Transcription and Translation

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?

Trust.


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.

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 13, 2009

    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.

    I disagree. Churches and other authoritarians also rely on highly organized networks of trust. What is unique about science is that it bases its networks of trust on justification of that trust by reference to the evidence of one’s own senses.

  2. #2 Alex Palazzo
    December 13, 2009

    That’s not what I mean by that – I should have elaborated but I just ran out of steam. To give you the 5 sec summary – each participant in the scientific program must establish credibility through the generation of reproducible experimentation or the espousing of theories with predictive potential. Through this we not only establish our own credentials but we allow others to judge us and our work.

    Another way of phrasing this is that we scientists are sometimes seen as “skeptical” but in reality we try to ascertain the credibility of any given source and we do this by following norms that are ingrained in scientific culture. All humans and all of our institutions, be they religious or political try to gain our trust – science sets up a system that allows you to establish trust.

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 13, 2009

    Churches and other authoritarian institutions also set up systems that allow you to establish trust. The difference is that religious trust networks are based on authoritarian hierarchy and are wholly illusory, while scientific trust networks are based on the evidence of our senses and are at least partially reliable.

  4. #4 MPL
    December 13, 2009

    I disagree that religious systems of trust are based totally on hierarchy, or that science is the only trust network based on reproducible evidence.

    Science operates broadly the same way other academic disciplines do—experts advance, challenge, and defend arguments based on publicly available evidence. Science is distinguished by the nature of the evidence, i.e. experimentation in the natural world, but experimentation is similar in many ways to the primary sources for historians, original texts for literary critics, or axiomatic proofs for mathematicians: something which can be verified by friends, disinterested observers, and enemies alike.

    Even churches and theologians, although accepting certain beliefs and texts in the absence of independently verifiable evidence, having done so, often proceed in ways similar to academics studying less supernatural texts (which is not to say I think theology the equal of science: starting with a book of poems by bronze-age shepherds is really not the way to go about understanding the universe).

  5. #5 Alex Palazzo
    December 13, 2009

    PP,

    We basically agree about how each system “establishes” trust. But in contrast to science where an individual is judged by his trustworthiness, religion simply imposes trust within an establish hierarchy. There is never any validation of whether that trust is warranted. Those on the lower rung are not encouraged to doubt individuals who are ranked above them – in fact blind faith, the antithesis to critical analysis of ones trustworthiness, is the most valued “virtue”, at least within Christianity.

    MLP,

    You are absolutely correct, other academic disciplines share many features of the trust networks that were established by the experimentalists (like Robert Boyle and the Royal Society). There are some aspects that do differ, such as the way in which observations and interpretations are segregated, but basically they use a similar system to establish credibility and trust.

  6. #6 Alex Palazzo
    December 14, 2009

    I’ll point readers to Reddit http://www.reddit.com/r/cogsci/comments/aebaa/do_you_get_the_h1n1_vaccine_is_global_warming/ There’s a good conversation there about the main thesis of the post.

    Part of the discussion there focuses on how to increase trust in science. The answer, I believe, is not to “dumb down” science, although it can’t hurt (look at what Mythbusters have done …) The way to get people to increase their trust in science is to explain how science, unlike say religion, BUILDS trust. Science is a battle ground of ideas and experimentation. Trust must be earned by each scientist within their field. Next post I’ll explain how this works.

  7. #7 Hendrian
    December 14, 2009

    “Never have so many understood so little about so much”
    This is elegantly quoted by James Burke.

    A more general philosophical explanation is that we perceive and operate in the world based on structure of beliefs that we were indoctrinated with and are constructing on. Science is just a structure of beliefs; beliefs built on beliefs that are scrutinized and tested.
    For example, it’s definitely hard to persuade/convince a rational scientist with an earth shattering idea, because it goes against his/her structure of belief.
    A better explanation is in the following video.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vN_A_NIDjM0&feature=PlayList&p=CAED13C2CAFF5BE4&index=1

  8. #8 Mango Punch
    December 15, 2009

    1) I think you grossly over-simplify the idea of trusting one group over another, particularly when you compare religion vs science to the GOP vs professionals (laughable). I trust my doctor to diagnose an ailment and my mechanic to repair my car. I along with most people approach the world issue by issue choosing whom to trust or follow on a case by case basis. This explains both the vast center in American politics (albeit moving).

    2) I take issue with the idea that there is a bifurcation between science-minded and religious individuals. There have been and continue to be many great scientists who are religious and there are many religions that do not run in the face of demonstrateable evidence. It is a matter of axioms a) I believe there is a god, b) I believe there is no god. Both atheism and religion are a matter of faith.

