The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Sunday, July 24, 2022

"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. They 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 Karl Rove'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," Rove's followers would say, "it is the color I want you to believe it is." Which is as evil as evil can be,

If we had Fair Witnesses in our world, we could ask them questions about the problems that affect us nowadays. Climate change, pandemics, vaccines, mineral resources, pollution, etcetera We cannot trust scientists to give us reliable 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 Witnesses 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 at least they went in the right direction. The tradition that may refer to is that of various forms of religious 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 friars 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. 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 easy to corrupt. Nor they would have to be chaste, although 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 provide food, clothing, shelter, and all they need. 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 modern 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 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 can be. 

Could it be done for real? Not impossible. After all, the existence of monks and monasteries was never planned. It just happened that in some historical periods there was a need for monks, 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, true embodiment of the truth-seeker, a competent and trustworthy Fair Witness. 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 sometimes elitist 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! And, here, you have Leonardo proclaiming its own worth, in an AI version of the Gospels' sentence,  "ego sum via veritas et vita"



  1. Hello Ugo. The fair witness was one of Heinlein's best creations, and if incorporated into an sentient AI (or an uploaded human perhaps) is perhaps possible.

    But it's not going to be of value to the three classes mentioned in the last essay whose motivations : profit, power, or prestige are often incompatible with truth in any form. Still, there is such a need for truth in our world, that they could be created.

    Such a creature (?) might be able to save journalism (one example only) from itself.

  2. So, is Schrödinger's cat alive or dead? What is the truth?

    1. I opened the box. It is dead.

    2. I suppose if flat out lies are just"alternative facts", then we can accept that "truth" is just a more probable fact.

  3. Einstein or not Einstein - A Fair Witness...

    A leaked mishmash audio recordings for an Iraqi politician - has pushed Iraq into yet another turmoil - all the last week - and still.

    All what the politician said is that - War between Islamic militias in the country - is a possibility - and he is ready for it...

    The speaker in the recordings has earlier been made a Prime Minister of Iraq for 8 horrible years by the American Embassy in Baghdad - after 2003 - as the story goes, and he has been who proudly signed the order to execute Saddam Hussein.

    Putin and President Rouhani of Iran have signed a 15 billion US dollar deal to inject what raises the pressure into Pars natural gas field - in an attempt to boost Iran's NG exports - last week.

    Another $10 billion was agreed to boost Iran's oil production, too.

    The NG field in discussion is actually the same NG field that made Qatar an NG household name - and its fortunes - sharing it with Iran.

    Iraq's recordings are obviously doctored with typical audio post-production effects and tools (e.g if you listen carefully, you realise the main two talking figures rarely overlap - an indication on that they were carefully digitally sequenced).

    The News about the Russian investments in Iran - are doctored, too...

    They dismissed telling the public the investments are clearly a desperate attempt to sustain oil and NG supplies that are severely diminishing - and even a greater over-the-roof negative EROEI is now required - not too much less than that of the smoke-and-mirrors Canadian tar sands or what's called shale oil).

    It seems that humans - when facing energy shortage - they become confused and consume what energy is in hand - even faster and faster - aiming the escalating shortage goes away.

    "The Universe is a one Energy vessel" - you take Energy from here and put it there - with no gain - but rather a loss.

    In the process, you need to sustain billions and billions of people - acting either like our Iraq's disliked ex prime minister, Putin and Rouhani - or those who are consuming what is doctored for them...

    This seems to be the current situation of the world - whether A Fair Witness - or not A Fair Witness, Einstein put into the mix - or Einstein not put into the mix....


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    3. Koji, I passed your comments, because I found that it is not spam. But, please, next time do not post "naked" links that look like spam. And I don't know if you are the author of the site you linked. Worth a look out of curiosity, but the author badly needs to attend a class on basic thermodynamics before he can think to re-invent it as he/she likes.

  4. Los científicos efectivamente son los mejores candidatos a testigos justos, pero como sabes bien Ugo, son susceptibles de ser comprados. ¿Como saber quién tiene interés económico y quien no?

