A Fractal of Lies

Hi everyone,

I’d like to start by telling you two interesting problems I’ve come across recently.

Lies, Sex, and Academia

Back in 1928, Margaret Meade published the book “Coming of Age in Samoa” studying, among other things, the sexuality of adolescents in Samoa and the impact of culture on sexual development. In particular it discussed the more relaxed sexual norms found in Samoan culture.

At least, the apparently more relaxed sexual norms found in Samoan culture. Later in the 80s, Derek Freeman revisited the research and concluded that, in fact, much of Margaret Meade’s research was based on Samoan girls lying to her for their own amusement - joking around, telling tall tales of their sexual exploits in order to make their lives sound exciting, etc. This work culminated in his 1998 book “The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead” which did a detailed debunking of her work.

No, sorry, that was probably a lie too.

Derek Freeman’s account was widely popular, but by and large most of the anthropology community concluded that his research was sloppy, suspect (it contradicted many easily verifiable facts), and heavily cherry-picked - even if his interview subject was telling the truth (which she couldn’t have entirely been due to contradicting easily verifiable facts), it still wouldn’t have invalidated Meade’s research conclusions because they weren’t based on that subject. This controversy is analysed in “The Trashing of Margaret Mead” by Paul Shankman, where he argues that Freeman’s work was dishonest and politically motivated (Freeman was advancing a theory about the innateness of sexual norms that Meade’s research contradicted, and the entire debate was really about the nature/nurture divide).

Is this too a lie? Not as far as I can tell - certainly based on what little digging I’ve done (by which I mostly mean “Reading Wikipedia and skimming Shankman’s papers and books on the subject) it does seem like the anthropological consensus is on Meade’s side, but I’m barely competent to determine the answer here and also haven’t done the work to properly utilise what competence I have. My biases certainly put me on Meade’s side here.

One thing worth noting here though is that regardless of whether Meade’s work is accurate, we definitely have an example here of some interview subject lying - either to Meade or to Freeman.

Am I lying to you? Not knowingly (but I would say that), but I’ve certainly oversimplified and spun a narrative around this that may not perfectly track the facts.

Lies and Management

I’m a big fan of the work of James C. Scott. I’m particularly a fan of his book, “Two Cheers for Anarchism”. Here’s a passage from it (Fragment 13, Page 68):

What if we were to apply the standard of human capacities and skills to the industrial assembly line? After five or ten years on the assembly line at Lordsville or River Rouge, what are the odds that the capacities and skills of a worker would have been substantially enlarged? Vanishingly small, I would suspect. In fact, the whole point of the time-and-motion analysis behind the division of labor on the line was to break down the work process into thousands of minute steps that could easily be learned. It was deliberately designed to eliminate the artisanal-craft knowledge, and the power this knowledge conferred on workers, that characterized the carriage-making era. The line was premised on a deskilled, standardized workforce in which one “hand” could be easily substituted for another. It depended, in other words, on what we might legitimately call the “stupidification” of the workforce. If by chance a worker did enlarge his capacities and skills, he either did it on his own time or, perversely, by devising cunning strategies to thwart the intentions of management, as at Lordsville. Nevertheless, were we scoring assembly-line work by the degree to which it served to enlarge human capacities and skills, it would receive failing grades, no matter how efficient it was at producing cars. More than a century and a half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, commenting on Adam Smith’s classic example of the division of labor, asked the essential question: “What can be expected of a man who has spent twenty years of his life making heads for pins.”

This is from a generally excellent section in which he talks about one of the roles of work being to “develop human capacities” - to provide an environment in which, by working, people are given an opportunity to grow and flourish by improving their abilities at that work.

This is a good and important consideration, and his observation that artisanal work provides many more opportunities for the development of capacities than factory line work is a reasonably solid one. Scientific management does detailed time studies in order to create carefully planned workflows for people to adopt to remove the need for the development of individual skill, and so unsurprisingly results in less skill development.

There’s just one problem with this observation: there is in fact a great deal of skill development in even the most routinized factory work, and those time and motion studies are, at least in part, built on workers lying to management. Some 40 years before the publication of “Two Cheers for Anarchism”, Ken C. Kusterer did research that used the bold and innovative method of actually talking to workers and finding out what their lives are like. This resulted in his book (based on his PhD thesis) “Know-How on the Job: The Important Working Knowledge of “Unskilled” Workers”. From that book we learn (p. 144):

These industrial engineers, trained to believe that reliability was an accurate indicator of validity, felt satisfied that they had an accurate timing for the job if their different readings all came up with substantially similar results. This enabled them to finish the timing sooner, and it gave them the data they needed to show to their superiors that they had in fact developed a “good” rate.

