I've long been interested in issues of trust and meaning, particularly in regard to scientific information. The importance of context, the "who, when, where, why" of any piece of information, is critical in determining first whether we even learn of that information, and second the degree to which we accept it as part of our base of knowledge about the world.
Historian and philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote a book on the subject (titled Trust). Ironically, while I felt some interest in it, I haven't read it because of my reaction to an earlier book of his (The End of History) - which I also didn't read. But anybody who could write a book with that title and the apparent thesis that all the interesting debates and conflicts regarding forms of government were somehow in the past was, I decided, not really worth my time. Thanks to just that cue, my level of trust in his ideas fell essentially to zero, and I haven't read what might otherwise have been very interesting to me. Or perhaps not if my judgment was justified.
Trust is fragile, hard to gain and easily lost. Which was why I found a recent post on science and journalism by Scientific American blogger Bora Zivkovic (who I've followed for a long time as @BoraZ on twitter) a little annoying.
Bora's main claim concerns the boundary between "science" and "journalism", and in particular that the 20th century separation of "journalism" from "science" was a largely artificial one, and is coming to an end. While there have been egregious lapses in journalistic coverage of science (and those are just climate examples from the last couple of years), and science and environment journalists have become a vanishing breed as newspapers and networks cut back, there do remain a few shining examples of accurate well-thought-out traditional coverage of science news (Vergano at USA Today, Gillis at NY Times, O'Brien at PBS for example). Getting the details right with science coverage is important. It requires a pretty deep understanding of the subject matter, in part from the journalist themselves but also from contacts who they trust with that understanding. Just because some exciting new result comes with a fancy press release from a major university or government agency doesn't make it right; getting to the truth takes real knowledge and effort.
The central issue is again one of trust. The public used to trust major news organizations to get things right. Too many bad examples have eroded that trust, but where can people turn? The internet is awash in bogus information of one sort or another. Bora's point seems to be that the public can turn to scientists themselves - via some chain or network of trust. He has many interesting and useful comments to make on the subject, but I found there to be something really missing, particularly in his repeated refrain:
Trust is transitive.
Which is surely not true in general. Trusting a person to do one thing well certainly does not imply we trust them for everything. In particular, just because we trust them to understand the difference between arsenic and phosphorus, say, why should it mean we trust them to tell us who to trust (except perhaps very narrowly on that specific subject)?
A blogger I trust to understand quite a few things about science and journalism recently recommended on a private mailing list to "google everything". That doesn't mean I trust Google to give me the answer for everything, but if you search Google for trust is transitive you find quite quickly that the responses seem to come in two varieties:
(1) Discussions of Microsoft's "Active Directory" trust relationships, which apparently have a "transitive" option
(2) A variety of posts noting that in the context of human relationships, "trust is *not* transitive"
Bora's historical narrative is also somewhat lacking - and lacking in actual historical/scientific references. When he says (presumably limiting this to ancient societies, but not clearly so):
You trust your parents (or priests or teachers) almost uncritically, but you put up your BS filters when hearing a stranger
this seems contrary to much experience - or at least, not acknowledging the deep differences between individuals in this regard. There's an old saying that "familiarity breeds contempt" - true because trust is fragile, and easily lost when those we first trusted have proved wrong too many times, or have shown active intent to do us (what at least seems like) harm. The stranger comes in with a default trust level that may well be higher than the trust we have in those around us, thanks to past experience. Bora talks about "phatic" language (language intended not to convey information, but to enhance social bonds) - there are many with skills in the art of rhetoric who manage to persuade especially those to whom they are strangers that they are worthy of a quite elevated level of trust, just after a short encounter.
I've always loved Harold Hill's intro song in "The Music Man", Ya Got Trouble, as an example of the con-man's persuasive art:
And all week long your River City
Youth'll be frittern away,
I say your young men'll be frittern!
Frittern away their noontime, suppertime, choretime too!
Get the ball in the pocket,
Never mind gittin' Dandelions pulled
Or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded.
Never mind pumpin' any water
'Til your parents are caught with the Cistern empty
On a Saturday night and that's trouble,
Oh, yes we got lots and lots a' trouble.
I'm thinkin' of the kids in the knickerbockers,
Shirt-tail young ones, peekin' in the pool
Hall window after school, look, folks!
Right here in River City.
Trouble with a capital "T"
And that rhymes with "P" and that stands for pool!
Americans seem particularly susceptible to sweet-talkers from the British Isles. Christopher Monckton (who earned a special "Britches on Fire" ruling here from Politifact) has a wonderful mastery of the arts of rhetoric, and manages to convince many people to trust him, if they don't know the facts well enough to realize he's making stuff up. What's up with Bora's "trust" theory in this sort of case?
Making scientists masters of rhetoric or salesmen for themselves or their fields seems like the wrong way to go forward. We need external third parties that the public can learn to trust over time - journalists or people like them - to sort out truth from fiction, to point out the flim-flam artists among us. Maybe folks like Politifact, Snopes or even wikipedia are a good answer as journalism in its old form becomes harder to find. Maybe we need something new. I don't think science blogs or the "let me tell you who I am so you know why you should trust me" idea Bora and Jay Rosen are pushing are going to do it either - we know who our parents are, but that doesn't mean we trust them. What they propose is a good and useful thing, but it's not sufficient to solve the problem.
Trust is elusive. Hard to gain, easily lost. And definitely not transitive.