Trust but verify

Trust but verify

Most people spread lies without ambitious agendas. They often parrot other people’s talking points and opinions because it makes it sound like somebody’s home.

They’ve never thought about distinctions of truth, belief, fact, opinion, assessment, gossip, and allegation, or why they matter. They’re not weak or stupid, just lazy and indoctrinated.

Not surprising.

Maybe we all are to some extent; especially since most of our early authority figures taught us to believe without question. Lucky though, some of us learned that belief is not necessarily truth and that we all use shortcuts—trusted talk show hosts, confident people presented as experts, documentaries, emails from Islamaphobe Uncle Fred etc—to acquire our beliefs and reinforce existing ones.

But almost none of us ever test those shortcuts for truth the way we do system safety checks on a passenger jet, or an oil rig. As a result, lies and unfounded beliefs keep leaking into our cooperative spaces the way oil leaks into natural ecosystems.

The result always poisons healthy functioning systems.

Oil spill metaphor

It’s not that we don’t get the oil spill metaphor, it’s that we think we’re the slicked pelicans and not one of the responsible energy executives. We see only the other side spreading “alternative facts” to destroy our values and further their selfish agendas.

We all are at least partly to blame for the lies polluting our discourse, and poisoning trust because we keep relying on shortcuts to truths; with no checks on why we believe what we believe.

Trust but verify

The revered President Ronald Reagan often repeated a Russian proverb that reflected his philosophy on negotiating the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Soviet Union: Doveryai, no proverya which means “trust, but verify.”

You can argue there is no trust if you feel you must verify, but it reflected Reagan’s position with an enemy, and it least led to a trust-building path. Verification over time would build trust while reflecting an adversarial relationship.

We find ourselves in a sinister adversarial relationship.

Unlike the U.S against the U.S.S.R., our enemies often pretend to be our friend, and many of us may find out too late that the people and organizations we’ve relied on for truth and leadership have been misleading us out of mal-intent, selfishness, fear or ignorance. The Iraq war, and the 2008 financial crisis are recent consequences.

A bright future for all requires you, … and you, … and me… to stop trusting for a moment and verify our positions, beliefs and truths. Could we be wrong? And if we are what’s at stake?

  • Will we send an innocent to die?
  • Will we send good people back to countries that will persecute and kill them?
  • Will we ruin a good person’s reputation?
  • Will we cause irreparable harm to the only planet we can call home?

Distinguishing what’s really at stake will depend on how good we are at assessing hidden agendas and risk.

For example, what’s riskier: acting or not acting to stop climate change? Act and risk job losses and economic dislocation, or not act, and risk wars, refugee crises, mass extinctions, rising sea levels etc.

Which do you think we could more easily adapt to?

Of course if you don’t believe in climate change at all, or that the consequences are hyperbole, then you see only job losses and disruption—but why not eliminating Gulf-of-Mexico-type environmental disasters, or Iraq wars? Aren’t these reason enough to dedicate ourselves to renewable energy? Hell. America committed its national reputation on a moonshot; why not on clean, cheap renewable energy for everyone on the planet?

And this applies to every important issue: Obama Care, the death penalty, a woman’s right to choose, or who gets to stand up and pee.

  • How do you know what you know?
  • How can you be so sure what’s said is true?
  • Why are you so quick to believe the worst about people?
  • What’s at risk?

Have you even thought about what’s really at risk ? It’s not just your pride at being wrong.

Breadcrumbs of truth

You can do all the research yourself or you can look for breadcrumbs of truth-telling. Consistency, reputation based on decades of work, scientific process, peer review etc.  People who come back and admit they got it wrong.

More importantly look to motive.

What business interest does your politician represent?

Ask yourself what game is your expert or politician really playing, and use your answer to help make a grounded assessment on whether statements, explanations and interpretations should be accepted, discarded or kept in a holding pattern until you verify it’s safe to land it.

No foolproof method

Even if you devote eight or more hours a day there is no guarantee you’ll always find out what’s really happening, what games people are really playing, or who deserves your belief. But you should at least begin trying to verify whom you trust, or rather what they say.

“Trust but verify” is relevant to where we all are today. In a world of fake news reinforcing entrenched positions, and ego driven supreme leaders using lies as tweet ammunition, our only hope of not slipping further down this slope from chaos into bloodshed is to do a better job of testing our positions for shaky ground.

Specific actions you could take

  • Give up the certainty you wield at dinner tables and bar room discussions and realise that much of what you believe could be partly or completely wrong.
  • Suspect any of your foundational beliefs that read like “All …(x people) are ..(flatulent or similarly unflattering) !”
  • Admit you are wrong. It’s more often than you think.
  • Notice yourself argue to be right, not to find reason to change your mind.
  • Learn about your hidden biases.
  • Practice uninstalling incorrect beliefs (like the computer viruses they are).
  • Acknowledge there are better reasons—other than stupidity or evil—people hold positions you oppose.

That last is a new belief you could choose to hold, not because it’s true but because it’s helpful.

Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret,
for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.
~Robert Brault~

Once you choose to believe that people are not stupid or evil for believing what you don’t, then make a game of understanding why they believe what they do.

At least loosen your grip on the truth

Be a little less sure of what you believe. Take some time to understand your blind spots and our human tendency to act on emotions not on logic. Your heroes may not be perfect and your enemies may have done good. No one can see all perspectives. That’s why we need everyone’s.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
~Mark Twain~

Photo by The Official CTBTO Photostream

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.