Trust, Authority, and Institutions: A Way Forward (Part I)

image of stack of newspapers

If there is a silver lining to the deep political divisions affecting our country and much of the world, it’s that many of us are doing more serious political reflection, and engagement, than we have in the past. And we can do it with the help of advances in our scientific knowledge.

Recently, I came across two different articles that speak to our work at Ask Big Questions.

We’ve known for some time that trust in institutions has declined over the last fifty years. Robert Putnam’s magnum opus, Bowling Alone, which is now nearly twenty years old, brought this phenomenon into sharp relief. Other social scientists have shown how this trend is cross-cultural and cross-institutional: It doesn’t matter if we’re talking the media or Congress, or whether it’s in the United States or other countries. Across the globe, we have become distrustful of our institutions.

Bill Bishop, co-author with Robert Cushing of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, wrote about the trend this week in the Washington Post. He theorizes that the reasons for this distrust are deep and systemic: “Everything about modern life works against community and trust,” he writes. Globalization, mechanization, innovation: All of these forces, which bear tremendous goods, are fundamentally built on valuing the new over the old. “Our economy rewards initiative over conformity, so that the weight of convention and tradition doesn’t squelch the latest gizmo from coming to the attention of the next Bill Gates.”

Like social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Bishop argues that modern Western society is built on valuing the individual over the group. And as I have written previously, the conceptual move that made room for the Enlightenment to occur is rooted in the move of doubt and suspicion. No two words better sum up the seeds of modernity than these: Question authority. As Bishop writes, “We have become, in Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s description, ‘artists of our own lives,’ ignoring authorities and booting traditions while turning power over to the self.”

None of this is new information. What’s really interesting to me, however, is when we couple these observations with recent developments in cognitive science. In another recent article, researchers Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman take up this timely question for a world of #alternativefacts: Why do we believe obvious untruths? Their answer: Because knowledge happens socially.

Fernbach and Sloman remind us that the distinctive feature of the human brain is not our ability to reason, which chimpanzees can do better than young children. Rather, it’s our ability to do work collectively, to collaborate: “Hunting, trade, agriculture, manufacturing — all of our world-altering innovations — were made possible by this ability… Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats.”

That ability turns out to have some hard-wiring implications for our neural circuitry. “You know that the earth revolves around the sun. But can you rehearse the astronomical observations and calculations that led to that conclusion? You know that smoking causes cancer. But can you articulate what smoke does to our cells, how cancers form and why some kinds of smoke are more dangerous than others? We’re guessing no. Most of what you ‘know’ — most of what anyone knows — about any topic is a placeholder for information stored elsewhere, in a long-forgotten textbook or in some expert’s head.”

The key here is that we rely on the feeling of understanding to legitimate our knowledge. And that can have positive and negative consequences. On the plus side, it allows us to distribute labor. By trusting the expertise of others, we can engage in those great collective enterprises that distinguish our species. On the negative side, it means that we often don’t interrogate the sources of knowledge on which we rely, and our social need to trust some source of information leads us to being suckers for untruths.

Which brings me to the line that made my eyes pop: “The sense of understanding is contagious,” write Fernbach and Sloman. “The understanding that others have, or claim to have, makes us feel smarter.”

Our tagline at Ask Big Questions is: Understand Others. Understand Yourself. We have always maintained that those two types of understanding go hand-in-hand, that they are fundamentally inseparable. We come to understand ourselves in community with others. And it would seem cognitive science supports that claim.

And this brings us back to the question of trust, institutions, and authority. If the seeds of our modern age lie in a fierce independence, valuing the new and individual over the old and communal, and yet our neurobiology demands that we trust one another, it isn’t hard to see how we wound up where we are: a state in which we trust sources of information (because we have to), but distrust those who don’t trust those same sources; a state whereby we grant authority to those who seem to share that information-trust zone, and delegitimize the authority of those who don’t.

What’s the way forward? I’ll write more next week.

Update: Read part II here.