This probably belongs on the blog for my How to Think, but since I haven’t started blogging there yet, I’ll just go ahead and put it here.

As I’ve said many times, Tim Burke is one of the bloggers — I guess blogging isn’t wholly dead, it’s just mostly dead, like Westley when he’s taken to Miracle Max — who really helps me think, so it’s sad (if understandable) to hear his tone of discouragement here. “I don’t know what to do next, nor do I have any kind of clear insight about what may come of the moment we’re in.” Sounds like something I’ve thought myself.

But then he picks himself up and makes a useful contribution to a problem that a good many people are worrying over these days, which is why so many people believe so many things that aren’t true — or, to put the problem in one form that I’ve written about before, why so many people mistrust expert judgment. Tim:

First, let’s take the deranged fake stories about a pizza restaurant in Washington DC being a center of sex trafficking. What makes it possible to believe in obvious nonsense about this particular establishment? In short, this: that the last fifty years of global cultural life has revealed that public innocence and virtue are not infrequently a mask for sexual predation by powerful men. Bill Cosby. Jimmy Savile. Numerous Catholic priests. On and on the list goes. Add to that the fact that one form of feminist critique of Freud has long since been validated: that what Freud classed as hysteria or imagination was in many cases straightforward testimony by women about what went on within domestic life as well as within the workplace lives of women. Add to that the other sins that we now know economic and political power have concealed and forgiven: financial misdoings. Murder. Violence. We may argue about how much, how often, how many. We may argue about typicality and aberration. But whether you’re working at it from memorable anecdotal testimony or systematic inquiry, it’s easy to see how people who came to adulthood in the 1950s and 1960s all over the world might feel as if we live on after the fall, even if they know in their hearts that it was always thus…. The slippery slope here is this: that at some point, people come to accept that this is what all powerful men do, and that any powerful man – or perhaps even powerful woman – who professes innocence is lying. All accusations sound credible, all power comes pre-accused, because at some point, all the Cosbys and teachers at Choate Rosemary Hall and Catholic priests have made it plausible to see rape, assault, molestation everywhere.

Tim then gives other examples to illustrate his key point, which is, if I may summarize, that people who believe things that clearly aren’t true, that seem to us just crazy, actually may have good cause to adopt, if not those particular beliefs, then a habit of suspicion that leads to such beliefs. To which I’ll add an example of my own.

Recently I was listening to an episode of the BBC’s More or Less podcast which discussed what some researchers call the “backfire effect”: the tendency that most of us have to double down on our beliefs when they’re challenged or even simply refuted. (The most influential study is this one.) An example given in the podcast is the belief that vaccinations cause autism, and Tim Harford and his guests point out that when parents are shown there there is no link whatsoever between vaccination and autism, rather than agreeing to vaccinate their children they simply fall back on other reasons for refusing to vaccinate. Harford mentions that one such reason is the belief that vaccines are promoted by a medical profession in collusion with the big international pharmaceutical companies to sell us drugs we don’t need — and then they move on without comment, as though they’ve clearly demonstrated just how irrational such people are.

But hang on a minute: isn’t that a legitimate worry? Don’t we actually have a good deal of evidence, over the past few decades, of unhealthy alliances between the medical profession and Big Pharma leading to some drugs being favored over others that might work better, or over non-drug treatment? And haven’t these controversies often focused on the exploitation of parents’ worries in order to overmedicate children — as with the likely overuse of Ritalin?

No, I’m not an anti-vaxxer, I’m a pro-vaxxer. And the anti-vaxxers are definitely making a logical error here, which is to generalize too broadly from particulars. But those parents who think “I suspect doctor-pharma collusion and so will decline to vaccinate, while also taking advantage of herd immunity” are not ipso facto any less rational than those who think “Doc says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

The key point here is that the hermeneutics of suspicion is not a train that you can stop, even if you wish you could; nor should it stop, given what Tim Burke points out: the horrifying record of abuse of power by people who wield it. But that train needs brakes to slow it down sometimes, and one of the key topics we all should be reflecting on is this: What could the leading institutions of American life do to renew trust in their basic integrity? As Tim suggests, there’s no evidence that the Democratic Party — or for that matter any other major American institution — is giving any discernible attention to this question.

