TCS Daily

That's Your Cue

By Arnold Kling - June 27, 2006 12:00 AM

"These sacred truths are unverifiable, and unfalsifiable, but the faithful nevertheless accept them to be unquestionable. In doing so, like assemblies of the faithful since the dawn of language, they bind themselves together for protection or common action against unbelievers and their lies."
--Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn, p. 165-166

When people in business meet for the first time to discuss a transaction, they often exchange what I call "trust cues" in order to reduce mutual suspicion. For example, they may recite empty phrases from popular business books, such as "win-win," "synergy," "principles," "customer-driven," or "raising the bar."

Nicholas Wade provides a readable, wide-ranging survey of the impact of recent advances in genetics on anthropology. In one chapter, he argues that the origins of what I observe in business behavior can be found in early religious rituals. Religions produce trust cues. Trust cues are necessary for large societies and trade among strangers to emerge. They serve to protect people from cheaters and liars.

What I am going to suggest in this essay is that political beliefs can serve the function of trust cues. Political beliefs may have at best a tenuous empirical basis, but they function to demonstrate one's membership in a trusted group.

Wade says that the evolutionary value of trust cues is that they facilitate peaceful interactions among strangers. When I offer a trust cue, I am saying that even though we do not know one another, I am a member of a trustworthy group. I value my membership in that group, and I know that lying to or cheating another member of that group could cause me to be excommunicated from the group. Since you are also a member of the group, you can trust me not to lie to you or to cheat you.

The most trustworthy groups are groups where membership is valuable and excommunication is costly. They are groups that monitor the behavior of their members closely.

The most trustworthy individuals are individuals who regularly show a willingness to sacrifice for the group. Attending religious worship every week, paying a tithe, and participating in ritual fasts are examples of demonstrating religious loyalty. These sorts of sacrifices are indicators that the individual values membership in the group, and they show that the individual would fear excommunication from the group.

The best trust cues are those that can be presented at low cost by members of the group but would be costly to fake for non-members. Thus, odd dialects and unusual phrases can serve as trust cues.


Empiricism is a rigorous approach to the subject of truth. Frederick Crews, author of Follies of the Wise, a book that attacks Freudian psychology and other weak intellectual fads, describes empiricism as "the ethic of respecting what is known, acknowledging what is still unknown, and acting as if one cared about the difference."(p. 305)

In modern philosophy, the empiricist tradition is often traced to John Locke and David Hume. Hume argued that truths are either matters of logic (such as mathematical theorems) or matters of observation (such as the law of gravity). Beliefs that cannot be verified by examining data or by reference to logic constitute dogma.

Although empiricism has become a standard philosophy in the West, dogma persists. I believe that the main reason that non-verifiable ideas survive is that they serve as trust cues. People still need to demonstrate their commitment to membership in groups, and recitation of dogma is a low-cost method of doing so.

Political Trust Cues

Wade writes,

"Modern states now accomplish by other means many of the early roles performed by religion, which is why religion has become of less relevance in some societies. But because the propensity for religious belief is still wired into the human mind, religion continues to be a potent force in societies that still struggle for cohesion." (p. 164)

This raises the possibility that political beliefs serve primarily as trust cues. For example, those who favor an increase in the minimum wage are sending trust cues to people on the Left, and those who oppose an increase in the minimum wage are sending trust cues to people on the Right.

The actual consequences of raising the minimum wage are rarely discussed. In other words, political debates often ignore what I call Type C arguments (from empiricism) and turn instead to type M arguments, which accuse one's opponent of belonging to an outcast group. The reason for this is that people are not trying to persuade each other rationally. Instead, they are using trust cues to indicate that failure to agree implies excommunication from the group.

Academic Trust Cues

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.

Both Crews and Wade cite examples of widespread use of trust cues rather than empiricism in academia. Crews describes the failure of the American Psychological Association to hold to empirical standards the practice of psychoanalysis as well as such fads as "recovered memory." On another topic, describing trends in humanities departments, Crews mentions

"Marxism and psychoanalysis that acquired survival value from the passions they aroused and from the pliability of their concepts and propositions. Each has constituted what Michael Polanyi once termed a dynamo-objective coupling -- that is, a doctrine whose normative claims can always be invoked when its scientific claims appear threatened, and vice versa." (p. 300)

Perhaps another example of dynamo-objective coupling is the statement "I believe that humans cause global warming." It serves both as an apparent empirical statement and a trust cue. The fact that opinions on global warming tend to align with political beliefs suggests that trust cues are playing a larger role than empirical research at this stage of the debate.

Wade writes,

"According to the American Sociological Association, race apparently does not even have a biological foundation, since it is a 'social construct.' The association's official statement on race warns that 'Although racial categories are legitimate subjects of empirical sociological investigation, it is important to recognize the danger of contributing to the popular conception of race as biological.'" (p. 191)

"But," Wade continues, "people can now be objectively assigned to their continent of origin, in other words to their race, by genetic markers." However, because the scientific observation conflicts with an important trust cue, major academic disciplines choose to ignore the evidence.

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.

I believe that societies need trust cues. I cannot imagine being able to get along without them. However, we also need empiricism. Progress comes from accepting empirical observations when they conflict with trust cues, while finding other ways to preserve social cohesion.

Arnold Kling is a TCS contributing editor and adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute.


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