Trust vs Faith

The Role of Authority


The world has gotten so complicated in the past century that we no longer have the expertise to evaluate the advice we are given.

We examine below several areas that affect most of us on a personal basis:

Health

The rapid advances in medicine over the past century have led to treatments for a wide variety of conditions that were hopeless before. New drugs and surgical techniques improve the quality of life of millions everyday. So we go to the doctor with some problem and we get a recommendation for treatment. This recommendation itself is partly based on the doctor's own experience and partly based upon information provided to the doctor by medical journals, drug companies and continuing education.

When we accept the recommendation we must use a certain amount of trust which in turn is based upon the trust practiced by the doctor in the sources that provide him with information. If we want to research the recommendation ourselves can we actually intelligently evaluate the claims and warnings provided? Not only are they of a statistical nature, but usually involve highly specialized vocabulary as well.

Sometimes we get a second opinion. What happens if they disagree? Ultimately we are forced to adopt a course of action not directly based upon the underlying information. We must just trust the advice given and hope for the best.

In a sad example of how this works I refer readers to the New York Times of June 25, 2005 front page story on autism and this ongoing story.

There is a widespread belief that the mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines caused autism. The fact that studies of up to 125,000 children have been conducted with no correlation does not faze the believers. The prefer to turn instead to various "remedies".

I think the situation is best summarized in these quotes from the story:

"This is like nothing I've ever seen before," Dr. Melinda Wharton, deputy director of the National Immunization Program, told a gathering of immunization officials in Washington in March. "It's an era where it appears that science isn't enough."

and:

"It's really terrifying, the scientific illiteracy that supports these suspicions," said Dr. Marie McCormick, chairwoman of an Institute of Medicine panel that examined the controversy in February 2004.

and finally:

"It doesn't seem to matter what the studies and the data show," said Ms. Ehresmann, the Minnesota immunization official. "And that's really scary for us because if science doesn't count, how do we make decisions? How do we communicate with parents?"

Here we have an example of how even overwhelming public health evidence can not be evaluated unambiguously by some people. In many other cases the medical evidence is less clear cut, making the evaluation even more difficult.

Finance

For financial advice the situation is in some respects even worse. The only objective measure that we can usually use is to look at how well the advisor did in the past. But as the ads always say: "prior results don't predict future returns". In addition, at any given time, there are always people suggesting exactly opposite strategies. One says inflation is increasing, buy stocks. Another says inflation is under control, buy bonds. In fact most self-directed plans by small investors do worse that the market averages. And remember that even for popular investments like average-based mutual funds half do worse than average.

One of the overlooked truisms of investing is that if someone comes up with a technique that consistently beats the others than it will be copied and soon lose it's effectiveness. Thus there can never be a magic bullet, at least for long. Another thing to remember is that if a investment choice is so wonderful why is the advisor telling you about it instead of keeping the information to himself and making a killing?

Politics

Politicians and their spokesmen provide analysis of the causes the problems and then offer proposed solutions. In many cases opposing camps attribute the same conditions to completely opposite causes. High unemployment is caused by high taxes, or is caused by too low taxes which leads to insufficient investment. Let's suppose we believe one point of view and vote for that policy. Once the person gets elected we have no guarantee that they will pursue the course of action they promised anyway.

So we are forced to support a candidate both on untestable assertions and unenforceable promises. No wonder demeanor and personality are stressed so much in political campaigns.

Commerce

Every day we are bombarded by advertising claims from various businesses. People are taught at an early age that much of these claims are either exaggerated, misleading or false. One of the favorite techniques is the incomplete comparative, as in: "Works Better" (than what?). This disregard for the trust of the consumer extends into the business practices of the firms as well. Thus we get corporate press releases about the benefits of various corporate policies, ranging from environmental concerns to tax policy. Relations with investors are also subject to misleading information as the number of stockholder and SEC settlements and fines over the past five years testifies to. Promises to employees and retirees are another area where the authority of the firm has to be evaluated, especially in terms of long-term viability and proper fiduciary responsibility in its investments on behalf of its workers.

