There’s a battle going on out there. A battle for trust. Do you get the H1N1 vaccine? Is global warming true? Will you go to hell? Is the free market the best way to run an economy?
How to answer these questions? The conventional wisdom is that all members of our society should get informed. Many here at ScienceBlogs would like to convince you that the problem is anti-intellectualism. These evolution-disbelieving folk have been called deniers and the anti-science movement has been rebranded as denialism. But I think that this view of the world is not really representative of what is really happening. According to this line of thought the problem lies within the public indifference, or worse hostility, to the latest scientific advances. But is this what is going on? Reading “denialist” blogs, they use what they claim as “science” to counter claims of global warming. ID folk point to some hidden (i.e. non-existent) controversy within the life sciences to argue against evolution. The remedy to all this “denialism”, we are told, is that each member of the community should get acquainted with mainstream scientific arguments and some of the data, and *poof* they will thus accept the basic theories that most scientists subscribe to. But to have everyone go over the raw data to the point that they can give you a good unassailable argument for evolution or global warming or the big bang is absurd. Very few people are experts in all of these areas. I’m sure that if you walked up to the average liberal, they would not be able to give a water-tight argument about how evolution explains the world we live in. Acceptance of evolution, contrary to conventional wisdom, has very little to do with the knowledge of the primary data. So how can the average citizen make up their mind? How do they navigate the world with all these competing theories?
For example take the hypothetical person Joe. He’s a bus driver who doesn’t often attend church service, but nonetheless believes in God and an afterlife. He considers himself a moderate fiscal conservative, but is socially liberal. We walk up to Joe and ask him, “How did man come to be?” He sits back and reflects about it for a moment, he thinks about all the wonderful things that man has made – like satellites, skyscrapers, and wrist watches. He thinks about the differences between his 4 year old daughter and her pet gold fish. Ideas swirl in his head. Evolution? He’s not sure about that. Joe took some biology in high school where it was taught as “scientific fact”. Does he trust his teacher? Maybe. He decides to examine the alternative that most people gravitate towards. Creation. It makes sense to him. Stepping back we can see that creation is an idea that has been with him a long time. It was given to him by the church and is embedded in a belief system that he finds appealing. He concludes that man must have been made by God in some way.
What is the difference between Joe and the average evolution-believing liberal? It is not knowledge. It is trust. Joe placed his trust in a simplistic view of the world that conforms to his naïve ideas about biology. This idea was seized by the church millennia ago and incorporated into its world view. It was packaged in a digestible form and passed down to us. The other alternative is trust in the scientific establishment. This collection of individuals has been debating ideas and observations for the past 500 years. They have made great progress in explaining natural phenomena and have developed technology and tools that surround us constantly. Joe placed his trust in ideas handed down to him from the church, but his neighbor Betty trusts her grade 8 biology teacher. In the end their “beliefs” were dictated by whom they view as credible.
It’s becoming more and more apparent that humans spend a lot of effort evaluating their peers. But how does Joe choose his belief system? He’s no expert in the natural sciences – but he does have access to lots of outside influences. He watches Nova on PBS. He reads his local paper (albeit online). He listens to talk radio. Sometimes these sources contradict each other, but he tends to lean one way and trusts certain voices over others.
It comes down to a simple question. Who do you trust. Another way of phrasing this is who do you think is credible. This trust is so valuable that we humans spend a lot of effort on the other side of that social interaction – we try to maximize our credibility and we try to gain the trust of others. Trust, influence, credibility – it is one of the most important commodities that you can earn within a large group of individuals. With trust you can mobilize large movements, armies, tea parties and evolution-believing constituents. You can get what you want.
Trust is also the glue that binds together a group. Another glue is mistrust in another group. Us, the righteous, versus them, the evildoers.
This is the dynamic of the world today. Every sphere of influence gathers its supporters (i.e. gain their trust) while battling off competing world views (i.e. diminish trust that potential supporters may have in their rivals). This war is being waged on many fronts. Conservatives against liberals. Science against religion.
But we all must recognize the battle for what it really is. For example religion wants to offer all the answers – this is why you are here, this is how the world was made, this is where you go after you die. But science has systematically undercut these messages over the centuries. Ideas that were once preached (man was created, the world is 6000 years old) have been shown to be deeply flawed. And so religious conservatives in an attempt to retain their influence have consistently attacked science or any challenge to their authority. The fear is that if they have been shown to be wrong, people will no longer trust them and they will lose influence.
Having seen the credibility of religion being attacked, social conservatives have felt threatened by professionals, be they scientists, civil servants, academics and others who have come to question their core beliefs. And due to the migration of the manufacture sector, many Americans are upset and are looking for someone to blame. Leaders of the GOP, wanting to cash in, have conflated the two issues and have declared war against “elites”. These elites are professionals – academics, lawyers, civil servants – these are the individuals that once had the trust of the public. By killing their trust, the GOP has sought its own sphere of influence. The GOP has stoked this fire of populism for quite a while, but now it looks like the angry monster has lost their faith in the GOP leadership itself. Currently, this is the main dynamic that is shaping American politics on the right.
In another post I’ll try to explain the dynamics of trust, influence, credibility and skepticism within science. In a word, science is the only institution that organizes trust – this is what makes it different from any other endeavor that humans have ever created.