Whom do You Trust?

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Whom or what do you trust? I suggest that this is one of the central questions for living in the 21st century.

What information to you accept as authentic so as to guide you in responding to the difficulties of this century. Most people are in data overload. For example, if I do a Google search on any given topic, I will almost certain find a million hits (in 0.98 seconds!), and I won’t know what “hit” to trust.

Yet I am frequently aware of how tenuous is my grasp of the complexity of modern life. More and more I rely on others to provide me with accurate assessments (and that they are relying further on others to provide them with accurate assessments). It is such a conundrum.

Over the past hundred years, we have begun to reach the limits of our current form of civilization based on power, technology, and consumerism. There has been huge inequity in how we treat ourselves as human beings, and huge duplicity in the many examples of greed and mismanagement (on my earlier post Reflections On Hope, Part 1, I listed many examples).

So what is there to do, especially when many people now are at risk of burnout as we confront the issues of global warming. And global warming is only the symptom of the many issues to be resolved.

The TIC Process

The current way in which most people validate new information is to use what is called a TIC process. They translate (T) the new information into language they can understand more easily, they interpret (I) into their own system of meaning, and then they corroborate (C) this meaning with groups that they already trust. For example, if I want to process information about new electric cars, I translate (T) the information into my current understanding of cars, think about (I) what cars mean to me, and then go ask (C) my friends what they think about electric cars.

That can work well for many simple issues. But it falls down in a number of ways.

  • Human beings respond best to issues that develop quickly — witness how quickly we respond to fires and/or tsunamis. However, the development of climate change is so slow that, from year to year, it is difficult to convince oneself that there has been a change. It is therefore hard to recognize to what extent we live in dangerous times. And if I ask others to corroborate, they are in the same dilemma.
  • Another factor is the process of pluralistic ignorance, a situation wherein an individual (often the majority of people) privately rejects a norm or behavior, but incorrectly assume that most others accept it, and therefore the individual goes along with the behavior so as to “fit in.”

For example, if I see someone lying on the side of the street, and simultaneously note that passersby are simply walking around the individual, I am also highly likely to walk around also — I will assume the person is drunk or some such. But what may have actually happened is that the first person to respond simply assumed that the individual was drunk, and walked by. Then the second person saw this, and also walked by, and so on, creating a cascade effect in which a person having a stroke or seizure (or other) is ignored.

As human beings, we are very reluctant to step out of our preconditioned responses. In Public Perception of Future Threats to Humanity …, the research indicates “a majority (54%) rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, and a quarter (24%) rated the risk of human beings being wiped out at 50% or greater.” Yet where is the massive social response?

  • Then, to what extent is my trusted group knowledgeable or biased? Consider the issues about Donald Trump — I will get very different answers of those I ask depending upon their political background. Politics is such a diverse field that it is difficult to get useful corroboration.

Combine all this with the disinformation scandals (the tobacco industry, the agribusiness industry, the fossil fuel industry, et cetera) that have been propagated over the past fifty years, then it is no wonder that we have such a slow response to global warming. Our world has become so complex.

We need a different way of evaluating information. For example, Steven Pinker in The World is Not Falling Apart (2014 Dec 22) suggests that “an evidence-based mindset on the state of the world would bring many benefits.” There is some truth in this, but in my many years of being a physician, I have seen too many examples of misrepresentation in so-called “evidence-based medical practice.” It is an accurate truism for me that “believing is seeing,” not “seeing is believing.”

In the next post, I will discuss what I myself trust.

To be continued.

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