Text Patterns

April 19, 2017


  1. Where you end here is the important point: to understand that trust and respect must now be projects requring novel and ongoing labor. That too is something that the generation who came of age up to the 1960s took for granted: that authority and power did and should demand or expect trust as their due. (Earlier generations of Americans would have begged to differ.) And the people who went into politics or the leadership of civic organizations and companies who came of age in that moment or who stayed aloof from the social movements that rightly voiced their mistrust of authority and power are now the generation at the pinnacle of our power structures and thus they do not still really grasp the need for a radical regeneration of trust and respect, nor do they really know what they would need to do to initiate that.

  2. Very well said, Tim. I think we might add that political figures and leaders of big corporations alike make decisions based on the advice of two kinds of professionals: lawyers and brand management experts. And none of those people even know how to speak the languages of trust and mutual respect. The imperatives of legal CYA and public self-presentation leave no room for the moral and personal questions we are raising.

  3. Strikes me as a strong argument for more inclusive public institutions, such that previously victimized (and highly suspicious) citizens claim their rightful space in civic discourse.

  4. Sounds like a lot of these ideas (or related ideas) can be found in
    Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter's "When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World." NY: Harper Torchbooks. 1964.

    They point out: "5. The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct." (3-4)

  5. Carlos: Your comment raises the question of whether trust can be rebuilt without leaders of institutions being willing to cede at least some control of them to those outside the power structures who are affected by those leaders' decisions. An uncomfortable question, because I think the answer is No; and I can't imagine too many leaders being willing to cede such control.

    C.L., perhaps you'll be pleased to know that When Prophecy Fails plays a significant role in my forthcoming How to Think.

  6. I appreciate reading along here. I think what Alan said most recently about ceding control is key. We don't have a language for voluntary vulnerability (which I like Andy Crouch's definition that vulnerability means being willing to change, not just expecting change of others), but moreso we don't have any incentive for it. In an industrialized culture that lionizes speed and effectiveness (usually at the expense of care and excellence), there's no endgame for vulnerability and ceding power. But, there's also no endgame for the weak and oppressed to embrace vulnerability because we're all told it should be power or bust.

    And, one wonders, if the guilt over abusing power makes people unwilling to hand it over for fear abuse will be returned to them. It's like Hannah Arendt says, forgiveness is the only novel action otherwise it's all wounding and retribution for ever amen. But, with forgiveness, we're back to vulnerability.

  7. Is trust something that institutions directly build with people? Or does trust flow downstream from more fundamental connections between institutions and people? (e.g. from people trusting others who strongly identify with those institutions)

    How is mistrust related to growing demographic inequality and segregation?

    It's one thing to ask what institutions can do. What can concerned individuals do?

    I was really struck by some of your blog posts about public amateurism, and I wonder if this sort of role is a trust-building one, especially in a world full of mistrusted-experts. I've been reading D'Ambrosio's Loitering, and the intro reminds me of your posts: “A good essay seemed to question itself in a way that a novel or short story did not…It was a forum for self-doubt, for an attempt whose outcome wasn’t assured.”

  8. The dominant elite strategy to show trust and respect is to police potentially offensive speech, but when combined a hermeneutic of suspicion, this often only leads to an assumption of hypocrisy. I lived in Toronto during the tenure of the notorious Rob Ford. He enjoyed strong support among poor, suburban blacks, despite a variety of racist comments. Several of his black supporters said that they disliked his racism, but they assumed that more mainstream candidates were equally racist, but hid it.

  9. I think there's an agent/patient vector that factors-in here, too. I'm a pro-vaxxer and (my wife and I) had both our kids vaccinated, but with our oldest it happened at the height of anti-vax hysteria, and it was hard. We read about the subject and talked to our doctor and worried about possible consequences, and we went ahead, and I'm glad we did: but at the time I was struck that we were actively doing something to our baby, and if that had had bad consequences then those consequences would have been our fault. Anti-vaxxers are passively not doing something to their babies, and if that results in bad consequences (as there is greater chance it will) then the individual liability is diluted by that fact, on that spectrum running from God’s Will to Providence to shit-happens. To be clear: I think that parents have an absolute duty to take active responsibility for their kids rather than just passively letting things slide and hoping for the best, but I sometimes wonder if culture and society and politics hasn’t become increasingly passive-reactive. The internet encourages this: read a tweet, post a tweet, engagement ends. Take the pizza restaurant conspiracy theory example, the big difference here surely is between that one guy who actually turned up at the pizzeria with a gun, and who looks like a prime nutter, and the many people who read about the pizzeria and shrugged and thought to themselves ‘yeah, makes sense, people in power are always abusing little kids’ and went on to the next story. Reading interviews with Trump supporters post election often strikes me this way: they’re happy their guy won, and if presented with possible negative consequences—he’ll take away your health insurance, your food banks will be closed—the reaction is never ‘oh no!’, it’s more a shrug, ‘whatever’, or maybe ‘nah, it’ll be alright, things’ll carry on pretty much as before’. And Trump himself is shaping up to be a President -patient not a President-agent, King Log rather than King Stork, always on the golf course at his Florida resort.

