Arnold Kling  

Trust Cues

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My latest essay summarizes some ideas I've been blogging about lately.


An empirical argument attempts to convince you using logic and observation. A trust cue threatens you with loss of membership in a valuable group unless you take a given position. One might hope that colleges and universities might espouse empiricism rather than excommunicate those who question dogma. However, the Lawrence Summers case offers a dramatic counter-example. His discussion of women in tenured positions in science seems reasonable from an empiricist standpoint. However, from the standpoint of trust cues, it was out of bounds...

What is odd is that an association of academics should find it productive to take an "official position" on anything. I do not need an "official position" of physicists to convince me of the law of gravity. I do not believe in the laws of supply and demand because they are the "official position" of the American Economic Association (to my knowledge, the AEA has never stated an official position in favor of them). A book or article that reports observations and analysis is a scientific statement. An "official position" is a trust cue.

In economics, the use of mathematical language has become a trust cue. Modern economists complain, rightly, that in the old days of "literary economics," a lot of muddled gibberish found its ways into economics journals. Today, journals publish muddled gibberish dressed up with mathematical symbols.


Although I argue for empiricism, the concept of trust cues is not rigorously empirical. How can I define them and measure them?

I think I have an intriguing concept here, but it has some difficulties.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Nathan Smith writes:

One explanation of trust cues may be that some belief A may give Agent X an independent reason to engage in a behavior desired by Agent Y.

Thus, if I see you attend church every week, I know that your preacher or confessor will be regularly telling you to do business honestly. If we make a deal, then, I expect you to honor the deal for reasons of your own salvation, regardless of whether it serves your economic interests to do so or of whether I have a credible threat of legal remedies if you don't. Your attendance at church becomes a reason for me to do business with you.

In principle, this has nothing to do with whether I am also a church attender. I could be an atheist and an amoralist, but I still calculate that doing business with a churchgoer is to my advantage.

RogerM writes:

Having been in various Baptist churches for about 40 years, I don't trust people in the church just because they're church members, and I don't know many people who do. The church is not a museum of perfection; it's a hospital. We know that a lot of people come for help to get over very serious problems. However, there is one very strong signal that some church members give: If they try to trade off their faith, say by advertising something like "Do business with me because I'm a Christian," that's a strong signal to avoid that business; they're probably not honest.

Trust and the appeal to authority are very similar concepts and I have read some about the latter in public relations research. That field has produced some good empirical research on when and why people resort to empirical evidence and when they choose appeal to authority.

Mark Horn writes:
What is odd is that an association of academics should find it productive to take an "official position" on anything. I do not need an "official position" of physicists to convince me of the law of gravity. I do not believe in the laws of supply and demand because they are the "official position" of the American Economic Association (to my knowledge, the AEA has never stated an official position in favor of them). A book or article that reports observations and analysis is a scientific statement. An "official position" is a trust cue.
I'm not sure that it's that simple. Some things that start out as trust cues become empirical observations. Einstein's theory of relativity is an example of this. At first, it was completely debunked by the professional physicists. But, over time, observations started to support it. Now, it's taught as fact in physics classes everywhere.

I have argued that the existance of discussion suggests that the thing being discussed is not yet obvious to everyone. For example, no one argues the truth of 2+2=4. There's no point in discussing it. But on the topic of evolution, some are still not convinced. Hence you would expect to see an "official position" from organizations involved in the discussion. Those organizations have become convinced (either one way or the other) of the thing being discussed.

I see value in trust cues as long as the people making them leave room (even if it's small) for continuing discussion. If the purpose of a trust cue is to cut off discussion, then they don't seem valuable to me. But if discussion is still open, then trust cues serve to notify everyone that the thing being discussed might not yet be totally resolved.

Robert writes:

I think that's treading close to a false dichotomy, because the fact that someone gives or does not give a trust cue is an empirical observation. Nothing conclusive can be drawn from it, but we use a lot of information that in and of itself is not conclusive.

Fazal Majid writes:

It's also a question of safety in numbers. Gravity isn't contentious, but other subjects like evolution are, with well-organized groups with vested interests pursuing an agenda of stifling debate (or creating the illusion of there being a debate and putting a completely discredited theory on the same rhetorical footing as the scientifically credible one). It is also a fact of life that political groups (on either side) will not hesitate to try and silence or intimidate their opponents if the latter are dependent on public funding for their jobs or research.

Now, you can legitimately question whether the near-consensus on global warming is like evolution or like Larry Summers' critics, but you cannot make any meaningful inference from structural indicators like the trust cues you describe.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Has anyone suggested that "trust cues" might just be the interpersonal mechanism to support confirmation bias? Jonah Goldberg has a great example on NRO today: why are lefties pre-disposed to believing global warming doomsday hypotheses? In that case, the trust cue of "global warming is destroying the planet" is a way of saying that they hate capitalism and believe it has an identifiable side effect that will completely ruin things for mankind. Nevermind how an average person gets to this belief when trained experts are all over the map on cause, effects, and implications.

On a distantly related note... Does anyone else feel personally embarassed when those BP commercials come on where they get these absolutely idiotic, non-sensical, and worst-of-all whiney people spouting off about how oil companies have a responsibility to not destroy the planet (or at least release the mythical 200 mpg carbeurator they have burried since the late 60s) and then cut away to green and yellow PowerPoint slide enumerating how BP is really saving the world? I am convinced that the new personal insult this summer will be "Your momma is so dumb, she was in a BP commercial". As for the men they find for these things, wow, let's hope for the sake of the gene pool that "emasculated" isn't just figurative there...

Steve Sailer writes:

You might browse through evolutionary theory books. Matt Ridley's "Origin of Virtue" might be a good start. This is a big topic in the more rigorous realms of anthropology. Perhaps Richard Alexander has worked on this?

caveatBettor writes:

How about The Emporer's New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson?

Ajay writes:

A good article by Arnold, and I think he's right, but he undercuts his position by relying on a trust cue at the end. By moderating his position at the end and saying we need trust cues (although he hasn't given us one example of a useful trust cue), he offers up the "I'm a moderate not a crazy radical" trust cue to his readers. While I find Arnold's contributions to this blog more valuable than Bryan's and I like the fact that he's willing to approach the left and consider their arguments, Arnold's big flaw is that he will often offer up this moderation trust cue, something Bryan doesn't feel the need for (or does Bryan only offer extreme libertarian trust cues? I don't think so). The problem with the moderation trust cue is the problem with all trust cues, they're not supported by the empirical situation, the facts. Arnold will write an entire post or article arguing in one direction then moderate it at the end, for no reason other than not to seem too radical. I hope he realizes that he's putting out trust cues too when he does this.

Lee Templeton writes:

Let's hear it for Brad Hutchings. I cringe when those BP commercials come on. No matter where you stand on energy, global warming, or oil company profits (or any melange of the above you wish) you have to be insulted by them.

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