as soon as she turned her back,”

Heinlein’s brilliance as a writer appears in many forms. Here, he had probably thought of the “Fair Witnesses” as the human equivalent of sophisticated surveillance cameras but, eventually, he described them as master epistemologists. People dedicated to truth, nothing but the truth, all the truth. 
Fair Witnesses could be seen as scientists, but freed of the encrustations of corruption, cronyism, hubris, and mere incompetence that plague modern science. Fair Witnesses are followers of the scientific method in its pure form: truth is based on data, scrupulously collected and intelligently interpreted, and purged from interpretations based on personal pride or feelings. The result is the real reality. It is the exact opposite of Donald Rumsfeld’s concept that “we can build our own reality” (maybe it was said by someone else, but that changes little to the idea). Where a Fair Witness would say that a house is “white on this side,” Rumsfeld would have said, “it is the color I want you to believe it is.”
If we had Fair Witnesses in our world, we could ask them questions about the problems that affect us nowadays. Is climate change really caused by human activities? Are vaccines as effective as we are told they are? How long will our mineral resources last? Are our leaders telling us the truth? We cannot trust scientists to give us the answers. They are too easily corrupted by money, driven by their personal pride, and swayed by their tendency to groupthink and their political beliefs. 
But could Fair Witness really exist? Clearly, it would not be easy to establish a corporation of truly incorruptible people, but it is a problem that has occurred many times in history. There have been several attempts to solve it, none was ever completely successful, but they went in the right direction. The tradition that may refer to is that of various forms of traditional monasticism (note that Heinlein describes Fair Witnesses in his novels as wearing capes, as ancient monks did). Monks and Nuns are normally supposed to renounce worldly pursuits to devote themselves fully to spiritual work. Several traits of Western monasticism were clearly devised to avoid the corruption that plagued the Christian Church during medieval times. For instance, Franciscan Monks were (and still are) prohibited from using money. 
A modern corporation of Fair Witnesses would not need to go to the extremes that some monastic orders force on their members and that, likely, create more problems than they solve (the prophet Muhammad was clear on this point) They would not have to live in material poverty although, clearly, they could not be allowed to manage money at the individual level — otherwise, they would be too easy to corrupt. Nor they would have to be chaste. Rather, they would have to follow some rules, maybe strict monogamy, to avoid that they could be bought with sex. Just like ancient monks, Fair Witnesses would be strictly linked to a monastery that would manage all monetary matters for them, providing food, clothing, and shelter for them. Then, they would need to maintain strict equality among the members of their order. No Fair Witness should be considered better, wiser, or smarter than another Fair Witness. That would be the opposite of the obsession of scientists with their internal pecking order, measured on the basis of abstruse and arbitrary “indexes”. 
If a corporation like this could be created, then we would have teams of “fair scientists” dedicated to knowledge, but not engaged in silly power games, or to amassing monetary wealth. They would engage mainly in the activity that we call “reviewing” to validate and make accessible to the public the work of ordinary scientists. They would be trustworthy, at least as much as human beings could be. 
Could it be done for real? Not impossible. After all, the existence of monks and monasteries was never planned. It just happened that there was a need for monks in some historical periods, and they appeared. Often, their job was that of conserving and developing knowledge in an age when the secular organization had become unable to do that. Ancient monks were engaged in copying ancient manuscripts, but also in keeping and upgrading practical knowledge in various fields, from food preparation to manufacturing. It is the same job that modern Fair Witnesses would engage in. 
We know that ancient monks were not always up to the standards they were supposed to uphold. If you read, for instance, Boccaccio’s “Decameron” you will notice how, during the 14th century, monks and priests were widely considered ignorant boors and sexual predators. Nevertheless, much of what has survived of the Classical Civilization to our times is due to the work of monks. Clearly, they were effective at their job, and we may imagine that Fair Witnesses could continue that tradition. 
Although there are no “formal” Fair Witnesses nowadays, not all scientists are evil wizards, either, nor they were in the past. I recently wrote a post on Albert Einstein and Alfred Wegener, showing how they remained faithful to their commitment to truth and science. As for modern scientists, there are many. Let me just cite one, Sara Gandini, Italian Researcher in Medical Statistics, a wonderful and trustworthy scientist. I could also cite the much-maligned group of scientists whose private emails were stolen and disseminated in the story called “Climategate” in 2009. You may be critical of their attitude but, definitely, in the whole corpus of thousands of emails, nowhere you could find even a hint of politically motivated manipulation of the data, or corruption. So, it is not impossible to return science to its original aim of a search for truth. 
We may also think that the Fair Witnesses would not necessarily be human beings — especially considering that we are asking them to behave in ways that most humans find difficult. Artificial Intelligence could provide us with ways to analyze the world around us and separate the truth from legends. One such AI entity is called Leonardo, created by Domenico Rutigliano. It is still in the development stage, but you may enjoy trying it to see what it can do. At least, Leonardo can’t be corrupted by money or by sex!


Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More



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