Thursday, July 22, 2021

Trust the Experts?

I think I've written before about trust and how it is one of the basic parts of any social interaction. Trust, or the lack of it, will influence how you deal with people on every level and it can be used against you. After seeing some of the nonsense being pumped out in the "news" lately, I thought it would be good to revisit this core component of human interactions.

I put the word "news" in quotation marks because all news sources are biased. Everyone has a bias or two; it doesn't matter if it's religious, racial, social status, political, or tribal, there is always going to be a hint or more of bias in any reporting. If you get your information from only one source, you're accepting the bias of that source. This can lead to what I call "intellectual incest", with results that aren't any better than those of common incest. Inbreeding has destroyed several breeds of animals, with purebred dogs and horses as good examples of the health effects of having a family shrub instead of a family tree. Don't let your flow of information suffer similar issues, but instead look for and acknowledge the bias in your sources, and look for other sources (with their own biases). Verify and check stories before you place much trust in them.

I get most of my information online now. The local paper has withered to a few pages and the TV news is controlled by the corporations that own the stations, so neither are to be trusted. Rather than hitting the sites that may agree with my opinions, I like to search out some of the foreign news organizations and a few of the "fringe" sites for information on developing stories. I can pick out the biases and glean bits of information that the US news groups won't share with us. The fringe sites are good for a laugh most days, too.

The advertising tactic of Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt (FUD) is based on undermining your trust in a competitor's product. I covered that tactic here, but the basic idea is to instill one or more of those three feelings in a consumer to sway their buying choices. Politicians use the same tactic to gain/retain power and have consultants who specialize in FUD, and polling and focus groups are how they judge the effectiveness of the consultants' work. Think of it as their version of going to the range to sight is a rifle: fire a shot or two, check the results, make adjustments, fire a few more, and repeat until you get results that make you happy.

Authority figures are important parts of influencing people. Look at the advertising and propaganda out there: anything that involves medicine will have people in white lab coats or hospital scrubs to invoke our trust in the medical professionals that we entrust with our health and lives. Titles and college degrees tacked on after a name used to show that a person had earned a level of trust, but that has been eroded over the last few decades. Religious leaders getting caught with their pants down or hands in the collection plates, medical doctors killing more people by malpractice (22,000 according to a recent Yale study) than are killed in homicides of all kinds (14,000 in 2019), and politicians just being politicians have tarnished that image of "trustworthy", but people still use authority figures to try to influence us. 

Authorities are human and will make mistakes. Many also suffer from inflated egos and a surplus of hubris, which can lead them to make proclamations outside their field of expertise. I've argued with engineers about things outside their field of study several times; just having a degree doesn't make you a god. I recall one of my earlier posts about using a 9V battery to charge a cell phone getting trashed on Facebook because some engineer didn't understand the concept of voltage regulators. Even though I did the work myself and showed all of the steps, this "authority" claimed it wouldn't work and I was wrong. It works and I have the evidence to refute this "authority".

The whole "appeal to authority" idea is so fraught with problems that is a recognized logical fallacy. Just because an "authority" claims something is true, that claim by itself is not evidence of truth. Most of us have grown past the "my mother said so" stage of debate and rely on evidence to make decisions, but there are a lot of grown-up children in the world. 

Since we can't all be experts in every field, you will need to trust others for some things. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses, look for trustworthy sources of information, and verify their claims to the best of your ability. Evidence beats experts every time in the real world.

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