If the corporation wants to be treated as the equivalent of a person as far as the law is concerned, it is proper to evaluate it as an authority in its areas of participation.

Religion

All religions depend on appeals to authority as a justification for their beliefs and dogmas. Since there is no contemporary, unambiguous, way to demonstrate the claims of supernaturalism, citations to prior authorities are used as the primary means of justification. Thus we get the words of the founders or prophets as well as commentaries from others gathered into various foundational books. Modern religious leaders cite some special connection with the past as the source of their present authority.

Difficulties arise from both the conflicting claims of competing contemporary religions as well as from discrepancies within the dogma of each religion itself. People who are dissatisfied with some aspect of their current religious affiliation often switch to another that they find more in keeping with their own view of the world.

Given this degree of unknowability in the world it seems unsurprising that a majority of people would take the statements of religious leaders as trustworthy. The rest of our world is too complicated for surety, so why not belief in the supernatural as well.

Evaluating Authority

With so much uncertainty in the world how can we decide what to believe?

There seem to be several tests that can be applied:

Expertise

The source of the information should have the right background. For medical advice the person should be a credentialed practitioner in this area. This also means evaluating the source of the credential. In most cases a state-sanctioned medical license is taken to be a good indication. But many other health workers have established certificate granting organizations to lend an aura of authority to their members. Thus we get "licensed" chiropractors, osteopaths, and homeopaths, for example. Sites like Quackwatch may provide some guidance.

Experience

The claim of experience has a powerful one always used by authorities wanting our trust. We have village and church "elders", "senior" political advisors, experienced doctors and financial analysts. The implied claim is that these people are to be better trusted because of the implicit knowledge that comes with having been involved for a period of time. But what about the recent medical graduates that are freshly trained in the new protocols vs the "experience" doctors who haven't learned anything new since they entered practice? In rapidly changing situations "experience" may actually make a person's authority less valuable.

Verifiability

With the exception of formal religion most decisions to trust an authority rely on an implicit use of the scientific method. One of the precepts of this method is that a given proposition can be tested or that a sufficient number of test have been already conducted. Drug trials are a good example, if many people have already taken a specific drug and a significant number were helped then we assume there is a good likelihood that it will help us in similar circumstances.

Various stock schemes also use a similar technique. One of the most long-lasting is the "Dow Method" which looks at the pattern of stock prices to predict future price trends. If a given pattern in the past has been followed by a trend in a certain direction then following this advice in the future should be successful as well. As with many other such schemes the fact that real statistical analysis shows these strategies to be unreliable has not stopped the continued used and marketing of such schemes.

Religious appeals to authority are complex. On the one hand believers are supposed to have "faith" which is taken to mean the acceptance of the teachings of authority without the tests of verifiability. On the other hand the same authorities feel free to make use of "scientific" evidence to reinforce their arguments. For example, various stories in the Bible are frequently backed up with appeals to archeological evidence. The difficulty arises in those cases where direct intervention of supernatural powers is credited with some tangible result. The most frequent instance is attributing some event as arising from prayer. When the result does not follow from prayer then the argument is used: "God moves in mysterious ways". But, if it is impossible to tell when prayer will work on not then it is not verifiable and cannot be used as proof of the reliability of the beliefs of authorities.

Disinterest

The motivation of the authority is, perhaps, the most important test as to the trust to be placed. If an authority stands to gain very little from their advice there is a presumption that they are not providing the information for personal gain

Until the recent industrialization of the health industry the assumption was that a doctor was a disinterested authority. His interest lay with improving the patient. This provided personal satisfaction as well as enhanced his standing and thus brought in new patients. The patients interests and the practitioners thus coincided. In the past two decades this has shifted as large companies have moved into the field. Insurance companies interests are concerned with minimizing costs and medical suppliers with maximizing sales. Thus, their influence on doctors makes the doctors less of a disinterested party. Doctors stand to lose perquisites provided by medical suppliers and stand to lose their affiliations with insurance companies and hospitals if their recommendations are consistently to costly.

