Who do you trust? And why?

“In God we trust”, or so they say. Nice, if you truly believe that there is some kind of all-knowing, all-powerful being out there who has your best interests at heart, and who can send you signs telling you what is going on. If you don’t believe any of this (and I don’t), then who can you trust? And where can you go to get information that you know is accurate?

Not this blog, that’s for sure.

Not that I would intentionally lie to you, I want to make that clear. But this blog gives my opinion, and those of others who comment on it. Some of this will be backed up by fact. But if you want real, true, hard facts, a blog is the wrong place to go looking for them.

Ok, so you don’t go to a blog. But maybe you look for the answer on the internet? Use a famous search engine or ask a question in a forum. Maybe you look up the answer in a book, or ask a friend. You could ask a teacher, a doctor, a librarian, a scientist or other expert, depending on what your question is about. You could watch a TV programme about it. Or stop someone on the street and ask them.

What I am trying to get at is that obviously there are very many places you could go to get answers to your question. Some of these are probably more trustworthy that others – would you take the answer given to you by a passer-by over that of a teacher? Probably not. But most people would tend to believe their friend over a random stranger. Even if, unbeknownst to them, the random stranger might actually be a top expert in that very subject, whereas their drinking pal is not. It’s probably human nature, we spend time with people we like, we trust them more. We surround ourselves with people who we like and who have similar backgrounds, training, and beliefs to ourselves. And we trust these people over strangers. Which in the end means we trust our own judgement over that of others.

I’ve had countless conversations about various “non-scientific” groups such as climate change deniers and religious groups. Some members of these groups claim that belief is more important than what you can tell from the evidence. This is an inherently unscientific claim as all good scientists know that your hypothesis must be testable and you arrive at it by making educated guesses (inferences) based on your observations. If there is no evidence there is no  inference and no hypothesis to test. But it is not necessarily wrong – there may be things happening in the world for which we (currently) have no reliable evidence. Personally though, I would tend to regard ideas for which there is evidence as being more likely to be correct than beliefs for which there is no evidence.  

Another important side of this is whether you can or should believe someone when they tell you something. Governments tell their people something and expect them to believe and obey – like the Japanese government right now telling the people it is all safe and not to panic. Advertisers tell you that their product is best. Scientists tell you not to believe in ghosts. Your doctor tells you to cut down on fat. Your friend tells you it’s all a big consipracy and not to believe any of them. So who do you believe, and why?

Some people or agencies have earned our respect previously, by doing good work or by making pronouncements that have subsequently been proven to be truthful (particular charities). Some have a more mixed history (governments). Some we just want to believe because the alternative is too awful (climate change deniers).

As a scientist I want to engender trust in science and other scientists. I believe that, in general, what is peer-reviewed and published represents the best of our knowledge about a subject. (I say in general because, as many of us know, peer review and publication do not guarantee trustworthiness – think cold fusion, etc). I put my trust in the community-based checking mechanisms that ensure that only the truth is put out there. If I see a news story about science, I ask “where has this come from, where are the papers published?” and until I know the answer, I reserve judgement. Well mainly, anyway. As a human, if I see a story I want to believe, and think is likely, I will probably believe it anyway, especially if it comes from a source I trust. Except the BBC on April Fool’s Day.

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6 Comments on “Who do you trust? And why?”

  1. Dave Harrison Says:

    Essentially this comes down to philosophy (doesn’t it always?) and epistemology. Traditionally knowledge is defined as Justified True Belief. For you to know something it has to be true, you have to believe it and you have to be justified in believing it. Justification though seems to be something that allows of degrees (unlike the other elements) and always begs the question of how do we know that we are justified in believing this? An infinite regress threatens us.

    The scientific method justifies itself by pointing out previous successes but as with any other groups the failures are often ignored. Yet science typically progresses through failures – when a theory fails to explain phenomena we change the theory. Other belief systems deal with failure in other ways. So if you’re asking who you should trust, maybe you should look at how they deal with their failures or when they don’t have the answers to guide you.

  2. sciencecarol Says:

    Apparently, though, some people don’t need a justification as to why they believe something, and just the belief is enough. I can’t understand this attitude at all.

    Who am I to argue with a philospher? I have learned the folly of trying to do this in the past! But I am not sure I agree that scientific method justifies itself based on previous successes alone (though probably certain scientists do justify themselves in this way!). Surely the observe-infer-hypothesise-test-evaluate routine we learn in school, the basis of the scientific method, allows for failure as well as success? I do agree that failures are important and shouldn’t be ignored, but I think this is a subject for another posting!

  3. Dave Harrison Says:

    I don’t want to come across as saying that it is only previous successes that validates the scientific method but it is a large part of it. The scientific method is very concerned with repeatable tests/experiments. The scientific method doesn’t accept one experiment/test as proof/knowledge – it requires repeated testing.

    I feel that how it deals with failures is a defining feature of the scientific method that sets it apart from religious explanations and psuedo-scientific theories.

    • sciencecarol Says:

      I definitely think failure is an interesting concept within science, and one that I have been meaning to cover for some time, so watch this space….

      One success proves something is possible, and the repeats are to show that a) the experiment was carried out correctly and therefore the observations are valid and b) it is a likely result. Infinite successive failures with no successes in beween surely show that something is either not likely or not possible?

  4. Russell Says:

    Do you trust the Christmas issue of the BMJ more or less than the BBC on April 1st? I think this paper:

    Leibovici, L. (2001). Effects of remote, retroactive intercessionary prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomized controlled trial. British Medical Journal, 323:1450-1451.

    …nicely highlights that you always need to question facts and scientific statements – even if they’re published in scientific journals. I trust scientific papers far more than, news reports, press conferences or adverts but then my scientific training has contributed to my prejudices. Is there any evidence you’d accept for prayer or retroactive prayer? I think I’d always struggle with this and look for a methodological flaw, but substitute “new drug” for “retroactive prayer” in an otherwise perfect paper (the above example isn’t) and I’d be quite happy.

    • sciencecarol Says:

      Definitely, you should question peer-reviewed work too. But bearing in mind that the people who have checked it are generally more of an expert in the area than you are, so just because you can’t get your head around it doesn’t mean it is tosh. The people who have checked news stories (even on the BBC ;-)) are usually no more of an expert than you are so correspondingly confidence in them is lower.

      Of course, reputation comes in to it too. BBC and the BMJ are both brands with reputation to lose.

      You said it about your scientific training contributing to bias – and mine. But people who are not trained in this way may well believe what they hear in adverts or read on the web as much as what their doctor tells them. This worries me.

      As to your question about evidence I would accept for prayer working – scientifically if multiple randomised controlled trials were carried out with very specific “prayers” and shown to be beneficial then maybe I would have to start believing it. For the moment I think this is unlikely to happen. My main problem here is that if the prayers didn’t work then “it was not God’s will”, whereas if it works, then the prayers have helped. If there were a God, why should he/she/it respond to prayers anyway?

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