Fake News, Wikipedia and Blockchain (Truth and Consensus)

(this article was intially writen in French)

We must not lie, we are taught at a very young age, and yet we all do it all the time. Provocatively, Meyer (2011) says that you will lie to your wife in one in ten conversations. And if you’re not married, the risk would be even higher. Yet we seem to live with these little lies (to the point of being destabilized when we find ourselves in front of an overly honest person). But the debates on the “Fake News” reminded us that some lies have a price, to the point of creating doubt and permanent distrust. This plurality of words, and the absence of a reference word, is not unlike the philosophy conveyed by crypto-currencies: instead of a centralised mode of governance (validation, certification), it is a global validation by a network, a consensus, which will prevail. Have we changed our definition of what truth is?

The story of “the truth”

In Athens, during the pompous period of Athenian democracy (around the middle of the fifth century BC), every citizen (ὁ βουλεύμενος, “whoever wants it”) has the right to speak, to formulate a speech. We will talk about iségorie (ἰσηγορία) equality of speech. As is so often the case, this equality is in fact very unequal, since not everyone is equal in eloquence. In Gorgias, Plato opposes the latter to Socrates, questioning the basis and purpose of this discourse, which can be put at the service of the common good, of truth, but also be used for purposes of persuasion. Socrates seeks the truth, and the moral value of the stated opinions, fundamentally opposing philosophy and rhetoric. But for Plato, truth is not everything: the notion of the common good seems to prevail over truth, a lie can be lawful if it is just (in the service of this common good). Greek myths are built on this idea, as Veyne (1983) develops, wondering whether the Greeks believed in their myths. This is not a lie, but fiction, allegory. The word μῦθος certainly gave the word “mythomaniac” (by adding μανια, madness), but this word initially meant the speech, the word, the story. We could almost find the concept of “lying true” proposed by poet Louis Aragon.

By radically opposing Good and Evil, Christianity has changed our conception of truth. It is appropriate to confess, to confess, if one aspires to salvation. Truth becomes sacred (and those who do not live with it will pay with their lives). Ecclesiastical authorities then define what is true, Foucault (1994b) spoke of “pastoral” power. “This form of power is oriented towards salvation (…) it is linked to a production of truth“. The opinion of the people is then guided and controlled by official representatives of the truth (ecclesiastical then state).

However, this power will crumble over time. The multiple words will reappear, and with them, the “Fake News”. Just after the First World War, Marc Bloch noted that “false news is always born of collective representations that pre-date its birth; it is fortuitous only in appearance, or, more precisely, all that is fortuitous in it is the initial incident, absolutely unspecified, that triggers the work of imaginations but this setting in motion takes place only because the imaginations are already prepared and ferment deafly. An event, a bad perception for example that would not go in the direction that the minds of all already lean, could at most form the origin of an individual error, but not of a popular and widespread false news“. We find here an idea translated today under the name of “Fake News”. Recently, some have felt compelled to consider legislation, raising the question of freedom of speech, but also probably a form of mistrust by a certain elite towards a people they think incapable of judgment and discernment. But who can afford to decree what is true and what is not?

Science and Truth

There is a form of truth through authority. Following a (painful) fall while skiing, even if I have vague knowledge of anatomy, I did better to consult a doctor, who has expertise from his studies and practice. If he tells me that I have a fracture, it is not the fact that he claims (with authority) that he is telling the truth, but because it is the conclusion he reaches on the basis of solid reasoning, which other doctors might contest. Not having any skills, I rely on his authority. Just as I trust my lawyer if I need legal advice (but perhaps not my doctor). Faced with an expert, the difficulty is to find what weight, what credit, to give him.

Science, as it is taught, seems to state irrefutable truths. If my pen falls off the table, its speed will increase linearly, until it touches the ground. I would be foolish to refute this reality, which stems from the theory of universal gravitation enunciated by Issac Newton in 1687 (in a much more general form than the fall of a pen, or an apple). But this vision is quite dated: “absolute truth” no longer exists, only agreement within the scientific community prevails. As van de Kerchove (2013) notes, mentioning the work of Karl Popper, facts in science are finally established in the same way as “jury proof” in English law. The main difference is the temporal aspect (a judge may set aside elements considered prescribed by law, even if they are scientifically enlightening) and the fact that justice judges a particular case, whereas science seeks general truths. It is the convergence of beliefs, based on collective discussions bringing a consensus which makes it possible to establish scientific truths.
And scientific knowledge evolves over time, even allowing itself to become blurred! Instead of having a “true” or “false” result, we now have true results with a certain probability. In the 2001 IPCC report, it is described as “likely”, with 2 out of 3 chances, that “human activity has been the main cause of observed warming” since the middle of the 20th century. In 2007, the probability exceeded 90%, reaching 95% (then becoming “extremely probable”) in 2014. We will also remember this episode in July 2012, when CERN announced the discovery of an elementary particle (postulated by Higgs in the 1960s, the famous “Higgs boson”) “with a confidence level of 99.99997%”. Science allows itself doubt, and even better, manages to quantify it with amazing precision.

