Postmodern Fair Witnesses

I reread Stranger In A Strange Land last week. I read it in college as a story and this time as both a story and as a piece of literature that affected a society, and it was even better.

Stranger Cover

I was thinking about how to adapt his “Fair Witnesses” to a culture that doesn’t believe in objective perception, then I realized someone else has already figured it out.

Heinlein’s Fair Witnesses are paragons of objective observation.

“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 on to 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.”

Except we don’t really believe in objective observation anymore, at least not interpersonally. All communication is one party attempting to convey information and another party decoding information. Short of Vulcan Mindmelds, it is an imprecise process with at least a bit of error.

So, Heinlein’s Fair Witness can’t really exist, or at least such a person wouldn’t be useful any time there was an interpersonal interaction involved. What can exist though is the characters they have on Lie To Me. They’re people who have their biases, but they’re largely aware and use tests to check themselves.

Consider the following scene where they’re investigating a building collapse:

They’re essentially just doing science in real time — just formulating hypotheses and testing them.

These would be what Fair Witnesses would be, not people who objectively record everything around them, but people skilled at quickly arriving at an accurate picture of what is going on in a situation. They have their biases and at the end they are able to support why they believe as they do.

The tricky part is Lightman relies on his experimental subjects not knowing they’re being experimented on. Knowledge of the experiment is why more than half the cool social science experiments are studying things that happen to the subject on their walk to the elevator.

If the idea was used like Fair Witnesses, or even if Lightman ended up in Time, people would know who he was and he’d lose the element of surprise. Having people skilled at identifying lies would create a market for better liars, such is the irony of any police force.

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