    3) It seems you have a fairly simplistic linearly separated view of the political system. I find this excerpt particularly telling: “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.” While I agree that the GOP has become anti-elitest and anti-accademic to a scary degree, the idea that dissatisfaction with the current GOP leadership is due to their ‘elite’ status is wrong. Dissatisfaction seems to be due to breaking from party principles, particularly fiscal restraint (an image they’re trying to rebuild). This further demonstrates my first point of views being on an issue by issue basis.

  9. #9 Alex Palazzo
    December 15, 2009

    Hendrian,

    A more general philosophical explanation is that we perceive and operate in the world based on structure of beliefs that we were indoctrinated with and are constructing on. Science is just a structure of beliefs; beliefs built on beliefs that are scrutinized and tested.

    How very Kuhn-ian. There is some truth to the idea that we operate within a system of belief, i.e. paradigm. But I am confused – you state that this belief system is “indoctrinated” but that the beliefs are “scrutinized and tested” – which one is it? Kuhn in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions would argue that the paradigm is a product of a political process within the scientific establishment and essentially imposed. I think that is misses the point. During a Kuhn-ian “crisis”, when various competing paradigms are being debated – the rival theories are never really equal and are thus partially judged based on their predictive power and whether they provide insight. (Of course other factors do influence the final outcome and “politics” does have a role to play). That is why our current scientific theories have much more explanatory power than those theories of the 17th, 18th and 19th century. Sure you may choose to believe in some other paradigm that is not within mainstream science – but if this theory has less predictive power why should I trust you or give you any credibility? Of course if this theory is outside my field of expertise I may not be able to judge it – but knowing how the scientific establishment works, and given its track record, I would gladly put my trust in scientific consensus (perhaps “with a grain of salt”).

  10. #10 Alex Palazzo
    December 15, 2009

    MP,

    I along with most people approach the world issue by issue choosing whom to trust or follow on a case by case basis.

    And many on the far right have discounted the consensus between academics and experts on these topics. Most people do trust professionals – their doctor, lawyer mechanic. But when large professional associations or experts from academic institutions have voiced their opinions on large public issues, the usual retort from the right is that academics in their “ivory towers” are elitist and out of touch with reality. In other words these right-wing critics don’t debate the issues but attack the trustworthiness of academic opinion. A second way that the right has countered academics, is to create rival institutions (i.e. think tanks) that espouse ideas from the right. The motive here is to give the public an alternative view point and give it some legitimacy (i.e. credentials) by having it come from some institution with an official sounding name. The right can then say don’t trust THOSE academics in their ivory towers, but WAIT, here are some OTHER smart people you can trust. I must admit that there are some valid ideas that come out of these think tanks, but quite a few of them, like the Discovery Institute, are hollow shells.

    I take issue with the idea that there is a bifurcation between science-minded and religious individuals. There have been and continue to be many great scientists who are religious and there are many religions that do not run in the face of demonstrateable evidence.

    Religion is a world view that incorporates many old ideas – some of which undoubtedly arose from are naive view of how nature and the universe was constructed. The Catholic church adopted these and all of the Socratic views of nature. When these world views were shown to be experimentally wrong, the church saw this as an attack on their credibility. As I stated above, TRUST is the most important currency. So religion is not necessarily anti-science, but whenever religion imposes ideas of the physical world on its followers, it will inevitably bump up into experimental based science, even if the scientist is religious. And to be fair, up until recently most learned people received their education through the church and they were the ones who wanted to investigate nature to better understand creation BUT that doesn’t change the fact that many scientific discoveries had the unintended byproduct of undermining the authority of the Catholic church.

    Today many religions have tried to confine themselves to realms that cannot be explored experimentally, and yes within that limited context the church and science can remain compatible.

    As to belief in God, I did not mention that at all in my post. My only contention is that science has undermined trust in religion’s ability to explain the natural world. Now of course if Christianity was wrong about so many issues (the existence of a vacuum, the revolution of planets around the sun, the magic to create souls at the point of conception see http://scienceblogs.com/transcript/2007/11/some_thoughts_on_the_ips_cell.php) – this gives people more and more reason not to trust it. Science is not actively trying to undermine religion. What has happened is that Religion has damaged its own reputation by claiming as fact many ideas that are demonstratably wrong.

    the idea that dissatisfaction with the current GOP leadership is due to their ‘elite’ status is wrong. Dissatisfaction seems to be due to breaking from party principles, particularly fiscal restraint (an image they’re trying to rebuild). This further demonstrates my first point of views being on an issue by issue basis.

