Written by Alan Barker: writer, coach, training consultant and academic proofreader. Find out more about his work here.

'Navigating trust in an uncertain world’ was the theme of Professor Uta Frith’s Presidential Address at this year’s British Science Festival. The ways we establish trust in others – and in information – are coming under pressure. How can we make better choices?  Alan Barker offers some reflections on a thought-provoking talk.

Professor Uta Frith speaking at the 2017 British Science Festival

Truth, for most of us, is a matter of trust. We accept the word of astronomers that the Sun is 93 million miles away, just as we used to accept Ptolemy’s word that it went round the earth. We still tend, in our everyday lives, to ask of facts what we ask of humans: can we trust the teller?

Humans survive and thrive by collaborating. We build communities through networks of reciprocity: we fulfil obligations to others that earn us the right to demand help when we need it. And so we must identify the people whose behaviour we can predict. By the same token, most of us try to behave consistently.

By our actions we become trustworthy. Think of how we create trust with people unlike us, people we might otherwise never meet: finding a plumber, sharing a classroom, joining a football team. We build reputations – a word Professor Frith used more than once – that act like bank accounts: the more credit we add, the more we can draw on when the need arises. 

All of which, of course, takes time. But if time’s lacking, we fall back on the behavioural equivalent of payday loans: quick observational judgements. We decide who to trust by observation, or by observing others. We use Daniel Kahneman’s ‘System 1’: thinking that’s fast, intuitive, and emotional; ‘System 2’ – slower, rational, sceptical thinking – tends to get shut down.

For example, we judge the trustworthiness of our pop idols and political leaders by looking at their faces. We’re even quite good at spotting criminals – although, apparently, not so good at specifying what kind. The charisma with which we endow our heroes can lend even inanimate objects magical power: when amateur golfers were told that they were using a putter formerly used by well-known PGA Tour player Ben Curtis, their performance improved.

Charisma relies, of course, on authenticity. Yet, as Professor Frith reminded us, authenticity is not an attribute but a rhetorical effect: an act of collusion between speaker and audience. Aristotle called it ethos, and it gains much of its power from antithesis: Tony Blair seemed authentic after Margaret Thatcher, and Jeremy Corbyn after David Cameron. In the attention economy, whoever feeds our need for security – even if they’re flagrantly manipulating us – will gain our trust.

Uta at the 2017 British Science FestivalProfessor Uta Frith is President of the British Science Association

We also generate ethos through gossip. A recent study suggests that “the spread of reputational information through gossip can mitigate egoistic behaviour by facilitating partner selection, thereby helping to solve the problem of cooperation even in non-iterated interactions.” In other words, gossip helps us to choose the right people to deal with – even in one-off collaborations. The problem, as Professor Frith reminded us, is that we accept gossip as valid information, even after experience has shed doubt on its accuracy.

Gossip finds its ideal home in social media, with which Professor Frith spent most of her address, identifying five characteristics that distort our ability to build trust, especially in people unlike us. (Would you look for a plumber on Twitter?)

First, filter bubbles reinforce in-group values: apparently, two thirds of us would prefer not to hear arguments opposing our own views – even if offered money to do so. Secondly, echo chambers amplify messages and censor competing views. Add the third factor – emotional arousal – and the results can be alarming: political tweets containing language both moral and emotional can increase retweets by 20%. All of which contributes to a fourth factor, the ability of social media to reinforce an illusion of knowledge. (Think fake news.) And finally, anonymity powerfully reinforces all the other factors: the very lack of real social contact in mediated communities spawns misunderstanding and fantasising.

The antidote? Diversity. Professor Frith tried to focus this rather hazy concept by distinguishing explorers and exploiters. Explorers pursue novelty and increased risk; exploiters, unsurprisingly, stability and certainty. Each would benefit from listening to the other; perhaps Professor Frith considered that such relatively unthreatening diversity might tempt us out of our information bubbles.

The conversation turned, inevitably, to science. We should trust science, Professor Frith suggested, bravely and honourably, because, as a way of establishing truth, “there isn’t anything better around. It may not be very good, but it may be the best we have.”

Science’s strength is precisely its insistence on doubt: countering System 1 with rigorous System 2 thinking. From Francis Bacon on, science has sought to challenge trust in authority with the evidence of experience and experiment. The best way to trust science, perhaps, is to do it. As physicist Helen Czerski wrote in a recent article, “Everyone can push their toast off the table to see whether it really does fall butter-side down. You don’t have to believe me just because I said so.”