Tag Archives: social trust

Research Confirms…Or Does It?

A major contributor to the success of Donald Trump in the 2016 election was the level of social distrust, fed by the fragmentation of media and decline of credible, reliable journalism. Citizens simply don’t know what information they can trust–which sources are reputable and which are peddling disinformation–so they choose the “facts” that are most congruent with their pre-existing beliefs.

The problem isn’t limited to media sources.

A recent article by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center points to a phenomenon that has been depressingly obvious to academics and others engaged in legitimate research.

Think tanks often provide valuable and impartial policy research. But entrenched conflicts of interest across the political spectrum, and pandering to donors, often raise questions about their independence and integrity. A few years ago, think tanks were seen as places for wonky scholars and former officials to bang out solutions to critical policy problems. But today, as the Boston Globe has written, many “are pursuing fiercely partisan agendas and are funded by undisclosed corporations, wealthy individuals, or both.

The article provides journalists with tips on how to ferret out conflicts of interest or other indicators of bias; its list of appropriate inquiries will be helpful not just to reporters, but to citizens who are increasingly unsure of who and what to believe:

  • Look at the think tank’s annual report. Who is on staff? On the board or advisory council? Search for these people. They have power over the think tank’s agenda; do they have conflicts of interest? Use OpenSecrets’ lobby search, a project of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, to see if any of these individuals are registered lobbyists and for whom.
  • To find out more about an executive listed on the board, read his or her firm’s public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Our accounting tip sheet should help.
  • Does the organization focus on one issue alone? If so, look carefully at its funding.
  • Does the organization clearly identify its political leanings or its neutrality?
  • Does the annual report list donors and amounts? Are large donors anonymous? If the answer to the second question is yes, you should be concerned that big donors may be trying to hide their influence.
  • What is its budget? Has the budget changed radically in recent years?
  • Does it have a conflict of interest policy?
  • Look up the address. Is it a street address or a post office box? Google either: Is it shared with other organizations? Do they share a suite, a phone? What is their relationship?

I have frequently written about the “wild west” that is our current media landscape. This article reminds us that it isn’t only conspiracy websites, social media “memes,” or the growing difficult of distinguishing satire from reporting that should worry us.

We have gone way beyond the days of the National Enquirer (my favorite headline ever: “Sadaam and Osama’s Gay Wedding”). Today’s inability to know which information resources are trustworthy and which are not is poisoning not only our ability to conduct fact-based discussions, but our willingness to trust our social and governmental institutions.

Social capital–the connections we have with others–requires general social trust. The continuing erosion of that trust threatens those human connections, not to mention our ability to see ourselves as members of a democratic polity.

I simply don’t know how we fix this and still maintain fidelity to the First Amendment.

A Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Dishonesty Go Down….

Evidently, you can’t even trust research from Harvard. At least, not all of it.

A number of media outlets have reported that in the 1960s,

prominent Harvard nutritionists published two reviews in a top medical journal downplaying the role of sugar in coronary heart disease. Newly unearthed documents reveal what they didn’t say: A sugar industry trade group initiated and paid for the studies, examined drafts, and laid out a clear objective to protect sugar’s reputation in the public eye.

The consequences of this deception are several, and they are all deeply disturbing.

First–and most obvious–is the misdirection of subsequent research and government efforts to improve heart health. Thanks largely to the reputation of Harvard and its research faculty, the publications sent other medical researchers down different paths, and retarded accurate evaluation of the role sugar plays in heart disease.

The trade group solicited Hegsted, a professor of nutrition at Harvard’s public health school, to write a literature review aimed at countering early research linking sucrose to coronary heart disease. The group paid the equivalent of $48,000 in 2016 dollars to Hegsted and colleague Dr. Robert McGandy, though the researchers never publicly disclosed that funding source, Kearns found.

Hegsted and Stare tore apart studies that implicated sugar and concluded that there was only one dietary modification — changing fat and cholesterol intake — that could prevent coronary heart disease. Their reviews were published in 1967 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which back then did not require researchers to disclose conflicts of interest.

These, and similar, research reports led to the belief that fat, not sugar, was the culprit, and Americans went on a low-and-no fat binge. What was particularly pernicious about the hundreds of new products designed to meet the goal of lowering fat content was the food industry’s preferred method of making low-fat offerings taste good: the addition of sugar. Lots of sugar.

The health consequences of this dishonesty–however grave– are ultimately less troubling than the damage done to academic credibility.

We live in an era where significant numbers of people reject scientific facts that conflict with their preferred worldviews. News of academic corruption provides them with “evidence” that science is a scam and scholarship–especially scholarship that debunks their beliefs– is ideologically tainted.

Even the best, most rigorous research studies are only as good as the hypotheses tested and the methodologies employed. Some will inevitably prove to be flawed, no matter how honestly conducted. That’s unfortunate enough, but when industry can “buy” favorable results, it further undermines the credibility of all research results.

The discovery of the sugar industry’s role in twisting nutritional research results joins what we now know about the similar machinations of cigarette companies and fossil fuel industries.

