“Credibility” for being unbelievable

The word “credible” is perversely ambiguous.  On the face of it, it means: being trustworthy, being believable (in a Bayesian sense), being likely to make true statements and pay one’s debts.  But there’s another way the word is used, which is to indicate authority and prestige: control over which propositions are considered “truthy” (and/or agreement with controlling processes), rather than prediction of which statements are actually true.

Control over narratives, however, is anticorrelated with, and opposed to, actual believability.  If you can control the narrative to say that some proposition is either X or ~X at will, arbitrarily, then you’re using a symmetric process for “convincing” others: it’s just as easy to use it to convince of falsehood as of truth.  This is as opposed to asymmetric processes which are easier to use to convince of truth than of falsehood, e.g. public experiments, logical debate.

(The word “authority” is interesting here: “authority”, “authoritarian”, and “author” come from the same root, indicating a relation between the “authoring” of arbitrary narratives, “authoritarian” use of force by some parties to control others, and “authority” assigned to statements and producers of statements.)

While oracular reality-trackers discern facts, authority creates facts, primarily social facts; if these are the “facts” used to determine credibility, then authority and those close to it can “win” credibility, while having no corresponding ability to discern truth.

Being in a position to control narratives means having power: having maneuvered into a position to exert arbitrary influence on others.  Since power is rivalrous (it can’t be the case that everyone has lots of arbitrary influence on everyone else), acquiring power requires winning zero-sum games.  Winning zero-sum games requires allocating attention to the game itself; unless the game is set up so as to correlate with truth (e.g. a formal debate judged according to pro-epistemology standards such as logical rigor and consistency with evidence), it will be won by actors who are barely paying attention to the truth, who are bullshitting (not simply lying!).

Beyond this, zero-sum game play is opposed to revelation of information; such revelation is interpreted as aggression, as it breaks the “nothing changes” power-maintaining equilibrium.

The “calling a deer a horse” story is illustrative, demonstrating more severity than simply not paying attention to the truth.  When Zhao Gao points to a deer and says it is a horse, he effectively controls the narrative: those who want to live will “agree” with him that it’s a horse.  He isn’t believable, but he’s authoritative; he’s “credible”, as are those who submit to the threat and “agree” (ironically) with him.  (Ironic agreement is a state of doublethink, of internally disbelieving while outwardly agreeing; such ironic states of mind are suited to environments of reversed credibility.)

This story is more severe than simple bullshit, in that it involves selectively promoting false statements.  Paying enough attention to the truth to invert it and thus gain an advantage over truth-based actors is, of course, compatible with zero-sum play.

If a government known to promote lots of false stories promotes a false story as part of mobilization of military/police threat (say, the story that Saddam Hussein purchased yellow cake), is this story “credible” or “non-credible”?  It will be printed in prestigious newspapers, and will become a default assumption in many discussions, but people tracking history will have a sense of the government’s track record and know that the claim is made by the sort of actor who gets there by bullshitting.

Fiat currency is an interestingly explicit case.  The US adopted a metallic standard in 1785; government-issued money notes (US dollars) were exchangeable for a particular amount of a precious metal, initially silver and then gold.  To value US dollars is to bet that the government will be willing to exchange it for silver/gold; the money is valuable insofar as this promise is credible.

However, around WWI (1914-1918), many governments (including the US) suspended convertibility.  If the value of the money were simply based on the belief that it could be exchanged for precious metal, then the value would plummet accordingly.  But by then the money unit was well-integrated into the economy: it was used to set prices, pay wages, pay taxes, be used for bank savings and loans, and so on.  Changing protocols everywhere to adopt a new currency would be slow and difficult, and (given taxation) would run into conflict with the government.  While the value of money did reduce substantially (e.g. prices doubled in the US), this was not the totalizing devaluation that would be naively expected from a collapse of convertibility.

During the Great Depression, through Executive Order 6102 of 1933, the US government confiscated the vast majority of gold, “exchanging” it for a fixed amount of US dollars.  By the time the government is confiscating almost all gold, it’s obvious that US dollars are not valued primarily due to the expectation that they could be exchanged for gold.

So, though the “credibility” (market value) of the US dollar originally came from the belief that it could be exchanged for gold, its credibility over time shifted to be backed primarily by the authority of the US government, which is opposed to the expectation that it will pay debts.  Even if US dollars can’t be exchanged for precious metal, they are (since 1884) legal tender, valid for paying public debts (e.g. taxes) and private debts.  Since US dollars are valid for private debts (according to US courts), it’s impractical for private debts between Americans to not be reliant on the “credibility” of the US dollar.

US dollars are, at this point, a stage 3-4 simulacrum with respect to the original claim of value.  This paves the way for further manipulation of currency through Federal Reserve policy implementing Keynesian macroeconomics, a form of military mobilization (the relation between macroeconomics and mobilization is de-obfuscated by Modern Monetary Theory).  Direct manipulation of the currency is, of course, a form of authority, opposed to believability, in that it undermines use of the currency to denominate unironic debts.

Back to the more general problem.  If you asked an average college-educated American whether institutions such as the CDC or the WHO are credible, they would probably say “yes”.  However, these institutions repeatedly made hard-to-believe claims during COVID, such as the claim that masks were unhelpful, or the claim that the virus was not airborne.  Prestigious news outlets such as the New York Times did not call out these claims as false early on, which is correlated with such outlets’ “credibility”; they’re “credible” due to repeating claims made by authoritative narrative-controllers (thus, being part of the narrative-control apparatus), not due to tracking reality.

As Nick Land asks: “Assuming the WHO, CDC, and FDA wanted to kill you, how would their behavior differ?”  It wouldn’t be a coincidence for authoritative institutions to be trying to kill those they exert authority over: power is the ability to threaten others, and threats can control narratives.

I’ve seen a lot of discussions where people with some shared explicit agenda (e.g. Effective Altruists) talk about the need to “gain credibility”, and assume that the way to do so is to be closer to power; their central example of a “credible” person would be a high-level corporate/government strategic consultant or a journalist of a prestigious publication.  Such talk doesn’t distinguish between credibility-as-believability and credibility-as-authority: is being a strategic consultant helpful for convincing others because it is correlated with saying true propositions, or is it helpful because the authority of the institution (or upstream institutions) intimidates people into accepting claims made by its members despite their unbelievability?

In conclusion:

  • “Credibility” conflates between believability (Bayesian evidence) and authority (ability to control narratives arbitrarily).
  • Authority is derived from zero-sum game play, which is opposed to revelation of new information, and which threatens those who authority is exerted over.
  • Thus, these different properties being conflated are opposed.