Because doubt still exists in science. This doubt, sometimes called “Cartesian“, allows science to advance, but also, on occasion, to retreat. This is what Oreskes & Conway (2014) points out, highlighting the strategy of certain industries that have funded research projects denying scientific evidence of the dangerousness of tobacco, DDT (insecticide), the reality of the ozone hole, environmental damage from acid rain… etc.. By confusing, discrediting studies – and the scientists who conducted them – doubt has turned against science, while further strengthening the evidence. By questioning the dangers of smoking, numerous studies have established that on the contrary, no doubt was permitted. But the strategy was to buy time (and in that sense the strategy worked).

Justice and truth

But scientists are not the only ones trying to establish the truth. To resume the debate launched by Dagorn (2018), is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? The fruit is defined in botany as the result of fertilization of the plant: it is derived from the transformation of the pistil once it is fertilized, and will then carry seeds allowing the plant to reproduce. So the tomato is a fruit. But vegetables have no scientific definition, even if they seem to designate the edible parts of plants. That said, chemists who are interested in cooking seem to have decided, using the flavor of the food. The fruit is a sweet food, while the vegetable would be dirty, bitter, or neutral. But if science does not seem to want to impose truth on the subject, justice has examined the question several times. In the United States, at the end of the 19th century, a tax existed on vegetables, but not on fruits. In 1887, John Nix sued New York Harbour treasurer Edward Hedden for taxing his tomato imports (recounted in Sterbenz (2013)). The United States Supreme Court ruled against him in 1893 (unanimously) explaining that the Customs Act referred to the common meaning of the terms “fruit” and “vegetable”, and not to the technical jargon of botanists. But this American vision opposes that adopted in Europe, since a 1988 directive of the Council of the European Union classified tomatoes in the category of fruits (just like carrots or rhubarb branches, moreover).

Justice feels invested with a mission to seek the truth. This is what Jean Domat said in 1745 when he stated that “the Laws want something judged to pass for truth”. The presumption of truth attached to a judgment – “res judicata pro veritate habetur” – is thus found several times in the Civil Code. It may, however, be objected that the raison d’être of this principle is essentially to avoid the repetition of trials ad infinitum (otherwise remedies would not exist: a court decision may be challenged, but according to a very specific procedure). The search for the truth then takes place during an investigation, which has become a “way of authenticating the truth, of acquiring things that will be considered true, and of transmitting them“, as Foucault (1994a) notes.

If science can’t decide, sometimes justice is still asked to make decisions. This is what the decisions say about whether the tomato is a fruit (or not) but it is also the essence of the precautionary principle, evoked in Charpentier (2016). And the situation becomes complex when laws that go against a scientific truth. Baruch (2013) thus returns in detail to the episode of the adoption of the Boyer law tending to repress the denial of genocides, at the turn of the years 2011 and 2012 (the debate on the “memorial laws”), and above all the contestation aroused by article 4 of the law of 23 February – known as the Mekachera law – with numerous positions on the “positive role” of French colonisation. MPs wanted to impose a truth (by law) that went against scientific historical knowledge. And how can we forget the condemnation (following a trial) of Galileo in 1633, following the publication of the Dialogue on the Two Great Systems of the World, by those who supported geocentrism against heliocentrism (previously established by Nicolas Copernicus, among others). In a letter written to the Grand Duchess Christine of Lorraine – mentioned by Gingras, Keating and Limoges (1999) – Galileo notes that the court ruled, “forgetting in a certain way that the multiplication of discoveries contributes to the progress of research, to the development and strengthening of sciences and not to their weakening or destruction, and at the same time showing itself more attached to their own opinions than to the truth“.

Is the majority always right?

