"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Knowing Whom to Trust

It's becoming clearer and clearer to me that this is the number one issue; not overpopulation, not climate change, not war. All of these problems rest on miscommunication, sometimes even deliberate miscommunication, which in turn rest on misplaced trust. The idea of democracy rests on a belief in the fabric of society maintaining valid networks of trust. Whether this happens or not is determined by social aspects of the society.

Specifically, where science is at issue, the problem is determining whether the dude in the white coat is actually an authority.

In this article I talked about authority-detection circuits in the scientific mindset, alleging that despite absolutely no expertise in medicine beyond the man on the street, and an actual incapacity to understand the arguments made by a certain MD, I was convinced that the man was a genuine expert conveying genuine expertise with due regard for uncertainties. I alleged that familiarity with the culture of science gave me the grounds for such insight. As Piet Hein once said "truth is constructed in such a way that it can't be exaggerated".

John Fleck encouraged me to expand on this theme. At present I owe John, thanks to an impromptu lunch in Albuquerque a few days ago which, in addition to being great fun, put a research group in touch with a leading researcher we ought to have known about.

I think at some point a discussion of the nature of intuition won't be off topic for this blog. It's deeper than you might think. I highly recommend the rather misnamed book "Sources of Power" by Gary Klein (MIT Press) for a remarkably original investigation into how successful people actually make decisions.

For now, though, I'd just refer you to an anonymous blog entry that's made a splash (linked from Slashdot, no less) entitled Is Scientific Journalism Doomed? As you can guess it takes a rather pessimistic stance.

Nevertheless, since John the journalist linked me the scientist to the right person for some interdisciplinary work I am proposing now, we can claim a refutation that expertise detetction must be unique to practicing scientists.

The anonymous blogger acknowledges being somewhat new to the process, and is also faced with the more difficult process of passing muster rather than of detecting puffery.

Probably the central point I have to make in this blog is that knowing who is the real deal is the crux of all of our problems. I'm trying to add that credentials aren't necessary or sufficient in either the judge or the defendant.


Anonymous said...

Erraum: My intuition tells me that there's something missing from paragraphs two and three.

Michael Tobis said...

I shouldn't do this stuff in a hurry...

I can't recollect exactly where I was going in the second paragraph. Hopefully it's more coherent now.

Dano said...


The issue here is confirmation bias for identity politics.

The person who hears language that appeals to their ideology or identity will be more likely to believe the essay. This is easily apprehended (code phrases).

The deeper issue is overcoming the initial paragraph in a persuasive essay that uses key phrases to get the reader nodding their head.

We see the issue immediately when we consider that the journal articles or the gray literature we read have no such introductory paragraphs.

Now we grasp the even deeper issue.