Who should you trust and why?

Unthinkable: We should cut experts more slack for telling us what we don’t want to hear, says philosopher Lizzie Fricker

‘Trust me’: US president Donald Trump on the campaign trail.  Photograph: Steve Pope/Getty Images

‘Trust me’: US president Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Photograph: Steve Pope/Getty Images


We’re living in an age of distrust. Scandals in politics, policing, journalism and the church tempt us to think the worst of others.

Cynicism is rife, where it seems the only choice is to trust no one, or to trust anyone with a good enough sales pitch. Donald Trump knew what he was doing when he liberally sprinkled his campaign speeches with the promise: “Trust me”. If no one really believes anyone is straight all you gotta do is appear slightly less crooked than the next gal.

Of course there is an alternative. One can find a middle ground between blind faith and total distrust, and it’s here philosopher Lizzie Fricker has been working to try to establish the basis on which we can take someone at their word.

Fricker, a professor at Magdalen College, Oxford, has spent many years exploring how knowledge is created through personal testimony. On a recent visit to Dublin to take part in UCD’s “When Experts Disagree” project, she spoke to Unthinkable about this and other philosophical research she is doing. Rejecting the path of the cynic, she says: “We have no choice but to trust. However, we can be discriminating about whom we trust.”

How is knowledge created through testimony?

“When I tell you something I assume responsibility for what I tell you. So supposing you ask me, ‘Are there any Thai restaurants in Oxford?’ If I say, ‘Yes’ then I’ve given you my word on it; I am taking responsibility for what I am telling you. But if I say, ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ such and such then I’m signalling that I don’t actually know and you can’t take it from me.

“The flat out assertion – taking responsibility for its truth – is, as it were, offering you the right to believe something based on my say so. And that’s the basic means by which knowledge is spread. It starts off with first-hand telling but then it goes on to other sources - personal letters, written communications and then this explosion of media and social media.”

Can you avoid dependence on others?

“There is an idea in philosophy of the autonomous knower – that you should only trust what you can find out for yourself. That’s completely hopeless because it’s so out of touch with real life.

“But I do think we ought to be discriminating. It’s something you can learn; that’s why philosophy should be taught in schools. Critical thinking is a fundamental skill for citizens of modern society - training in how to be properly suspicious of news sources, and to discriminate between the sources of purported information being thrust at you all the time.

“There are elementary things you can do. If you are going to build an extension to your house you don’t just ask the first builder and get one quote; you get three quotes and you compare them. With a doctor, if one doctor tells you that you need a certain operation and it’s very expensive, you can get a second opinion.

“It’s not a completely fixed feature of human nature that we are gullible.

“However, there are different levels of dependence on others. If I say to you, ‘Is there any milk left in the fridge?’, and you say ‘Yes’, I could take your word but I could also check for myself. In this instance, my dependence on your word is very shallow.

“But if my doctor tells me I’ve got such and such a disease and I need such and such a treatment my dependence on their word is much deeper because I can’t easily go and check this is right. Even if I could see all the results of my tests I would not know how to interpret them.

“What I can do, however, is go up one level and evaluate the expert. One thing we are all more or less expert at is what might be called folk psychology – assessing other people’s motives and competencies.

“The internet has raised the problem of untrustworthy sources but it also gives you so many more sources to check. You might be able to find reviews of your doctor. You can look at his qualifications and track record, or whether he is accredited to a professional body.”

What has made experts so unpopular in recent times?

“I think the idea that all ‘so-called experts’ have bad motivations and shouldn’t be trusted is completely wrong and very dangerous. I don’t have any recipes for that but naturally I am on the sides of the experts. There is such a thing as genuine, disinterested expertise, and the modern world is incredibly complicated.

“It’s essential we are able to trust people with expert knowledge in a domain.

“I guess one thing is people like things to be black or white. They like to be told that climate change is happening or climate change isn’t happening; that nuclear power is safe or it’s not safe. The trouble is there are very few complex issues which are black or white.

“So a genuine disinterested expert is probably not going to give you an answer like ‘Yes, it’s completely safe’ or ‘No, it’s dangerous’; they are going to give you some probabilities and risks and also they are going to give you shades of grey.

“I think there’s a problem because people like certainty and definiteness. And, because that’s what they like, they think if experts aren’t producing it then the experts are no good. Also, if they see experts disagreeing they think that suggests there isn’t any genuine science there at all, and of course that just isn’t true.”

Another issue you’re researching is how technology is displacing human skills, and whether this is impacting on our sense of self-worth. Can you explain?

“Economists and social scientists are examining how the technological revolution will impact on jobs. I am interested in raising a different question: what does this mean for valuable human lives?

“Are we losing something valuable if we stop having to exercise skills because computers or robots are doing them instead? My prejudice is ‘Yes’.

“My thinking about this topic began with arguments I had with my children on using sat-navs because I didn’t like using them. I liked the idea of understanding where I was going and having the skill of using a map. And while I do now use a sat-nav, I still don’t like the image of someone with no mental map of their environment, or no understanding of their surroundings.

“I once had an operation and when I woke up afterwards I asked, ‘What’s the time? Where am I?’ I think having a mental map of one’s environment is very fundamental to agency and being in control of one’s life.

“There are some skills that make us agents in control of our lives. We would be living objectively worse lives if we gave up on these skills and just relied impassively on intelligent devices built by very clever people.

“That’s my prejudice, and this is very much research in progress. But I think these questions are very important to ask before we embrace all sorts of skills being taken over. I mean, would it be good if no one ever had to cook? If all meals in the future were prepared by robots would we be losing something?

“I think we need to ask these questions and get a debate going about what we think is valuable in life.”


Ask a sage:

Question: Young people today are so self-absorbed; do they need more disciplining?

Oscar Wilde replies: “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”

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