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Joe v. Times
Why do people distrust institutions?
A few months ago, I was discussing fake news until a person came out and said: “I'd rather trust Joe Rogan than the New York Times”. As someone raised in a democratic country, where most media outlets have been molded by decades of existence, this opinion struck me as naive and obviously wrong. How could someone like Joe Rogan be a better alternative to an establishment made up of thousands of workers, jointly aiming to present information as accurately as possible? And because this dogma was deeply ingrained, thinking otherwise was unfathomable. Merely, this statement was only a facade covering a deeper underlying question about how people built trust with institutions. A matter more crucial than ever, when one of the largest social networks was about to be acquired by a billionaire, cryptocurrencies are being used to circumvent monetary authority, and a disturbing number of conspiracy theories are proliferating.
In pondering the question, the first reason that came to mind was personal experiences, which in many instances are a determining factor in defining core beliefs. Take the example of a person who was raised in an authoritarian regime, would this ineluctably translate into a high level of skepticism about any form of trust in government-controlled institutions? Interestingly, after consulting the Edelman Trust Barometer report, countries including China and Saudi Arabia were ranked among the most trustworthy in terms of government, central banks, and media – and scored significantly higher than the United States, Germany, or France. It's not entirely surprising that autocracies can outperform democracies in public trust, as individual freedom might be an important vector for the development of critical thinking, while fear of government may undermine the reliability of polls by representing spurious opinions. However, it's more difficult to explain the erosion of trust in some Western nations – even though the average estimate of trust in governments in OECD countries has increased over the past decade.
In the case of the United States and according to the Pew Research Center, the level of trust in the U.S. federal government peaked at 77% in 1964 before reaching its lowest level of 17% in 2019. The visualization contains several inflection points that are followed by major historical events: the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal; the 9/11 attacks followed by the Iraq War. These periods of uncertainty have considerably shaped the way Americans perceive and trust federal institutions – despite their positive assessment of the government in many respects and the fact that the United States is one of the few countries that automatically declassify confidential documents. In other words, great disappointments have more impact than lasting, mediocre experiences when it comes to framing subjective impressions. This phenomenon may be explained by the Peak-end rule: a brain operating characteristic that causes people to judge an experience based on how it felt at its peak rather than its entirety.
Another explanation could be the perpetual increase of complexity that has rendered certain institutions more opaque. The world of finance is perhaps one of the most relevant examples, especially when S&P's 2014 Global Financial Literacy Survey reported that only 57% of American adults were financially literate – which is already higher than the average of major advanced economies. The report can be viewed as an estimate of the average disposition to understand finance – and to some extent general economic concepts. Taking this logic a step further, one can assume that a shocking incident such as the Subprime mortgage crisis is presumably beyond the comprehension of a significant segment of the population. Since making sense of things is a fundamentally essential aspect of human existence, not being able to interpret a tumultuous experience can have severe implications that may encourage the pursuit of alternative narratives – nearly always linked to conspiracy theories – that are generally easier to understand.
However, the question of whether to trust institutions can become meaningless in the face of the overwhelming plurality of cases that prevent us from thinking objectively. And how arduous it's to escape from our pre-conditioned nature prone to construct beliefs in a binary way and deceive ourselves about the truth that – most of the time – lies between two extremes.
Despite the lack of absolute certainty to support this claim, I remain convinced that truth is closer when information is abundant and massively diversified as erroneous data will naturally be invalidated by compelling facts. And of course, reality does not necessarily lie at the exact intersection of two opposing beliefs as there will always be more difficult hypotheses to defend in the light of strong scientific evidence, such as assuming that the earth can be flat, or that Ivermectin is an effective solution for treating COVID-19.
The current matter is not yet easy to resolve, although the effectiveness of institutions can be explained by social sciences, which belong to the family of soft science and, unlike the hard sciences, are impossible to experiment with in a systematic way – which implies that most findings aren't generalizable and thus cannot be used to draw a definitive conclusion. On the other hand, the Manichaean aspect of this question can be approached through the lens of consequentialism and could be formulated as follows: Do I have faith in large-scale human organizations to succeed in serving their purpose?
In my opinion, I'd support the idea that, so far, most collaborative efforts throughout human history have generally led to positive results. Furthermore, the plurality of opinions and peer reviewing are effective methods for reducing a considerable amount of biases that are less likely to be overcome alone. Paradoxically, as a writer on Substack and someone with views ideologically tied to individualism, I'd also support promoting more independent journalists over centralized publishing platforms – since both social organizations and individuals are vulnerable to fallacy, is there any valid reason to strictly discredit one?
Finally, Joe Rogan is an interesting and symbolic example to compare with the world of established media – although podcasters are not the only alternative – their prevalence is substantial enough to consider them mainstream sources of information and, therefore, also influence politics significantly. Thus, it may be too early to proclaim the success of media driven by individuals or a small clique in bringing humanity closer to the truth, but in many cases, history has repeated itself, just as growth cycles have proven essential in regulating disruptive innovations toward positive outcomes.