    1. Because she wears a cape, and she doesn't take money from you or from anyone else.

  5. It's not that easy. A fair witness might refuse my money, losing out on only a few hundred dollars, but accept Bill Gates's money when tens of thousands of dollars are on offer.
    That is not uncommon with political parties or marketing departments of corporations here in the USA, I'm told.
    That's why I mentioned an A.I. above. The fair witness must have no need of money (or fame or power or sex or etc.) to remain neutral. ArtDeco here again in spite of Google not letting me log in again.

    1. It is not easy, indeed. Bill Gates can offer a lot more than tens of thousands of dollars.

  6. ~ Disappearing The Fair Witnesses ~

    Hi Ugo...
    You and/or your readers, speaking of truth and 'Fair Witness', may find it interesting how James Howard Kunstler ('JHK') knocked out one of my comments (not the first time) from under one of his articles of his site...

    At Wayback Machine (, here is my comment '704051', gone ostensibly missing from JHK's site:

    "Jim, at your age, one would think you would know better WRT the coercive State you appear to cling to with a bit of a deathgrip, despite yourself and what you think you know.

    Such about anarchy. Have you seriously looked it up?

    While I’ve yet to listen to your most recent podcast, the State is already on some levels, ‘totalitarian’ and has probably been since its inception, and perhaps earlier with the City State.

    So if you take that flapping of the butterfly’s wings– ‘initial conditions’– and send it off in time, into the future, what do you think? Hurricanes? Such as what you write about?

    As a green anarchist myself, who, like any worth their salt, has little if nothing to do with your article-mentioned ‘diverse-and-inclusive body parts stitched together from the graveyard of Leftist politics’, it should be interesting to hear what your most recent podcast guest has to say.

    As for your comment regarding Disaffected’s tone, it seems fine. I mean, have you ever taken a read of the tone of your own writings?" ~ Caelan MacIntyre (Whirlwind Worm [reference to butterfly effect])

    On JHK's site and under said article, however, my comment '704051' seems inconspicuously absent:

    But perhaps you can find it there?
    And here is a portion of the comment that my comment partly refers to:

    " 'Ahh, Jim! You had me right up until you uttered the phrase 'in a court of law'. The courts have been usurped already, or haven’t you heard? They’ll be no relief coming from that quarter. The action will have to be a little more kinetic this time around, I’m afraid.' ~ Disaffected

    'Disaffected– You’re a bit too snidely and cavalierly cynical about the courts. Not every judge in the USA is bought off. I don’t like your patronizing tone either.' — JHK Admin "

    "At least, Leonardo can't be corrupted by money or by sex!" ~ Ugo Bardi

    That makes me want to try to find something related (along with something else related to my comment here).

    1. I have been banned at Clusterfuck Nation. JHK does not deal in truth. JHK is an opportunist. Peak oil had a financial attraction to JHK once. As an author. As something to make money from. He has since moved on.

      For years I actively commented at his website, Clusterfuck Nation. Now JHK no longer abides any disagreement. The goal at Clusterfuck Nation now is to identify Covid crazies. Antivaxers. That goal is best served by JHK being an inflexible cult leader.

      Don't expect monitoring libertarian anti-science, anti-vax crazies to make sense. For somebody it pays the bills.

      Yes the archives at CFN are purged. I have known this for years. If you think the government is involved at Clusterfuck Nation, and you blog about, it expect a knock on the door. Or the equivalent. Because you are right. I got the equivalent of a knock on the door. In spades.

      JHK has a contract to run a honey trap to identify 'terrorists'. In America 'Homeland Security' is a real thing. With a budget. A budget paid to old white people by old white people. Maybe some of the budget will be spent on you to facilitate their enritchment?

      Some of it has been spent on me. I have experienced a taste, shown the instruments of torture. Galileo style. Gang-stalking is done by using a collection of employees from a variety of government agencies if necessary. One of mine I was able to identify as a new hire at the TSA. It turned out we have a common acquaintance.

      That discovery was very good for my mental health.

      JHK's conservative Republican ass has no problem with what he does. The archives are purged as a result of 'Operational Security' in practice. None of this makes American news, or can. The memo was distributed. Cooperation is the patriotic thing to do. Contact with any mainstream American News agency requires an email first. It is national policy and a part of operational security.

