Who do you trust?

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Our seminar this week was billed as talking about voting and the Internet, but rather rapidly changed into a discussion of fake news, polling, and how to determine what is true. Another technology class going philosophical in front of our eyes. Towards the end of our discussion, we went around the table to say who it is that we each trusted, and the answers were both interesting and revealing. Trust in parents was phrased in the past tense. Most institutions were not considered particularly trustworthy. Most often mentioned were crowd-sourced sites like Reddit, Wikipedia, and Quora. Occasionally a news magazine like the Atlantic was mentioned, but I found the lack of trust in any sort of expert-based or curated site interesting.

Trust in experts seems to be at an all-time low, or maybe it is simply that we don’t recognize experts in some fields. With the advent of the Internet, everyone believes he or she can be a journalist, even though professional journalists go through a lot of training on how to insure that they have multiple sources, how to balance between the public’s right to know and the safety of releasing information, and the like. One of the real differences I see between the leaking of the Department of Defense and State Department information by Chelsea Manning and the leak of NSA information by Edward Snowden is that Manning gave the information to WikiLeaks (which then released everything) while Snowden gave the information to a team of journalists (who decided what should be released and what should be held back, balancing the right to know with the damage the information could do). One can argue that this is not a material difference, but in the Snowden case there was a reliance on trained expertise that was missing in the Manning case.

There have certainly been times when the experts have made huge mistakes. The Vietnam War has often been blamed on the hubris and self-deception of the “best and brightest” around Robert McNamara. Reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that came from intelligence experts (although, it should be noted, other experts disagreed) led to another war, the consequences of which we are still seeing (and paying). Just because someone is an expert doesn’t mean that they are always right.

But we seem to have come to a point where the possibility of being wrong is confused with the certainty that someone must be wrong, or at least so prejudiced that their conclusions can’t be trusted.  The press is either liberal leaning or conservative, so neither can be trusted. Many people seem to take E.B. White’s stance, that “All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.”

People tend to forget the whole thing that White was saying– the full sentence is “All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, but many men are born upright.” Just because someone has a point of view doesn’t mean that they are wrong, or somehow dishonest, or manipulative. Trust, as Ronald Reagan said, may require verification. But imperfection doesn’t mean that trust is impossible. I certainly believe that the New York Times has a point of view, but I don’t believe that it impacts the truth of what they report. I often see the same reporting in the Wall Street Journal (on the news pages), a publication with a very different point of view. This leads me to trust both (for the news), as opposed to, say, Fox News or the National Enquirer, where I find the stories much more difficult to independently substantiate.

The push towards crowd-sourcing of knowledge and away from trust in expertise appears to rest on the assumption that the prejudices and distortions of a large populace will be evenly spread around the truth, so using the wisdom of the crowd will cancel out the individual prejudices. But I find little or no evidence that this is generally true, in spite of the nice democratic flavor of such a stance. Around matters of technology, I find that there are people who simply know more than others, and are better able to solve certain problems. I trust climate scientists more than, say, Senators on the subject of climate change. This is a form of elitism, but one that I’m willing to live with. It doesn’t mean that these people know about everything, or even that they are right in everything they say about their particular subject. But they are more likely to be right than someone randomly picked.

It is tempting, given the difficulty of having to think about what is really true, to take the stance that nothing can be trusted and it is all relative. Unfortunately, the universe doesn’t really care if we believe the facts or not; the facts are as they are. Disbelieving experts can lead to rather bad outcomes; thinking that there is no difference between truth and lies (or mis-statements) can lead to other bad outcomes (as we are seeing). Finding at least the best approximation of the truth can be difficult, but not doing that work is worse.

 

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