On Trust

During a recently conversation I told someone that I was reading a biography on Napoleon. Their response took me by surprise: “How can you trust that? it happened so long ago, and all reports on that subject are probably biased and/or incomplete.” I was taken aback, partly because this doubt had never entered my mind, and also I don’t really have a good answer as to why I trust the author, I just blindly chose to. Was I being ignorant? I panicked for a split second. But on a second thought, how terrible our lives would be, if we have to question every line in every book, and everything that people do?

Unlike most of humanities disciplines, the physical sciences are built upon first principles and universal laws. So naturally I don’t have trust issues, at least as far as science goes. It gives me comfort that everything I learn in physics classes can be derived from fundamental equations, so as long as the derivation checks out, I can accept the results as hard facts. But does that mean humanities are not to be trusted? I don’t agree with that one bit. It is probably true that in the case of Napoleon, despite a large volume of literature that is already devoted to him, there are still holes that the individual biographers have to filled in themselves, thus introducing bias. But I would still read this ever so slightly biased biography and learn about the fascinating character that is Napoleon, instead of dismissing all history books, citing their inherent bias.

I believe that there is a difference between trusting the truth, and trusting someone’s incentive, and their work as a result. So few things nowadays are strictly black or white, right or wrong. Outside the scope of science, it is nearly impossible to assign any universal truths, so I will now talk about trusting people by assessing the incentive behind their actions. In the case of historians, and other scholars who study and write about humanities, I trust their incentive in wanting to advance human knowledge and understanding in history, anthropology, etc. And since they are the ones who spent years digging through literature and I didn’t, I resign my doubt and absorb the information that they deem the most appropriate.

It is not to say that authority and knowledge alone is going to make me trust someone, because incentive is also an important, maybe even the more important criterium in my judgement. I have a hard time trusting news and media because I have seen how the left and right wing media outlets can narrate the same event from two opposite angles, as each news outlet is incentivized to bring more viewers to resonate with their version of the story and joint the political party that they represent, rather than providing sheer facts of a given event. Trusting either side fully and blindly will only taint your own opinion on the matter. In this case, I would advise to keep an open mind and read from as many angles as possible to try to gain a more complete picture on current events. Though sometimes I feel like it is not really possible unfortunately.

The criteria that I mentioned should also work in interpersonal relationships. Since I mentioned Napoleon earlier, let’s study his relationship with Josephine, more specifically, why she shouldn’t be trusted, and her having an affair with another man while Napoleon was away in Egypt. She knew how much Napoleon loved her, based on the frequency and the intensity of his love letters. She also knew that it was wrong to cheat and knew how it feels to be cheated on, because her first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais, cheated on her repeatedly. So why did she bring this pain onto her second husband? it can be argued that she was not strongly incentivized to be faithful. Firstly, she entered the marriage without a strong feeling for Napoleon, then he was gone for long stretches of time at war. So she was left unsupervised when Hippolyte Charles courted her. He was humorous and well dressed (unlike Napoleon), she was lonely and found Charles’ company enjoyable. A follow up question on this matter is, once the trust is broken, can it be repaired? In Napoleon’s case, while he didn’t end up divorcing her, their relationship was never the same, as he loved her less and went on to having his own mistresses as a revenge.

Humans are designed to trust one another, so that we don’t reinvent the wheel for the one millionth time, or live in isolation fearing getting hurt. I think trusting one another is a fundamental and beautiful human inclination, and we can live in such an advanced and civilized society thanks to the trust our ancestors had for others. I have designed a two-part model to assess the trustworthiness of an individual or an organization: 1. are they knowledgeable enough to carry out the task they set out to do, and 2. are they rightly and strongly incentivized. While the incentive part is tricky to analyze in many situations, and may require some due diligence, having a more complete picture of the situation will always be better than confronting the inevitable disappointment when the trust is broken.


One thought on “On Trust”

  1. Trust and Truth, two demands that are not always mutually compatible.
    But what is necessary for humans in their Public written Speech?

    The First Battle: The Truth and the Author (The Aesthetics)

    The first thought that came to my mind spontaneously when I read your text is the Platonic World of Ideas and the Cave Parable. Perhaps in Plato’s writings, it is the first time in world of philosophy that one thinks of humbly admitting that our lives coexist so sweetly, necessarily and tragically with another world.

    The legend of the Cave tells that in a cave, under the ground, there are some people chained in such a way that they can only see the wall opposite them. They can neither look back, nor right, nor left. Behind them, however, is a fire. Thus everything that manifests behind their backs is represented as a shadow on the wall opposite them. Because these people all their lives have only seen the shadows of things, they have the impression that the shadows they see on the wall are the things themselves. But if one of the chained people of the cave manages to free himself, get out of the cave and go up to earth and, under the sunlight now, see things, he will understand the delusion in which he lived while he was inside the cave. He will then realize that his companions, who are still chained in the cave, are still living immersed in illusions. It is even probable that if he will tell his companions the truth, they will hate him, ignore him or isolate hime.

    According to Plato, the free bondman is the philosopher, who sees the beings themselves, the ideas, and not their idols. His chained companions are the common people who, having become addicted to the deceptive representations of perceptible things, live, without knowing it, in the lie. Of course, for Plato, there is always the possibility of unblocking people in chains from their delusions. To achieve this, they need to break free from their chains. These symbolize their senses, which compel them to observe only the deceptive idols of ideas, of real beings. But instead of their senses they have to trust their mind.