In 2009, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style, examining the causes and effects of our mounting levels of social distrust. I wish I could say that time has made the book and its conclusions obsolete–but I can’t.

It’s understandable–but deeply disturbing– that so many Americans no longer trust science, business, government or each other.  Without trust, social capital erodes, suspicion replaces collaboration, and societies disintegrate.

The Roots of Distrust

In 2009, I wrote a book called Distrust, American Style. The impetus for that book was publication–and widespread discussion–of a study in which Robert Putnam found that neighborhoods with greater diversity had higher levels of social distrust, and concluded that diversity–living among people who looked or talked or prayed differently– caused discomfort and distrust.

I didn’t disagree with his basic facts–his finding that more diverse populations demonstrated higher levels of distrust–but I strongly disagreed with the conclusions he drew from those facts. Now, seven years later, researchers from Princeton and NYU have weighed in on my side of the debate. As they explained in a recent New York Times Op-Ed,

Our research reveals that even in the short term, diversity is not to blame. We independently analyzed the same data set Professor Putnam used, and we demonstrate that disadvantage, not diversity, is responsible for distrust.

At first glance, our results resemble those of previous studies: People in more diverse communities report lower levels of trust. Scholars and columnists alike have taken this to mean that diversity reduces trust, but we argue that this interpretation is flawed.

My own analysis was somewhat different, but consistent with the results of this new research. I offered two alternative interpretations of Putnam’s research; in the one most congruent with the conclusions of the Princeton/NYU scholars, I relied upon a body of  research that correlated economic and personal insecurity with higher levels of interpersonal distrust.

If you live in a neighborhood where crime is rampant and police presence infrequent, if you make minimum wage, have no job security and no access to health insurance, you are not likely to be a trusting individual. You are also more likely to live in a diverse neighborhood.

In Distrust, American Style I went further. I pointed to the fact that–thanks to the Internet and social media–Americans are more aware than ever of untrustworthy behaviors of our common social institutions. When people see unethical and unsavory behaviors by big businesses, major-league sports, and various elected officials–when even the Catholic Church is found to have covered up molestation of young people–it’s not surprising that citizens feel betrayed and grow cynical, or that generalized trust declines.

In the years since I published Distrust, that latter problem has been exacerbated by the “wild west” environment of social media, where all manner of allegations and accusations of wrongdoing–many invented out of whole cloth– feed what seems to be a national paranoia.

Blaming low levels of trust on the fact that our neighbor is a different color or religion is easy, and it may comfort those for whom diversity is experienced as threatening, but it is an unfortunate and unhelpful diversion from more in-depth analysis.

As any doctor will tell you, you can’t prescribe the right medicine if you haven’t accurately diagnosed the disease.

Trying to make America less diverse by deporting immigrants–the “Trumpian” solution–is not only fantasy. It is the wrong medicine. It not only won’t restore social trust, it will increase paranoia.

Strengthening the social safety net to ameliorate insecurity, on the other hand, will go a long way toward calming the anxiety that is really at the root of our social suspicion.

Why Nobody Trusts Anything They Read Anymore…

Newsweek recently ran an article arguing that wind power really costs more than people think. The story’s italicized tagline identified the author thusly: “Randy Simmons is professor of political economy at Utah State University.”

A respectable (and presumably reliable) credential. As the Daily Kos reported, however,

The Erik Wemple Blog yesterday asked Simmons whether his Newsweek blast at wind power should have contained more information about his ties to some key players in the U.S. energy sector. For instance, between 2008 and 2013, Simmons served as the Charles G. Koch Professor of Political Economy from 2008 to 2013, in what he terms a “fixed-term professorship.” And Simmons currently supervises a program known at Utah State University as the “Koch Scholars” program, which runs on an annual grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. It’s a “reading group” that meets on Tuesday evenings. “The Koch Foundation grant buys the books, and food and provides a scholarship for each of the 15 students chosen that semester,” writes Simmons in an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog.

Surely the Koch’s major fossil fuel holdings and generous underwriting had no effect upon Simmons’ research conclusions. (If you believe that, I have some swampland in Florida to sell you.)

When special interests can “buy” (or at least influence) presumably objective research results, is it any wonder that all research is viewed with skepticism?

In an environment where everything is suspect, it becomes so easy to engage in “confirmation bias”–to believe those sources that confirm our preferred worldview, and to dismiss contrary evidence.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Distrust, American Style, arguing that constant revelations about corrupt practices in so many major institutions of American life–not just government, but also major league sports, the Catholic Church’s molestation scandals, big business (Enron, Worldcon, et al)–had eaten away the fabric of trust needed in order for society to function. That was before the ubiquity of cell phone cameras had given us evidence of pervasive police misconduct, before stories emerged about phony FBI forensic testimony, before the “banksters” and the Great Recession they triggered…the list goes on.

Democratic governments require a robust civil society in order to function properly. Civil society requires social capital. Social capital–our connection to one another–requires trust and reciprocity.

That trust is hard to come by these days.