Prescript: This started as musing about a kind of game-theoretic protocol for asking embarrassing questions that I thought was clever and partway through a more elegant solution occurred to me. It’s a little schizophrenic at the moment, bouncing between question-asking and question-answering protocols.
Suppose I have a question for you but I worry it’s something too private or embarrassing for you to want to answer. If you say “no comment” that’s baaasically an affirmation, so I can’t really ask without invading your privacy. (This is assuming lying is off the table, of course.)
If you’re very Slytherin — but still fully honest — you’d anticipate this kind of question and habitually answer “no comment” when the real answer is a simple non-embarrassing no. That yields some embarrassing raised eyebrows a bit at first but everyone soon figures out that “no comment” genuinely is not in fact a dead giveaway for “yes but I’m embarrassed to say so”. So it might not be a bad personal policy: If you’re asked a question where one answer would be hypothetically embarrassing to admit, always say “no comment” no matter what the actual answer.
Ok, but say you’re not that Slytherin. Here’s how I can still ask the question:
“Is it either the case that the answer to this question, _____, is no OR it’s yes but you’d prefer me to not know it’s yes?”
If I promise not to ask followup questions then we’re set. You can either say “no, it’s both true and I don’t mind you knowing” or “yes” which leaves me just as in the dark as before I asked it.
Oh, wait, real world complications. Damn those. A normal human answerer for whom the answer was no would be inclined to say “forget all that, your conjecture is just wrong!”. So when you carefully parse the disjunction and give the answer that leaves me in the dark, that’s evidence that the answer is yes. Because why do the work to keep me in the dark if you have nothing to hide??
So it only works if you commit to answering strictly yes or no. And by the way, you can avoid the convoluted disjunctive question by making it multiple choice. To use the old-fashioned example of asking someone if they’re gay:
[ ] I’m either not gay or I am and don’t want to come out of the closet
[ ] Guilty as charged
But, again, it only works if you can get them to commit to only picking from the two choices. Because even if they’re gay, you have to eliminate the counterfactual where the straight version of them ignores the checkboxes and says “What? I’m super straight.”
If that’s confusing, imagine the person needs to stay in the closet at all costs. That means they have to perfectly simulate a straight person. And a straight person might ignore the checkboxes and just say “dude I’m straight”. In which case you’re forcing the person, if they’re in fact gay, to lie to stay in the closet.
Unless they’ve established the personal “no comment” policy!
So that’s why that’s my personal policy and why I answer all hypothetically embarrassing questions (not just actually embarrassing ones) with “dreev.es/nocomment” which points you to this little essay and hopefully convinces you that this is not evidence in either direction about what my real answer is.
Now you’re probably thinking I must have an awful lot to hide that I went to the trouble to come up with all this. No comment.
PS: Radical idea, what about dropping the caginess and just always being totally honest? Well, that’s actually the whole goal. I’m just anticipating that I could someday be asked a question that I really don’t want to answer honestly. By having established this “no comment” policy ahead of time, I can honestly answer “no comment” to any such questions in the future.
PPS: I realized there’s a one-sentence version of all this: If you’re a bad liar and don’t want anyone any time to be able to find out anything by just asking you, get in the habit now of answering “no comment” instead of (honestly) denying embarrassing stuff.
UPDATE 2018-02-09: Interesting discussion of meta-honesty on Facebook which I commented on.
Related idea: Slytherin 404s