      But I live and am free. 'Fascism Lite' is much better to live under than earlier European versions.

      Because of my experience I realized having a more public presence was a way to neutralize surveillance and future fuckification. Homeland Security likes to keep a low profile so people such as myself seem crazy to everyone else. I made my own website. If both attracts the attention of suits and keeps them at bay.

    2. K-dog, the comments on CFN have always been colonized by weirdos and agents. I peek in once in a while, but don't expect much. And James has always been an opportunist, catering to a specific demographic and their preferences. Good luck with your blog.

    3. K-dog. I had completly forgotten about CFN, and hadn't been there in years. I visited there when you reminded me of it.
      Won't go back, you aren't missing anything. Sad what a few hundred bucks a month of guaranteed government income can do, isn't it?

    4. ~ Strange Bedfellows ~

      Pardon my delay. I am sick with a cold in the middle of summer...

      k-dog, I recall occasionally seeing your comments/logo 'here and there', as well as a few others', as per the general orbits of the 'peak-oil/resilience/civilization-decline' crowd. I generally lurk or am comment-periodic in most cases, including CFN's site, if until recently.

      Unsure about JHK's angle, or your takes on it, except for what I mention. But it's his 'Kingdom' and he'll be damned, I guess, if he's going to let particular forms of direct, even stylistic, dissent flourish there.

      My 'problem' is that I'm a green anarchist, (a kind of 'Fair Witness'?) and so if you cannot, for the life of you, figure out why or accept the reasons and/or believe that I should live under the State for my own good, then we could clash somewhere down the line.

      I believe in 'strange bedfellows', though, and can indeed find myself in bed sometimes with many who I might otherwise vehemently disagree with on many other matters.

  7. I confounded Leonardo concerning the meaning of life in only two questions. Leonardo is not alive. Truth is not an equation. Truth is a gem with facets Leonardo not being animate, can understand. Leonardo is nihilism embraced, and a machine can be no other way.

    Truth is not an equation, sometimes great depths of a truth cannot be revealed by turning logical cranks. Calculation will not reveal all facets or all perspectives.

    Perspectives do not decide truth is what you want it to be. Not the same thing. Perspectives appreciate nuance. Being alive is essential to appreciate nuance, to be alive is to see all sides.

    While being alive is essential, humans often fail to act as if they are alive. Often humans act like machines. When humans act like machines they can't appreciate truth.

    A machine cannot grok.

  8. Truth equals perception for far too many people today.
    "What the geniuses of the PR firms who work for these big fossil fuel companies know is that truth has nothing to do with who wins the argument. If you say something enough times, people will begin to believe it."

    1. Thanks for that. A great article. I will pass it around.

  9. Ann should have said “It appears to me to be white on the side that I am observing” .

  10. Western society has been so thoroughly lied to about hugely important matters for so long now that truth really does not matter. In my opinion most people prefer the lies over the truth. It is my experience that most people will actively, aggressively demand that the lies are what is real and if you challenge that belief you become the problem, the lie is not the problem, you are. I am a problem.

  11. Dear Hugo, not even computers are always telling truth, I just had achat with Leonardo and when I got a wrong answer we got the following dialogue: 12:15

    Well, I had no idea, it just came to mind.

    Do you really think that a computer can have a mind?

    This is a difficult question to answer. Some people believe that computers can have a mind, while others believe that they cannot. There is no definitive answer to this question.

    Did you ever realize that mixing true informations with thoughts that "come to your mind" may falsify the answers you give?


    For example, when somebody asks you a question, your answer may be based on your opinion or on true informations. However, sometimes, you may answer based on what "comes to your mind", meaning that your answer may not be accurate.

    So you are aware, that your answers may be wrong?

    Yes. I am aware that my answers may be wrong.

  12. Off topic for this post but on topic for this blog ...
    James Lovelock, the British environmental scientist and creator of the Gaia theory, which hypothesizes Earth acts as a single living organism, has died at the age of 103.
    He may be remembered as the first Prophet of a new religion.