Trust and Reliability

Responding in Webogg-Ed to a comment by David Weinberger.
David Weinberger: “Open up The Britannica at random and you’re far more likely to find reliable knowledge than if you were to open up the Web at random. That’s why we don’t open up the Web at random. Instead, we rely upon a wide range of trust mechanisms, appropriate to their domain, to guide us.”
The problem is, Weinberger's response is wrong.

The quote compares a particular product - Britannica - with an entire medium - the web.

The medium of which Britannica is a part - print media - is demonstrably as unreliable as the web, especially after you point out that print media includes tabloid journalism, press releases and political advertising.

The comparison should most properly be between Britannica and, say, Wikipedia. But the problem here is, if you open a random Wikipedia page, you are no less likely to find reliable knowledge.

Weinberger's response introduces a new topic that has nothing to do with the original comparison. He is talking about how we select media. This was never the issue.

But if we're going to talk about media selection, are 'trust mechanisms' the right way to characterize (a) what we actually do, and (b) what we should do?

I content neither is the case. Certainly, trust mechanisms are not operating at the moment. Very little of my selection has anything to do with, say, the reviews in Amazon or eBay. Rather, I get deluged with content - most of it spam - and pick out content I recognize to be valuable.

How do I do this? This is a clue to how we will want to work in the future. I have mechanisms I use to select content for myself - I don't simply 'trust' external agencies - not even my friends or social networks.

My selection of reliable content is a matter of recognizing the types of content I find to be reliable. Good reviews, recommendations, etc. - these are only a part of it.

I am tempted to say, there is no trust. That trust is a lie.

Think about it. If you know me, you know that I am a trustworthy source - maybe as trustworthy as one gets. Suppose I am, just for the sake of argument.

Do you simply accept my argument? Do you simply agree with me? Of course not. Nor should you.

Reliability isn't - and never was - a matter of trust.

Indeed, I would say, the day we start relying on trust to confer reliability, is the day we start allowing ourselves to be led down the garden path (with the 'trustworthy' authorities leading the way).


  1. You write:

    "Reliability isn't - and never was - a matter of trust"

    Do you mean that trust isn't any part of reliability or that reliability isn't *solely* a matter of trust. I think the latter is self-evidently true and demonstrates that trust is an important part of reliability (or at least many of the more common forms of it).

    Then you posit yourself as hypothetically trustworthy and ask:

    "Do you simply accept my argument? Do you simply agree with me? Of course not. Nor should you."

    But there are many different things we look for reliability in. I may not have ultimate trust in your or anyone else, but when it comes to evaluating and argument I may rely on something you have posited, when it comes to selecting a resource or buying a book I may trust you even more. All of those are part of reliability.

    Perhaps you don't take into account anyone else's expressed opinions/analysis/claims, but you would be the only person I've encountered that has claimed that to be true.

    It isn't reliance on trustworthy colleagues and participants in one's social network that leads one down the path, it's *solely* relying on such trust.

  2. I suppose it depends on how broadly we define "trust." Do I "trust" the weatherman when he says the temperature at the airport is 78 degrees? Do I "trust" my thermometer more? Do I "trust" my subjective perception of the temperature. Or are these not cases of "trust?"


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