How often are you asked to suspend disbelief as the price of admission? When should you?

There are quite a few such contexts.

Satire is my favourite. Plays are a close second.

When you attend a play, you suspend disbelief for awhile. You know that the actors up on stage are engaging in a deception. They’re acting like something they’re not. And, for the enjoyment of all those around you, you keep your mouth shut about what’s happening up on stage. It isn’t a dialogue. It’s a one way broadcast. The same goes for sports entertainment: a brilliant category positioning statement if there ever was one. You know that the Macho Man Randy Savage isn’t literally the Macho Man Randy Savage…but you take in the spectacle and enjoy the display of sweaty, lycra-encased, muscular bodies rubbing against each other for a full half hour.

I like to attend a lot of these things. Like pitch nights. Pitch nights are fictional contexts.

Only that everybody is up on stage.

Some people who have money and those who are pretending that they do don a Patagonia vest and act different than they would otherwise. Founders of tech startups put on their branded T-shirts and adopt a different act.

Those who are pitching their startups are over-enthusiastic, over-promising, explaining elaborate futurescapes (Liubertė & Dimov, 2021), engaging in the expected humbuggery (Barnum, 1888) — all as part of the show. They have to appear crazed to appear committed and to signal sufficient conviction. The slides have to follow a specific order (Perez, 2021) and there has to be some commitment to change the world, to put a dent in the universe, to disrupt the status quo so much that there’ll be no going back ever again.

They act this way because they believe that they believe they have to act that way in order to achieve their own goals: which may be orthogonal to the venture capitalized class or that of the commenda (Harris 2009). They have to commit to the bit. They have to act the part. Membership means acting.

In this way…did the Macho Man Randy Savage ever temporarily self-delude himself into literally believing he was the Macho Man Randy Savage in the same way that Elizabeth Holmes self-deluded herself into literally believing that she was Elizabeth Holmes? It’s impossible to tell for sure what they themselves remember believing at the time of belief. But both committed to their bits.

There are other such contexts around those in power. We use the The Emperor’s New Clothes meme to describe them. There are things in a board room that people say that are fictional within the fictional context. They even erect set pieces to set the scene. Sometimes I can’t tell if the Emperor is intentionally designing such a delusion, or if the delusion is an emergent property of underlying social network. Sometimes I get the impression with dictators that they’ll make an outrageous claim as an expression of power: look at me, I know I’m lying to you, and you know that I’m lying to you, but you’re going to pretend to believe the lie because I have the power to lie to you, look at me. Most of the time, I confess, I can’t tell who the delusion is serving, and what purpose it serves. In such fictional contexts, I’m able to keep track of what is non-fiction, but I’m not always certain that everybody is able to differentiate what is dogma and what is not.

Reading the air in the room involves, to some extent, recognition of what forms of non-fiction one can introduce, and which forms you can’t. Never fear though, if a taboo seeps into the dialogue, shame can be deployed to restore equilibrium! That’s how you know you really stepped in it.

Data Science as Non-Fiction

Data Science is epic (Hey! That’s the name of the blog!) because of the power of non-fiction to make accurate predictions about nature. Regardless of whether or not the end result of any data science programme is the production of accurate non-fiction, the effort is always aligned towards the generation of non-fiction. This is why insider environments of data scientists speaking to other data scientists can be difficult for outsiders: there is often no attempt disguise the true horror of nature behind a façade of purple lighting, mirrors and multiple fog machines. Nature is horrifying.

Data scientists that find themselves in fictional environments in which none of the participants may openly admit fiction, often experience efforts to shame them into silence. That’s how they get feedback. And either they get with the program, become team players, accept the wisdom of the party, toe the line, join all hands on deck – or they can find employment elsewhere, go to the gulag or get the bullet. Either way, you’re either an insider or an outsider.

The advice repeated in sociology and management science is for the data scientist to persist in generating non-fiction so that the the few actors that may distinguish what is real and what is not likely to be real can do so. In this way, people playing the role of data scientist, researchers, experts, statisticians or similar, are critical for sense-making in distributed, power-sharing, western contexts. What may be confusing for many data scientists is when they find themselves in a corporate context, physically located in the West, that isn’t.

The ability of any organization to survive, and thrive, is in part a function of its ability to update the stories it tells itself about the nature of its environment in spite of the powerful internal forces at work to prevent the updating of stories it tells itself. So maybe there’s justice. Maybe.

Data Science as Fiction

It could be argued that in some contexts, data scientists are complicit in acts of deception, or, are themselves self-deceived. Departments can become captured and be known to produce the statistics that the party needs. So long as the intent of the data scientist is to write non-fiction, ground-truth will assist them in the eventual conquest over myth, delusion, and convenient reasoning to the benefit of those in the community. The bit that sticks out is the veracity of this paragraph itself. (How’s that for meta?)

When should you?

A data scientist shouldn’t ever truly suspend disbelief.

If the price of admission is the appearance of acceptance of fiction, and you wish to pay that price, and you are capable of entertaining multiple sets of ideas about reality, then you can do that. If you have that capability, you should probably use it. It may be a gift. I’m really not sure how common reality-control is in any population, as there’s an incentive to deceive when you’re in it looking at it, and an incentive to deceive when you’re out of it looking back on it.

(And worse, it could be reasoned that there is a strong positive incentive to intentionally deceive others about possessing the ability…however, when you process the decision tree to its logical conclusion, you’d probably discover that the long-run return on truth-speaking is astronomically positive.)

The ability to maintain n-number of versions of reality: constructed-non-fiction, non-fiction-appearing-as-fiction, fiction-appearing-as-non-fiction, collective delusion, all of the other versions people can construct…and integrating narratives, might be just another skill. I’d argue that some base capability in reality-control is vital as a normal course of model-making, exploratory data analysis, and heuristic formation.

I’ll argue that if you can maintain a non-fictional intent, especially in a reality that is entirely fictional, then you’ll probably be better off.

It’s weird though, right? Why do we do this?


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Cooper, B., Cohen, T. R., Huppert, E., Levine, E. E., & Fleeson, W. (2023). Honest behavior: Truth-seeking, belief-speaking, and fostering understanding of the truth in others. Academy of Management Annals17(2), 655-683.

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Littrell, S., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2023). Bullshit blind spots: The roles of miscalibration and information processing in bullshit detection. Thinking & Reasoning, 1-30.

Liubertė, I., & Dimov, D. (2021). “One tiny drop changes everything”: Constructing opportunity with words. Journal of Business Venturing Insights15, e00242.

Perez, B. (2021). An Ethnography of the Pitch: Techno-Entrepreneurial Capitalist Ethics at Y Combinator.

Mollick, E. (2020). The Unicorn’s Shadow: Combating the Dangerous Myths that Hold Back Startups, Founders, and Investors. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Von Hippel, E., & Von Krogh, G. (2016). Crossroads—Identifying viable “need–solution pairs”: Problem solving without problem formulation. Organization Science27(1), 207-221.