Burning questions: Who can be trusted?
A few days ago, I tromped through the thigh-high snow in my backyard to consult with Rupert, our family’s favorite Aspen tree, whose deep depression of late appears to have given way to mere gloominess: His upper branches have lifted a little, stretching tentatively toward the sun, now that the December/January deluge has passed … His lower branches, however, are having none of this burgeoning optimism, and remain stubbornly mired in the snow at Rupert’s base.
I can relate to his ambivalence. I think we all can. What a chaotic, confusing place the world is in 2023. Decades ago, you believed your eyes and ears, and you generally believed what people told you, if they seemed reasonable. Granted, you may have been mistaken in some cases, but if something seemed to be a fact, it was generally accepted as such.
Nowadays, conspiracy theories abound. Scientific data, accepted for centuries as one of the standard-bearers of reliable information thanks to the constraints of the scientific method and peer review, is often questioned and even derided by non-scientists. I am a non-scientist, but I do not presume to second-guess peer-reviewed scientific results. It begs the question, though: How do we decide whom to trust? A recent piece in this very publication highlighted this exact conundrum, and I think it’s worth exploring.
Rupert was evasive on this topic when I asked his opinion, likely wanting to avoid getting into an argument. I don’t blame him. These days so many conversations seem like minefields, and the safe places to step keep dwindling. Mistrust is, I think, based on fear. And when conversations are more like minefields than respectful exchanges of ideas and information, fear isn’t an unwarranted emotion. Nor is it unwarranted in today’s world, where disturbing things are happening all over the place, from war to terrorism to mass shootings to extreme weather events.
What can we make of these troubling phenomena? Whom can we trust to give us reliable information about them? The recent rise in distrust of experts has been well documented, but there is no easy solution to the problem. In an article on the subject in Phys.org, author Elizabeth Rogers says, “If you’ve spent any time online lately, you’ve likely seen the distrust and disdain leveled at experts … Even more troubling are attempts to discredit legitimate experts using bad faith critiques.” Link to the full article: Why people trust or distrust experts when it comes to critical issues (phys.org)
She also points out that when experts are questioned or derided on mission-critical issues like climate change, the results can be disastrous, as we are increasingly seeing around the world. But decades of misinformation from the fossil fuel industry have obscured the message of scores of climate scientists by repeating false claims that the science is unclear or simply wrong.
And repetition is power, as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.”
“So,” I concluded after I’d rattled these points off to Rupert, who’d been either listening with polite interest or sleeping; it was hard to tell, “What do you think? Trust the climate scientists when they say we’re in big trouble and need to make big changes fast? Or ignore them and try to go about business as usual?”
Rupert did not reply. A chunk of snow fell off one of his upper branches and landed on my cheek, and then dribbled down my neck and dissolved against my collarbone. I sighed and said, “Well, let’s both think about it, shall we? Maybe we can discuss it more later.”
Rupert bowed a little, I think. Or perhaps he nodded off again. He can be really hard to read, for an Aspen.
Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. She can be reached at email@example.com
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