    Actually here we agree completely – and I’m sorry if what I wrote was not entirely clear. I believe that the GOP is losing credibility not because of their “elite” status but because they failed to deliver on ANY of their “populist” platform, including fiscal restraint. Most of these teabaggers are also suffering economically and it would seem that neither party is offering any solutions or plainly ignoring their plight. Unfortunately I think that most of the teabaggers solutions are misguided, and that has been partially been due to them buying into (i.e. giving credibility) to an extreme rightwing view of the world that was encouraged by elements within the GOP.

  11. #11 Hendrian
    December 17, 2009

    Thanks for your response Alex.

    I may be wrong, but I do think that scientific beliefs are both “indoctrinated” and “scrutinized and tested”. One good example is the nobel prize winner who proved that stomach ulcers are caused by bacterial infection. It was noted by a physician/physiologist that the stomach contains very high acidity centuries ago; somehow this led physicians to p advise patients against eating spicy food or coffee to control the acidity, until it was proven otherwise in recent decade. I suspect that there are also other false indoctrinated perception in scientific studies.

    String theory is one field in quantum physics where it is criticized as not being predictive, BUT according to an article that i read two years ago, many current quantum physics graduate students seeking bright future have to (reluctantly or unreluctantly) enter this field. Hence it is not necessarily that theories that lack predictive in scientific fields are nonexistent or not popular, but they most probably will die out later.

    But you are definitely right, at least scientific approaches are better than taking words of preachers at face value.

  12. #12 Alex Palazzo
    December 17, 2009

    Hendrian,

    Yes, science may have adopted theories that were later discarded, and the example you bring up illustrates the point very nicely, but nonetheless science can revise and eventually adopt “better” theories. So at the time and given our previous knowledge, it was perfectly reasonable to think that controlling acidity could help prevent ulcers, however when a “better” theory arose with strong evidence to back it up, the scientific establishment (eventually) changed it’s minds.

    You might counter that it took a long time for the establishment to reverse itself – but that too is understandable – people don’t want to change their theories willy-nilly. When the weight of the evidence just became to large to ignore, the idea that Helicobacter pylori was the cause of the ulcers was adopted, and the scientists who came up with this alternative theory were celebrated and awarded the highest recognition. In comparison to other human institutions, science is the only one that has a built a mechanism to assess the trust and reliability of individuals, their work, and their theories. Other institutions simply impose ideas and command that their followers trust (or have “faith” in) them.

    Would the Catholic church ever give Galileo its top prize? It took them 400 years just to forgive him. The result of the church’s action was to muzzle scientific research in the Italian peninsula for over 300 years. From that point on Italy was no longer the center of scientific and technological advancement. After Galileo the only places in Europe that were safe to conduct experimental research were outside of the church’s sphere of influence (i.e. England and Germany).

    As for String Theory, many scientists view it with suspicion, especially experimentalists. Eventually it will have to produce something OR some rival theory will supplant it. A big hope is that the LHC will help to clarify things. We’ll just have to wait and see. In any case right now most of the major advances are being made in Biology – this period will be remembered as its Golden age. Physics in contrast is in a slump. But all this could change with some new data.

  13. #13 sikiş
    January 14, 2010

    Part of the discussion there focuses on how to increase trust in science. The answer, I believe, is not to “dumb down” science, although it can’t hurt (look at what Mythbusters have done …) The way to get people to increase their trust in science is to explain how science, unlike say religion, BUILDS trust. Science is a battle ground of ideas and experimentation. Trust must be earned by each scientist within their field. Next post I’ll explain how this works.

  14. #14 Rob Monkey
    February 19, 2010

    MP: “It is a matter of axioms a) I believe there is a god, b) I believe there is no god. Both atheism and religion are a matter of faith.”

    Hasn’t this been resoundingly discounted yet? I mean really, not believing in magical creatures is an act of faith? So most everyone in the world has “faith” in the idea that leprechauns don’t really exist? Simply not placing consideration on invisible, nonmaterial, mythical creatures is an act of faith? If that is true, then the word “faith” means everything and nothing all at once. As far as religious scientists go, the successful ones don’t utilize faith in their science. They formulate a hypothesis, follow data and experiments to lead them to a logical conclusion. A dash of creativity and a bit of funding later, and you have a successful scientific idea. What he does with his own time on Sunday morning is his own business and has nothing to do with his success at work. Just like accountants, mechanics, and everyone else whose job isn’t directly involved with religion.

    As for the GOP trying to rebuild their fiscal discipline, they’re gonna have to look a lot farther back. We have the myth of tight-budget Republicans, but every Republican administration since Reagan has just funneled money into defense contractors and financial interests instead of actually helping the deficit or creating jobs.

  15. #15 FLOYD
    October 9, 2010

    Trust & Influence – The Real Human Currency is deverloped by god not anyone else……

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