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Verify, but trust
It feels like we’re living in an age of declining trust. Trust in individuals, trust in institutions, trust in each other, trust that the future will be good for us. “Oh, you trust the experts?” has become, like, the perfect comeback in most debates about almost any subject - the economy, the Fed, vaccines, medicine, submarine rescues, almost everything.
There are facts and there is context and feels we live amidst an artificial scarcity of both.
Here’s our confidence in all institutions in the last few decades in the US. It’s the same for political and non-political institutions.
We’ve gained some confidence in our military, and sort of held strong for science, but pretty much across the board it’s a story of decline.
And even the military, if you think about it, is only a story of growth from the depths it fell to after Vietnam. Though, still, props for it holding up despite Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Some of it is due to polarisation, where institutions traditionally favoured by one party are seen as de facto wings of that party, and therefore less trusted by the other side.
If you think about the recent worries about wokeism in college campuses, one way to see it is that college campuses are Democrat focused and therefore the Republicans don’t trust it, which exacerbates the trust crisis since both blocs are equally powerful.
Or if you think about the Fed and their actions and the distrust seen regularly in the more right-wing pundit discourse, this too is an example of where an institution is seen as “unfriendly” to one side and therefore seen as untrustworthy by the other side.
This is probably best seen in the changes in how Independents viewed different institutions and how that changed.
But it’s not just institutions, people even trust each other less than they used to.
We’re atomised, with information being effectively free. We don’t need to trust people much any more, especially since we can already see or figure out most things without the need for trust.
It’s a big enough deal that we have a (had?) parallel financial system worth around $2 Trillion that tried to focus solely on systems which did all the same things except without requiring trust in any institutions or people.
Taking a loan out from a bank used to be primarily an act of trust, once upon a time, but that’s changed now. It’s made things fairer, sure, but it’s also made become impersonal, mechanical, and where trust has been made physical in the form of documents in triplicate.
The other side of trust is verification. When you take out a contract or check your bank account for a transaction you are verifying that things are working as they should.
Verification used to be pretty hard for most things. If you sent a letter you had to hope it reached its destination, not that long ago. If you sent money, the same thing. When I traveled to go to university, couple decades ago, my parents basically heard from me every month, unless I decided to email them and they decided to check, two big assumptions.
When it got easier though, we replaced more and more trust with verification. We can monitor our finances in real time. We can know what our employees are doing even when they're at home, especially when they're at home, if we so choose. We can get real-time information about anything and everything.
When you click a button to call a car to come pick you up and it gets the estimation wrong of how long it takes to get to you, in peak London traffic, we sigh at the incompetence.
(As an aside, crypto is the epitome of verification over trust, and this is a bit of a problem because it's also the most optimistic vision we’ve had in a while as it relates to using democracy to decide everything in our economy including running companies.)
Verification is like a slowly decaying gravitational field, in that it makes things which are unverifiable that exists around it seem less important.
Trust, but verify
As verification is made easy it’s made trust less directly relevant, less tangible. And as a reason we’ve both demonised trust as imprecise and undervalued it as a remnant of a less technologically advanced age.
In organisational effectiveness for instance, it’s widely recognised that trust is essential. But despite that recognition it’s incredibly difficult to translate it into practice.
Just like social media gets us addicted to our phones even when we don’t want it to, the culture of increased oversight and easy monitoring forces companies to measure minute-by-minute updates from their employees even when it’s worse.
The thing with trust based models was that it asked a lot of its people, and the institutions held our belief. In the absence, in a verification model, suspicion and skepticism are commonplace. This breeds division and isolation, since there’s that unshakeable feeling that you can’t rely on anything or anyone without proof.
29% of U.S. adults say they have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public, down from 40% who said this in November 2020. Similarly, the share with a great deal of confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests is down by 10 percentage points (from 39% to 29%), according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
Even a casual glance at public discourse shows that this is happening all over the place. I’m not arguing the merits, but it does seem widespread. We disbelieve the Fed, the banks, the doctors, the entire regulatory apparatus, the media, the corporations in general, immigrants, other countries, each other … the list is seemingly endless.
In fact much of the skepticism essentially use the words of famous scientists from the past who boldly trod new paths.
Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.
This, conveniently and reflexively, has been applied to everything and basically led all of us to stand in collective ignorance. The only thing we know is that nobody is to be trusted and nothing is for certain. Like freshman philosophy students everyone’s confused and nobody knows anything for sure.
Meanwhile an over-reliance on verification has made most of our society come to a grinding halt. Whether it’s multiple reviews for everything or bureaucratic triplicate showing up everywhere or the absurdities of calling into literally any organisation’s call center or the latest fight for be-in-the-office-physically-so-I-can-see-you-work with employees, verification rules our every action. Unless couched as an experiment or a bold innovation it’s anathema to say let’s try overseeing things a little less strictly.
Meanwhile the immediacy of information that surrounds us forces us to make instant judgements and keep updating them whenever anything happens.
The Ukraine war has seen multiple definitive judgements from multiple parties who all had strident predictions on the basis of facts they thought important, all of which turned out to be wrong across the board
Pretty much any political negotiation has monday morning quarterbacking from every political pundit or interested twitter feed on any topic
Every single economic update comes with reams of opinion from everyone on the veracity of the data, accuracy of the logic, need for further studies, opinions on the ignorance of the decision makers (or malice)
It might seem that the only alternative to this is the old trust-the-experts system. I don’t really think so. I think the systems of verification we’ve figured out are actually useful, just like I think social media is useful. Getting enthralled by them is the dangerous bit.
It’s useful and necessary to bring back trust into our lives, both at an interpersonal level, organisational level and a societal level. To get there, maybe we can start by starting to say out loud that which is anathema, that not everything needs to be measured at all times, and we can trust each other occasionally to do what’s needed without needing to heckle them from the back seat.