In a sitting court, for an accused to be found guilty, the law requires that a (strong) majority of the members of the court of assizes decide it. The majority then imposes its law. But the vote is taken after discussion, after consensus has been reached. According to Wikipedia, “consensus characterizes the existence among the members of a group of a general (tacit or manifest), positive and unanimous agreement that can allow a decision or action to be taken together without a prior vote or special deliberation”. And Wikipedia is built on this idea of consensus. The first principle is openness and transparency: everything is open, everyone can contribute by submitting any content, and a record is kept of the history of interventions. It is required to provide proof of any assertion, with a clear and searchable reference (we find here a basic principle of scientific publication). Then follows a discussion phase. The importance taken today by Wikipedia shows that this principle works.

This delegation of governance is found in the majority of cryptocurrencies. To explain how Lamport works, Shostak and Pease (1982) proposed the fable of the Byzantine generals, to illustrate this concept of “gentium consensus” in computing. Several armies are ready to attack the same city, but the only way to synchronize the different armies, to determine whether to attack or retreat, is to circulate a messenger on horseback. Each general then mandates a knight, to carry the message “attack” or “retreat”, but there may be traitors among the generals who attack. The idea is to bring out a global validation, to obtain a general vote, a consensus, starting from the fact that dishonest people are less numerous than honest people. And indeed, in this case, coordination is possible. As with the blockchain (and all smart contracts), validation is by consensus.
The majority rule, the basis of many democratic systems, seems obvious to us. But the notion of “argumentum ad populum” reminds us that a proposition is not true because most believe it. If this rule seems natural to us, in a democracy, to associate the greatest number with decision-making in the city, in daily life, we quickly see that it leads to many dead ends. Imagine an airline pilot, faced with bad weather conditions, having to make the decision to land (or not) in an emergency. Should it allow passengers to vote? We imagine that it will be inappropriate, if not ineffective, because what the pilot wants is an informed majority, rather than a simple majority. In reality, as we can see in some important democratic decisions, following the choice of the majority is above all a way to avoid bearing responsibility for a choice.

The search for consensus is complicated, even impossible if we believe the literature on voting mechanisms and Arrow’s impossibility theorem. Arrow (1951) – inspired by Condorcet’s paradox – shows that there is no indisputable social choice process that allows a hierarchy of preferences for a group to be expressed from the aggregation of preferences. Also, when a consensus is reached, not everyone is satisfied with the outcome. Some even refer to a “dictatorship of the majority“. To quote Manin’s argument (1985), “the adherence of the greatest number reflects the superior strength of one argument over the others“, because argumentation and discussion are important, “this process makes the appearance of reasonable results more likely“. But this search for consensus is necessarily imperfect: “the true source of legitimacy therefore remains unanimity; the majority will is not legitimate in itself, it is legitimate because it is decided to confer on it all the attributes of the unanimous will. (…) The majority principle is a simple necessity of fact, without any intelligible link with the principle of legitimacy; it is only a convenient convention“, as Minor (2010) recalls.

A “post-truth” world?

The fact that science proposes vague truths does not facilitate understanding of the world, and the term “post-truth” has been proposed to describe this world where the borderline between lies and truth, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and “non-fiction” is no longer very clear. The open data movement also proposes to introduce a form of transparency, with raw data, so that everyone can decide on a debate. In the United States, several years ago, American citizens were shocked to discover that many politicians had received (sometimes very) large sums of money from private companies. But companies always had the desire to finance politicians in order to secure possible support, if necessary. Between these two contradictory visions, the compromise was to impose transparency: politicians had to keep track of any sum paid by a third party, and this information had to be made public. But what to do with this information? In France, this type of transparency is now mandatory for doctors. The database transparence-santé makes all the information declared by companies on the links of interest they maintain with players in the health sector (including doctors) accessible. Who took the time to go to the site to see if their doctor had a conflict of interest when he prescribed a medication? For this somewhat idyllic vision forgets that “pure” data does not exist (“row data is an oxymoron” to use the title of the book edited by Lisa Gitelman). We suspect that since the law imposes this transparency, practices have changed. Data (and facts) do not exist without narration. In 1936, a publisher asked Georges Orwell to investigate the workers’ condition in northern England, in a mining town during the Depression. In the spring of 1937, The Road to Wigan Pier appeared, often considered a report. Crick (1990) compared the notes taken in Orwell’s diary with the novel, to find out if he was giving raw sensations (facts) or if he had staged again, thus reconstructing his original vision. As he notes, “the bare style of the documentary is in reality a perfectly deliberate artistic creation“. Leys (1984) goes even further in the analysis “what Orwell’s invisible and so effective art illustrates is that’the truth of the facts’ cannot exist in a pure state. Facts by themselves never form anything but meaningless chaos: only artistic creation can invest them with meaning, giving them form and rhythm (…) Literally, truth must be invented“.


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