By George Noga
The world today needs Fair Witnesses and Mentats.
Those of you who read Stranger in a Strange Land (my favorite science fiction work) by Robert Heinlein grok “Fair Witness”. When I first read this book in the late 1960s the fair witness concept resonated immediately and I never have been able to put it out of my mind.
Apparently it also resonated with a great many others; if you Google “fair witness” there are an astounding 78 million entries – all of this stemming from obscure passages in a sci-fi book published 50 years ago.
“Citizens could effectively counter the power of an overbearing government by hiring a Fair Witness.”
Heinlein’s book takes place in the milieu of an overbearing government. One of the few ways citizens could effectively counter the power of government was by hiring a Fair Witness, a specially trained and recognized person who was so truthful and objective as to be unimpeachable. Anything witnessed and/or reported by a Fair Witness was universally accepted and untouchable by the power of government including the courts.
As used in Heinlein’s book, Fair Witnesses are a profession (legal institution) consisting of individuals with an eidetic memory trained to observe events and report exactly what is seen or heard making no extrapolations, assumptions or conclusions. Fair Witnesses wear distinctive white robes and are accorded deferential treatment. When, for example, a Fair Witness is asked the color of a house, he/she replies, “It is white on this side.” Stranger in a Strange Land has become a classic and never has been out of print since publication in 1961. I recommend it to all readers.
“Mentat” is a creation of Frank Herbert, author of the Dune sci-fi series. A Mentat is a profession with humans trained to mimic computers and to develop their cognitive and analytic capacity to unimaginable heights. Society considered Mentats the embodiment of logic and reason and only a small number could qualify. Mentats, without prejudice or preconception, can extract patterns or logic in data using a process that goes beyond deduction.
Fair Witnesses and Mentats thus constitute a theme in science fiction that society needs an accurate, impartial arbiter of ascertainable facts. Mentat however has not caught on as much Fair Witness as it has only 2 million Google entries.
Why Not Fair Witness Today?
There is no reason a Fair Witness concept could not work today. Nearly everyone wants to know the truth (facts ascertainable by evidence and/or deduction) and would accept the truth from an unimpeachable, impartial and non-political source backed by unassailable research and logic. They would accept the truth even if it shattered preconceived notions – especially once Fair Witnesses amassed a lengthy and virtually perfect track record. Even those reluctant at first to accept Fair Witnesses would come around as their record for truth grew.
There is a growing hunger by the public for separating truth from fiction especially as the sheer volume and speed of information grows. This is evidenced by the multitude of online fact checking sites including FactCheck, Snopes, PolitiFact, TruthOrFiction, MediaShift and HoaxSlayer. A market for truth exists; the time is right; and the public is ready. There is no shortage of people or groups who would pay a price to know the truth. Following is one way a Fair Witness concept could be implemented today.
1. It would have to be organized by a person or group that instantly commanded unquestioned credibility. Perhaps a jurist, public accounting firm or consulting firm would work. Or, how about Nobel Laureate scientists, logicians or just a person known to be honest?
2. Training of Fair Witnesses would have to be rigorous; they could not have even a whiff of prejudice. Scientists are trained to follow the scientific method; why can’t Fair Witnesses be trained to an equal or even higher standard?
3. A painstaking, meticulous and scrupulous peer review process must be in place to review the work of Fair Witnesses prior to release.
4. They would have to be right darn near 100% of the time and would have to be scandal free and untainted 100% of the time.
5. Fair Witness organizations could begin locally or even at the state, national and international level. There could be multiple organizations competing with the best winning out in the end.
“Fair Witnesses could transform debate over public issues, reduce conflict, make lying risky and enlighten voters.”
Just contemplate the possibilities for a moment. If there were Fair Witnesses today it would utterly transform public debate over any matter that could be factually proven or disproven – anything from purely local issues to those involving the entire planet.
With unimpeachable truth, Fair Witnesses could render being untruthful unproductive and costly and cause people to be more careful. They could reduce conflict and incivility by revealing truth; and they would enlighten voters who, at least for some issues, would know the truth of the issue. There are many applications in business and advertising. Anything that helps people to know the truth can be only an unalloyed blessing.
Seventy-eight million entries on Goggle for Fair Witness are astounding. The comparable numbers for others I looked up were: Madonna (40 million); Barack Obama (41 million); and George W. Bush (59 million). The only ones I could find with a higher count in my limited searching were Elvis Presley and he had only 82 million – a mere 5% more. Jesus Christ had 120 million – only 50% more. We can learn much from an obscure part of an obscure sci-fi tract published 50 years ago – Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune, as with all great science fiction, speak to us today.
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