Trust is vital.

Judith Curry’s blog Climate Etc. is always a great read. Last night I happened to read her July 17th post, entitled On the role of trust in climate communication. A lot of other people have been reading it as well! As of this writing, it had 396 comments. By the time you get there, it may well have many more. This is signature Curry; she’s running an e-salon, in the Wikipedia sense of the word: “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge of the participants through conversation.”

If you read some of her original post, and then tackle the comment stream (a daunting task), two thoughts come to mind. First, many parts of the comment string might appear to be a trust-free zone. Little if any evidence of trust to be had, at least on the surface. By contrast – and this is the second point – Judith herself models trust. In each post, she puts a topic out there – flies off the trapeze as it were – confident that her readers will “catch” her; that is, they’ll pick up the topic and run with it.

Which brings us to the title of this post.

The idea that trust is vital is not original with me. It’s the starting point for a book I read 20-25 years ago, entitled Taking Charge: a Practical Guide for Leaders, by Perry M. Smith, and published by the National Defense University.

Why remember this line for so many years? Because when I read this sentence I thought I knew what the author was saying. My first reaction was: of course! “If I want to be a leader I have to be trustworthy.”

But Smith had a different spin. He went on to explain that it was vital for a leader to trust those people under his/her command (remember, we’re talking the military here, although Perry would go onto write another edition of his book for the civilian context). The leader’s role was to delegate, express confidence in those following through. And that confidence couldn’t be a mere pose. It had to be genuine.

In other words, when we think of trust, we perhaps ought to see it more as something we freely give than something that we demand.

Baseball managers know this. When you send that pinch hitter up to the plate, you’re not signaling an act of desperation. You’re signaling confidence and trust in the batter. He or she will feed off that energy. Fail to show that trust? The batter will struggle. The same applies to coaching teams in all sports.

You and I model trust every day. When we place an order in that fast-food restaurant, we’re demonstrating absolute trust in a teenage kid we don’t know from Adam that what is provided will be not just enjoyable but safe to eat. As pedestrians, when we step into the intersection with the light we’re trusting total strangers, those oncoming drivers in the cross-direction, to slow down and come to a stop, even if they’re talking on the cellphone or disciplining the kids in the back seat. When we’re drinking from the water faucet, we’re trusting the city and that same Environmental Protection Agency we might think is the devil incarnate when it comes to the climate change issue to guarantee that tap water is potable. Working in a high-rise building? You’re trusting the architects, the engineers, the construction firm, and the entire regulatory framework they work in to make that structure safe.

You can supply many more examples. Take time to think of a few. You and I get through our ordinary day solely because those people around us are highly trustworthy. And so are we in turn!

Now you may say that trust should be withheld until it’s earned. But again, going back to those day-to-day examples, that’s not how it works. In fact, Jesus had something to say about this. People may disagree about who he is or was, but everyone seems to accept he had great insight into human character. And he said that we judge people according to the flaws in our own make-up…that we are quick to see the speck in someone else’s eye only when we have a beam or a log in our own. Do we think others lie? That’s because we’re prone to shade the truth ourselves. Do we think they’re superficial? That’s because we tend to be shallow. Do they harbor jealousy? Well, how about that…so do we. Do we distrust others? Deep down, we don’t think they should trust us.

Trust in others is not a physical, immutable constant. We can develop that trust, and become more trustworthy ourselves. Google “trust building exercises” and a universe of websites comes up.

Fact is, we don’t need those exercises. When you think about it, every day of living on the real world is a trust exercise. Interdependence is the rule. Even when it comes to climate change and similar controversial topics.

[If you read Perry Smith’s book carefully, you’ll find that he’s not saying everyone is trustworthy in every role. He’s saying if you can’t trust someone in your command, it’s your job as leader to move him or her into some role where he/she can be trustworthy once again. However, before leaping to the idea that one participant or another in the climate change discussion is not to be trusted, keep in mind that Smith saw this as quite the exception rather than the rule. The military could not function were it otherwise.]

What about trust in our leaders? Do we trust those hammering out a resolution to the debt ceiling? How about Rupert Murdoch? He might not seem particularly trustworthy this morning. So sometimes, when it comes to our leaders, our knee-jerk reaction is to withhold trust. But the fact of the matter is…it’s less a matter of their being untrustworthy and more of a matter of the stakes being high, and the visibility of their every action as well. Leaders in politics, in business, in science, in every walk of life are held to a higher standard…in the very circumstances where the temptation to cut corners is greater. In most cases, they didn’t reach their station by untrustworthy means. Most such folks are weeded out very quickly. Fact is, as we go through life and are handed more responsibility, we come under sharper scrutiny. We train ourselves to be more trustworthy. Failures and breakdowns are more a sign of the difficulty than of nefarious intent.