Financial planners have always been suspect when it comes to disinterest. In the days of the personal relationship between a broker and an investor there was the assumption that a broker would recommend investments that would succeed so that the client relationship would continue. Transaction fees were the primary source of income so one recommendation yielded the same fee as another. Now we have very few personal relationships. Instead we have brokerage firms that make concealed deals with security issuers and then act as shills to promote these preferred offerings. In the case of financial advisors not affiliated with a securities firm, (on air personalities, columnists and private newsletters) it is not possible to determine the degree of disinterest. There has been some attempt to force analysts to reveal if they have a financial interest in the firm they are recommending, but there are many other ways to compensate an advisor without them holding the underlying securities. It must thus be assumed that anyone giving financial advice stands to gain from this in some fashion and thus should not be considered "disinterested".

Politicians have always been treated with caution. In most cases the promises they make involve very indirect benefits to the voter and the benefit the individual voter can offer are usually small as well. Thus, the disinterest of the politician is assumed to be irrelevant. In the case of large donors and corporations making contributions to politicians the exact opposite is expected as the phrase "pay to play" illustrates. This trend has resulted in the almost complete separation of the interests of the politician and the general voting public.

The world of commerce was probably the first area where the failure of disinterest manifested itself. "There's a sucker born every minute" was not said as an example of the disinterest of businesses. The trust in commercial enterprises has become so low that most run almost continual public relations campaigns to counter this. Thus we get stories about the good works done by various companies in the local community or the charitable contributions they make. More telling is the recent rise in "Astroturf" front groups. These are set up so as to seem to be spontaneous groups formed by the common people who are concerned with an issue, but are really working on behalf of unpopular issues for the sponsoring corporations. Their backers need to be kept disguised if they are to have any credibility at all and to appear "disinterested". In many cases they have names that are very similar to real "grassroots" organizations which have been formed in direct opposition to the corporate policies. One must, therefore, always assume that a corporation is not acting as a disinterested party and must be very skeptical of the motivation of any organization for which the funding and backing is obscured.

Organized religion has always made a claim of disinterest as a source of authority. "Saving souls" and the like is given as their goal. Unfortunately all organized religions take on an organizational structure and become a type of business. They need to maintain their organization and possibly expand it. So there interests become conflicted. They need to keep their members from straying. They accomplish this through various positive and negative techniques. Maintaining membership so that a religious authority can intervene on your behalf promotes a life-long dependency.

On the individual practitioner level many are motivated by their wish to direct the lives of others. They get some type of psychic satisfaction from being regarded as an authority. To stray from their dogmas weakens their authority and increases the probability that others may do so as well. This is way most religions include a great deal of implied guilt and punishment if the authorities are not followed. Just because a religious leader is "saving souls" does not mean that they are not gaining something from having followers. Religious leaders don't meet the criteria of disinterest automatically, but need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Faith vs Trust

Having a trust in a person or institution has been shown to be a complex issue. The reliability of the advice and the disinterest of the authority must be evaluated with incomplete information. This is further complicated by the issue of "faith". Faith (meaning religious faith) depends upon the critical faculties being suspended when listening to authority. In the past, as well as today, these religious authorities have branched out into other areas of society. They depend upon the faithful maintaining their uncritical stance and thus following their leaders in these other areas. We have seen the extreme effects of this progression in aberrations in the US history with cases like the Salem witch trials. In the rest of the world the blending of religious authority with civil society has led to theocracies such as Iran. In most cases the result has been a reversion to an insular, inefficient society with human right curtailed and economic development stifled.

Religious believers should apply the same critical tests to all forms of authority and not let appeals to "faith" lead to unquestioning trust.


Moral: I trust you, but cut the cards!

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Copyright © 2005 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.