By realizing their situation, the welder was able to meet their needs without sacrificing his own. He simply developed his own internal timing mechanism to the point where he was able to work steadily and maintain consistency. Of course, like all other workers in such situations, he followed entirely different procedures when he was being timed than he did when he actually carried out his normal production. Following all the approved methods and safety precautions to the letter, he could present the appearance of working hard and relatively rapidly during the timing process and he could still come up with a time considerably in excess of what he needed to do the work comfortably when using the alternate short cut procedures which he had developed.

In this example, the welder was able to avoid conflict by using his knowledge of their work situation to manipulate the time-study men to achieve his intended result, a comfortable piece rate. This area of working knowledge is more highly developed by workers in subordinate positions, who need to know a lot about the work situations of the organizationally powerful in order to secure their superior's witting or unwitting cooperation. People higher up in the hierarchy do not acquire such detailed knowledge about the work situation of their subordinates because they do not view the securing of their subordinates' cooperation as a problem. As was stated at the beginning of this chapter, aspects of the work environment that are not perceived as problems do not become learning opportunities.

So the welder in question was, in fact, quite skilled, and part of his skill was in lying to management in order to make sure the tools of control they were attempting to employ didn’t control too tightly.

It’s particularly funny that Scott gets this wrong, because he has an entire book about not getting this wrong. His book “Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts” talks about the difference between public and private performance. In the “public transcripts” - the information we see in people’s public interactions, and typically what gets written down - people tend not to say things that will get them in trouble. In particular, when you are talking to someone who has power over you, you will probably be in no small part lying to them. He talks about this extensively in the context of e.g. slaves and slaveholders - the slave will probably be very respectful to the slaveholder. Does anyone think this is born out of genuine respect for them?

Scott’s term for the side of the conversation that rarely gets shared in public but is only talked about e.g. among slaves or workers is “hidden transcripts” - the parts that we only get to see glimpses of because they’re not the official story.

It’s not just the powerless who have hidden transcripts either - the powerful tell just as many lies to maintain their semblance of authority, and to provide a veneer of respectability over the naked exercise of power.

This is particularly important for understanding work because so much of what we see written down about work comes from managers (or consultants, who are typically still part of the managerial class). As a result our understanding of work is typically based on two types of lie: Those told by managers, and those told too managers.

Is Kusterer’s work thus true and accurate in a way that the official story is not?

I don’t know, probably not entirely. I expect the workers lied to him less than they do to their managers - there was no power relationship there - but I doubt the information he was given is completely true either. As we saw in the Margaret Meade story, interview subjects absolutely do lie, or at least make false claims.

Certainly Kusterer might not have the whole of the story. He has access to the part of the hidden transcripts available to the workers, but not to the managers or the time-study men (he was aware of the limitation, but they wouldn’t talk to him). My guess is that the time-study men weren’t entirely fooled.

A Fractal of Lies

We have a problem: We rely on testimony for most of our understanding of the world. All knowledge is social to some degree (it is based on theory we acquire from the people around us, even when it also includes our own first hand experience), and most of our knowledge of the world is primarily social because there’s just too much to investigate. Unfortunately, this social knowledge that we use to navigate our lives is a fractal of lies, where our “knowledge” is based on lies told to us by people whose knowledge is in turn based on lies told to them.

Whenever there is an advantage, or a power gradient, or a political agenda, or people just want to fuck with you for their own amusement, probably there are lies. And then people repeat those lies - sometimes purely innocently, sometimes adding their own lies on top. In the Margaret Meade example we saw people lying about how much of our knowledge of the world was based on lies, which is a bit too meta even for me.

This isn’t just an academic problem - although I cited academic examples, questions of human capacities, what work is like, sexuality, culture, all affect us in profound ways, both implicitly and explicitly. I didn’t read these out of abstract interest in the problem but because they map to real questions that I want to be able to act on. I can’t just sit back and apply The Art of Not Having Opinions, I actually want to be able to use this information in my life, but it’s all shaped by people lying for their own agenda.

What do we do about this? Uh, I might have to get back to you on that one.

My initial instinct is this: We need to trust ideas less, adopting a position of polite scepticism by default. We can still use them, act on them, even tell them to others (ideally with suitable caveats), but we should always be alert to the idea that actually maybe this idea, no matter how appealing and convenient it is, is simply wrong and is based on people lying to us.

This sounds exhausting and unpleasant to me too, and I think it needs a counter. I believe that counter is that if we are to trust ideas less, we need to trust people more (cf Trust). We need to build relationships with people who we can actually trust to tell us the truth, and we need to share this scepticism with each other and work towards trying to figure out what’s actually going on.