Faith and Trust in Professional Institutions as Important for Sensemaking

 In Building Knowledge, Religion vs. Secularism

It might sound silly, but I recently got a serious insight from studying the lyrics of the Sting song “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You”.  He is saying that he lost his faith in several mainstream institutions, including the church, the news media, and the government.  He even says he lost his faith in scientific progress.

The “You” in the song’s title is not identified by Sting, but the implication is that for most of us, we need to believe in something or else we will lose purpose in our lives and become extremely skeptical, cynical, nihilistic, and depressed.  We need foundational beliefs in order to live happy and healthy lives.  For most of us, that would be our foundational belief in our close family and in romantic loves.  Of course, we should believe most strongly in the people that we know well and also in the things that we directly experience, but we also need a certain faith (or perhaps we can say trust) in institutions as well.

This is related to my work on sensemaking and claim evaluation because I believe that we do end up having to rely on a certain belief in institutions, including academic scientific institutions, governments, and media organizations.  It simply does not work for us to have broad skepticism of these institutions.  They are all certainly fallible, but if we give them due scrutiny and develop some understanding of how these institutions work and how the people who work for them do their jobs, then we can retain a sufficient degree of belief in many or most of the claims that are put out or propagated by these institutions, as appropriate given the contextual factors.

Sometimes we have to trust experts.  Sometimes we have to offload some of our sensemaking to external organizations whose purpose is to be well informed on certain matters, such as current events, science, and complex rational decision making for economic well-being and social stability.  But each of us can and should have a certain rough methodology for scrutinizing the credibility of these institutions and judging their trustworthiness.

If we have broad skepticism of any mainstream institutions, the truth is that we are likely to trust the conspiracy theorists and their alternative narratives, and thus we would be unjustifiably elevating those crackpots to the level of trustworthy institutions.  If we did this, it would probably be primarily motivated by our distrust of mainstream institutions, but it would be irrational to trust the conspiracy theorists and their narratives, since their theories and narratives so often are plainly illogical and contradict our firsthand knowledge.  Thus the conspiracy theorists are trying to gaslight us.

We should understand how easy it is to make up alternative narratives and how chaos agents are motivated to do so.  Only irrational and poorly educated people would fall for such nonsense on a regular basis.  There might well be truth to a small percent of conspiracy theories, but if we define “mainstream” carefully enough, this should actually contain fail-safe checks and balances that make it quite likely that most of the information that comes from such sources is largely true.  We should not take it for granted, which means that we do need to be vigilant and scrutinize the information on its own merits and also scrutinize the institutions.  But it does not make sense to have broad skepticism of mainstream institutions.

I will attempt to clearly define “mainstream” in a future posting.  Also I have a rough criteria and methodology for how we can evaluate claims and this will be included in the forthcoming book Seeking a More Enlightened Worldview, Volume 1.  This book is targeted for release before the end of 2020.

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