    This is the first battle one has to fight with life itself. Imagine someone with the most kind incentives. His only motivation is to reproduce, describe the Truth itself with a pen in a text, as long as it is possible. The first battle to be fought is in the world of the senses and perception. It is a battle that every “public writer” must give, be defeated and reborn through.

    Our First duty is to realize how much the observer and descriptors influence the experiment. Not in the way that Quantum would come to tell us 20 centuries after Plato, but in a simpler, mental way. In the process of intellect, by definition of this process, each person passes every element of a scene from the image of the pragmatics, to the world of ideas. Every element of an image, from the elliptical table in the living room, to the rectangular carpet and the spherical lamp of the office, all acquire a “perfect ideal” representation. In this world of ideas, of perfect shapes, all the points of the spherical surface of the lamp are equidistant from the center. In this world of ideas we humans become bold, mathematically confident, overly bold and confident in drawing conclusions. And once the process of “intellect” is completed, the conclusion will return back to us to the actual world provoking a new “act”.

    But every person before trusting others, what he lived, experienced, read and observed
    His first duty is to accept that he is charmingly trapped in describing everything in the light of the prototype <>

    Unfortunately, at every step of this process, each of us lets our subjectivity disintegrate the
    “True Truth” and reconstruct it in a distorted form. To make a little humor, none of us knows what Napoleon smelled like to Josephine. In one hypothetical scenario, Napoleon could have stinked using a scent of a flower that is now extinct. Therefore, either when a writer-scholar or a reader nowadays reads about Napoleon’s hypothetical “aromatic misfortune”, he would connect it to the world of ideas in a very different form from the actual reality. A simpler example is two people experiencing a burn. If one of the two has already burned in the same spot in the past, the nerve cells may not have regenerated, so the second burn will never be felt. The absence of the senses will be able to convince him even that he was not burned, if he fails to recognize it by some other method.

    All that remains to win the first battle, then, is to accept that we are lost. You see, even if Manolis and Emma lived next to Napoleon, maybe their aesthetic world, the filters they formed in their development, did not allow them to experience history with the same words.

    The Second Battle: The Author and the Audience (Ethics)

    And as soon as we accept that everything you perceive is filtered, processed and hanged by the truth and more married to our own life, the second battle begins: The battle of honesty. My second thought sprang from an observation by Umberto Eco in one of his first essays on journalism. Uberto Echo states that “objective journalism can not exist, the only thing that can exist is honest journalism.”

    I think that journalism, or historiography, are excellent examples of what we would call the general term “communication and transmission of human facts and views.” Unfortunately, it seems that they are cursed as concepts to engage in disbelief and truth. And that’s where the ethics debate begins. Starting with the basics, we have to admit that public speech, like any activity, is not practiced in a vacuum. Journalists, Historians or Social Scientists are (although some disagree) people who, like everyone else, have their own perceptions, ideology and personality. In other words, everything they transmit or analyze is “distorted” through the perspective from which they see and perceive things.

    Apart from the human (the journalist admitted that he is a human being like everyone else) subjective factor that mediates between the event and the reader / listener / viewer, the news, the past events, the truths, is doomed to suffer the distortion imposed by the point of view (ie the line or the interests) of the Instrument which presents it. This, whether we like it or not, is the context in which all those involved in the “circuit” of information seek / claim our position. It is in this context that the public is obliged to choose what suits them and to judge.

    Yes, the journalist can not really be objective. He can, however, be honest. Is enough:
    ● Do not distort her perceived truth even more.
    ● Not to have a secret (press offices of ministries, organizations, parties) boss.
    ● Not to bargain with the government for his job (how many and how many jobs are secured by party nominations and credentials?).
    ● To submit his comment and point of view to reality, which he should first and foremost project before analyzing it.

    The above self-evident and minimal for a clean and honest journalistic/descriptive activity is obvious that lately they have been scanned by the expediencies of those who manage the media (the private and unfortunately the public), placing them next to those who support and against others who they fight. In such a suffocating context, it is natural for the… appropriate authors/writers/scientists- pistols to sprout and thrive, offering their services free of charge, giving a stigma to an entire industry, which has finally surrendered and is sinking into the mire of disrepute…

    For the second battle, victory is humiliatingly easy.
    So the most mature thing a scientist, a journalist, a public-writer has to do at the beginning and end of his story is to admit who he is. The only ethical act in formulating our personal truth is to stand morally in front of our audience and accept that every word has passed from the heart, our pocket, our fears, our cries. But are we humans ready every time we describe our personal truth, to confess to the reader and all the selfish, political, social motives that prompted us to write this text?


    Epilogue: I think that having always in my mind those two fights (against my perception limits and my individual incentives) I can never be afraid of a writer who comes telling me her own truth together with her incentives, weaknesses.

    At the end of the day, the trust is earned when the actions meet the words.

    Looking back to the proclaimed superiority of the “exact sciences” like maths, physics, chemistry, I think that I trust them because they are so ready to self-nullify their structure if a simple counter-example disproves their theories. And while science must make some assumptions, such as the idea that we can trust our senses, explanations and conclusions are accepted only to the degree that they are well founded and continue to stand up to scrutiny.

    In other words, I think I trust physical sciences…because they do not trust their dogmas


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