"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, April 9, 2007

Authority and Trust

Orac's view
gets it right as far as it gets it at all. Orac demonstartes that scientists who are threatened by N&M's position can't possibly be very introspective, because every communication is framed (and windowed too).

Everyone I've read on this lately seems to be missing a key point, though. It's about trust.

Scientific communication occurs in a "trust but verify" world. In principle it is necessary to allow for your work to be checked, but in practice if you check more than a tiny fraction of what you are exposed to, you get nothing done. You know people who know people. When someone says something close to your own turf that surprises you, you check it, not because you mistrust the messenger but because the matter piques your interest. Progress emerges collectively, not individually, and by a process that is more social than formal, except perhaps in pure mathematics.

When you present a new result, you are asking people to put a very considerable amount of attention and care into considering it. They must weigh your demands against those of many others. The first thing they weigh is not your argument. It is who sent you. Then, what institution are you from. Then, did you reference the right people, or are you coming in from left field? Do you dress like someone from that field, do you tell the right jokes, do you have the right friends, are you casual but not shabby....

It is far from flawless, overly clubby, and cruel to people who enter science with this particular form of social radar underdeveloped. (Some call it classism or even racism, but the fact is that Canadians play better hockey because Canadians grow up surrounded by 1) hockey enthusiasts and 2) ice, so no one needs to teach them what those things are.) But cruel or no (and I myself haven't been a beneficiary of this system) it is effective. It works. Truth emerges.

(There is a real problem of unearned and undeserved trust, but that's for another time and place. I am here discussing how the system works at its imperfect best.)

Truth emerges through a network of earned and deserved trust, and generally not through the efforts of any individual person, no matter how talented.

The matter of how truth percolates form science to society is hardly different. We make social judgements far more than we make judgements of substance, because we do not have the time to judge everything on substance. We can only operate on the basis of trust that the social network is doing enough judgements of substance.

In my youth, my generation railed against authority, against the "establishment". We had a common bumper sticker, "Question Authority". Unfortunately, the bumper sticker stuck too well. Now there is nasty gluey stuff all over the bumper of society. My wife Irene has suggested an amended bumper sticker: "Question Authority but Listen to the Answer!"

In those days when there was an establishment and it cared about science, if I were to investigate a scientific issue, I would get the best efforts of scientists to communicate to my level. I would not have been cut off at the pass by an organized posse of authority questioners, skilled in generating confusion and motivated by something other than truth.

What people who care about truth need to do first is understand that science flourishes in some social environments and not in others, that some social environments care about truth as an independent constraint and others will try to argue their way out of a hurricane. ("It's not so bad. The levee is only broken in one or two places.")

We can't allow the network of trust to get broken. It's already altogether too frayed. The costs aren't just our comfortable science jobs at nice institutes with a few nice foreign jaunts every year. The entire fate of humanity is at stake, whether or not the climate change consensus is right.

In order to save the freedom of free nations we must save our collective competence. Our competence depends on respect for evidence, and respect for evidence depends on respect for the network of people who gather the evidence.

How do we deserve that trust, and how do we go about regaining it, in the face of highly skilled malign opposition?

I am still thinking about it and I hope you are too, but I am sure one crucial step is to respect your audience, no matter how wrongheaded they may be.

We should not suffer foolishness gladly, but as for fools, I defer to Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons. Paraphrasing, he has pointed out that the world is so complicated now that everyone is an idiot about some things.

We are all fools in some context or other.

That's why, in order to survive and thrive, as individuals, groups, societies, and a world, the most important skill is knowing whom to trust.

It's also why we should treat fools with respect and consideration, while fighting their foolishness. Tomorrow you will be someone else's fool.

[This rambled a bit. I split off the opening into a separate posting. See above.]


Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

Interesting post, and I could discuss your points about trust and societal (which I tend to interpret as cultural) norms at length. However, it is late, so I will focus on one sentence only now.

When you write:

"one crucial step is to respect your audience, no matter how wrongheaded they may be."

I would agree wholeheartedly with respect, on all issues, until it became apparent that the audience's response, or lack of it, were about to cause irreparable harm to a large chunk of mankind.

In that peculiar case, I would trust the authorities on an issue, and would step in and speak up to help to avoid the danger to others (even if I were not directly affected), regardless of how uncomfortably rude that would make me feel and how impertinent I may appear to that audience … as I still believe there are times when the common good of humanity has to come first, and wealthy egos second.

Tony Lee said...

You seem to be moving here towards a sociology of science. (It would be interesting to see whether any work has been done on this -- something interesting for me to look up, I guess.)

What would really be interesting would be to see whether the sceptic movement mirrors this network of trust. I suspect, after all, that sceptic followers would not dare question Lindzen, Gray or Easterbrook -- so long as what they said remained within tightly construed ideological bounds.

And would sceptic followers have the same relation to their scientists as so-called 'tree-huggers' have to theirs?

IOW, is this sociology of science the same as the sociology of climate scepticism? Or the sociology of conspiracy theorists?

Michael Tobis said...

Easterbrook was never part of the denialist core. His audience was always liberals. He has changed his position lately. I have never really been impressed with his thinking, myself, but he shouldn't be included in that crowd.