  10. Adam, I think you've made a really useful contribution here. About Trump: people have long said about him that he believes whatever he was told by the last person he talked to, and that fits your President-patient theory. A telling example: he's been saying for a long time that China can and must control North Korea, but last week, after a ten-minute conversation with the Chinese premier, he came away saying "It's more complicated than that." And so the position he had been banging on about for a long time has disappeared.

    Surely this is not a phenomenon confined to Trump; there's something about the state of constant stimulation that we live in that does this, to some degree, to all of us.

    In one of his books Oliver Sacks talks about seeing someone on the streets who had what Sacks called "Super-Tourette's," which took the form of involuntary imitation of the facial expressions of the people she passed on the street. She would struggle along for a while and then duck into an alleyway or some other quiet place and then disgorge, in a series of rapid convulsions, the expressions of the last twenty or thirty people she had passed. That's an image of life on Twitter, it seems to me.

  11. What a vivid image! And yes, Twitter is surely the very epitome of this. Say you believe in women's rights (defined however you like). The active way to pursue that is to get out into the world, talk to people about it, to join community organisations and pressure groups, maybe to join a political party and try to get into a position where you can legislate and so on. The passive way is to police the way people talk about gender on Twitter. This latter approach gives you the satisfaction that you're 'doing something', but without any real effort or risk to you. It's hardly surprising that many people prefer the latter, and a grand narrative that says 'politicians are all corrupt' or 'politics never changes anything' only reinforces that.

  12. The active way…The passive way…

    Do we know that people are more passive than in the past? Couldn't it be that more people are passive in public (and perhaps masquerading as active advocates)? I find it somewhat hard to believe that people are more lazy now than in the past. I do find it easier to believe that the vast passive majority now gets to give voice to their passivity.

  13. I wonder if the language of “pro” and “anti” for expert opinion on inherently complex issues (vaccines, climate change, “Science”…) doesn’t at least in some small measure contribute to the problem of trust, as it reflects and supports the idea that expert opinion is monolithic. While it’s true that institutions sometimes act monolithically (say, the CDC when it offers its guidelines), the expert advice on which these actions are based is often less unambiguous (as is the question of who’s an expert). But thinking about “pro” and “anti” in these cases seems to increase the chances that when an institution fails, suspicion of the whole caste of card-carrying experts looks to many like a logical choice. It’s true that it’s illogical to generalize too broadly from particulars, but the particulars are harder to see when “pro” and “anti” seem to be the only options.

  14. Adam,

    The passive/active distinction seems really helpful. The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services suggests that one in a million vaccine doses results in a serious vaccine injury. Those are, of course, extraordinarily low odds (even if one takes into account that each individual receives many doses, and the numbers don't include unclaimed injuries). But human beings are not particularly good at acting upon risk-reward odds, particularly in larger numbers (i.e. the lottery), and the idea that you would be increasing, however insignificantly, your child's risk of serious injury X can be hard to stomach–regardless of how much not acting might increase your child's risk of contracting diseases Y and Z.


    Thanks for that link. The post on "anti-science" was quite interesting, especially the close: 'So while the “anti-science trope” currently lacks any empirical foundation, asserting it anyway might well help to foster the sorts of public divisions that inform other issues in which dueling partisans hurl the "anti-science" epithet at one another.'

    That is highly interesting.

    It seems like the major tactic in dealing with anti-vaxxers is to (a) reiterate the safety of vaccines, as attested by the CDC and (b) engage in ostracism/shunning/shaming. Those tactics, of course, are not intended to convince anti-vax people but rather to discourage potential "vaccine hesitant" people from becoming anti-vaccine. Is that effective? Perhaps the Cultural Cognition Project will provide the answer.

Comments are closed.