In closing, let’s come back to another way Judith Curry and her readers model trust. She trusts her readers to riff on her individual posts. But she also appears to believe that the aggregated effect of such a broad dialog, extended over many months, is the buildup of trust across the community of commenters and participants. The comment string is frank, often disputatious. But even there, trust is on display. Commenters know that they can be blunt, even fractious today and still be welcomed back tomorrow.

Bravo.

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5 Responses to Trust is vital.

  1. David Bailey says:

    There are also lots of situations in which we withhold trust. Do you trust the nice man from Nigeria who just needs your help to withdraw $100000000 from his account? Do you trust the guy who rings you up out of the blue to try to sell you something you didn’t want? Do you even trust your friendly bank manager, who would like to invest your hard earned cash in a product that he knows you will love!

    I’m not exactly sure what you are saying in the context of Climate Change, but the distrustful comments on Judith’s blog reflect that fact that the scientists involved have been found out in a whole variety of ways, but with a few notable exceptions, such as Judith Curry, they have preferred to brush the problems under the carpet and proceed as if their science was beyond reproach.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks, David…
      for an insightful comment. I don’t trust that Nigerian e-mail either. What I meant to say was that most of us operate overwhelmingly on a basis of trust with regard to the people and things around us. And I think the military officer who wrote the book I referenced would agree. Nidal Hasan notwithstanding, he would still advocate that those military working at Fort Hood today should trust those around them and act accordingly…and be trustworthy in turn.

      The climate change issue is rather similar. I live and work in the Washington DC area, and I come from the Earth sciences community…and what I see around me in both spheres. Both spheres are largely, almost universally populated by high-minded people who were told by Mom and Dad they should make the world a better place. But instead of seeing themselves surrounded by a large and energizing support group of like-minded folk, they too often think they’re the sole owners of righteousness.

      We can do better! Again, contributions like yours help, so thanks!

      • David Bailey says:

        Thanks for your response.
        My background is fairly green. I have marched against the invasion(s) of Iraq, and against the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the 1980′s, and I used to be a member of Green Peace. I just feel that the green organisations have lost their way – become obsessed by CO2 – even to the extent where they would prefer nuclear electricity!

        I used to assume the science behind AGW was sound, but then I heard that WikiLeaks had hosted the Climategate emails. Since I’d say WikiLeaks’ mission is to host evidence of wrong doing, I downloaded the ZIP file and explored. The contents are pretty turgid, but then I discovered there are websites that put the emails into context, and pick out some of the most damning material. BTW, the CRU have tacitly accepted that the emails are genuine.

        There really is some pretty staggering material in those emails. I used to do chemistry research, and I never remember a single discussion in which people would discuss trying to subvert the peer review system to suppress other people’s work. Well it is discussed in those emails, along with a lot of other incredibly damning evidence.

        An inquiry was promised, and I expected that the scientists concerned would be severely censured, and at least some research papers would be withdrawn. Instead, several inquiries were called (reminiscent of Blair’s inquiries into the Iraq war), and the one that was supposed to study the science, was chaired by Lord Oxborough, despite a huge conflict of interest. It would seem he avoided all the damning evidence, and didn’t take the opportunity to speak to Steve McIntyre, the statistician who has spent a great deal of time dissecting the statistical tricks/naivety in one of the key papers.

        I feel angry, above all, for those campaigners who genuinely believe they are saving the planet by campaigning against CO2, when they could be focused on the plight of the rain forests, or the dangers of the spread of nuclear weapons.

        The Western World seems to have become soaked in corruption and deceit, and unfortunately science does not seem immune.

        • William Hooke says:

          Wow. What a resume. Thank you for taking the time to share this detail…and how it informs your stance on climate change, energy policy and other issues. Some readers may have similar backgrounds…others might like to retrace some of your steps/develop understanding.

          We’re all shaped a great deal by where we’ve been, but also by the challenges before us. Those challenges are worldwide and universal. Somehow we have to navigate the future together, regardless of where we’ve come from. In an earlier post I drew a comparison to what Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation. Seems to me if we can together put our planet on the path to sustainability, future generations might apply that label to us.

        • Brian H says:

          There’s a perverse form of “trust” that seems to drive much politics and other corruption, which might be termed “enforced groupthink”. That is, if you are accepted as a member/player in a particular group, you are “trusted” not to P in the soup. In younger days an early brief foray into party politics ended when I disputed a “back-room” worker’s cynical take on how to push voter emotional buttons and keep attention away from unwanted areas. It was made clear to me that I was being insufferably naive, and that such attitudes were contemptible and would ensure I got nowhere and would be swiftly ostracized.

          This seems to me to be endemic; the CRU Krew’s retaining of the O-O PR organization to spin and obfuscate is not the exception to the rule. There’s a related sociological term: “dynamic conservatism”, the process by which a like-minded group isolates, encapsulates, and ejects dissenters. Sort of like mass rationalization and suppression of “inconvenient” thoughts.

          The motive and prize which draws out so much perverted collaborative trust? “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

          And the effort to centralize power to “mitigate” against Climate Destruction is for all the marbles.

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