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To trust or (mostly) not to trust; that is the question

An author gone sadly astray

I was thinking about trust when I picked up two books by David Paulides.

Trust has been on my to-blog list for weeks now. Paulides had never entered my consciousness until the library put eight of his paperbacks on display next to the main door. The series is called Missing 411, with each thick tome containing the author’s “investigations” into missing persons.

Lost mountaineers and wandered-to-doom children make sad but gripping reading. I had no idea at the time that Paulides is the guy who dubiously “proved” Bigfoot exists. I also had no idea that Paulides is the guy who’s currently got a devoted segment of the nation speculating that every drunken frat boy found face-down in a pond two weeks after wandering away from his partying companions is the victim of (take your pick) alien abductors or conjoined rings of serial killers.

Paulides is a writer no watchful reader would trust. It’s obvious. You can see that right away if you read him.

He “proves” his cases with laughably cherry-picked evidence, wild assumptions, and incessant innuendo. (Paulides himself takes no position — yet — on the deep issue of aliens vs a serial killer mafia, though he hints he’s closing in on unnatural suspects; he merely insinuates and encourages readers to make their own speculations in the direction he points them.)

The 411 series began with bare-bones accounts of missing-persons cases, mostly those that have occurred in national parks or wilderness areas. Some of the missing that Paulides focuses on later turn up dead, some are never seen again, others (particularly toddlers) are found alive but unable to say what happened to them.

But as Paulides researched, he discovered patterns.

Oh my lord, we humans and patterns. Our brains are pattern-seeking machines. Of course we have to be careful not to miss significant patterns (Og knows: shadow behind bush moves like sabre-tooth tiger; shadow behind bush must BE sabre-tooth tiger), but some people really need curb their tendencies to see or create patterns from meaningless data.

By his latter books Paulides has defined categories into which his victims tend to fall. Some categories seem obviously relevant, some random but still potentially significant if a conspiracy is afoot. Things like being found dead near water, having health conditions, separating from companions, being medical professionals, being ultimately found in areas previously searched, or even being of German ancestry.

Having defined categories, Paulides is by-God going to make his subjects fit the categories no matter what. If there’s a notable lake 40 miles away, or “many lakes and streams in the area” a dead victim is “found near water.” Separating from companions in a wilderness or during a drunken romp isn’t just a human move that makes death by misadventure more likely; it’s a Sign.

And here in his estimation, is the German ancestry of a lost forager surnamed March:

Ancestry.com stated that the name “March” was from England, Wales, or Scotland; then they had this statement: “from anglo-norman French marche boundary (of Germanic origin ….”

Lest you imagine he’s merely making a diverting observation, he then immediately concludes: “As a huge coincidence, the other mushroom picker missing just east of where _____ vanished was also German.” (Emphasis mine.)

So you see the quality of both his evidence and his logic.

His widly discussed claim about drunken frat boys is justified by repeated statements of this sort (I paraphrase): “These kinds of deaths always involve the finest young men. They never happen to vagrants or criminals; I know because I’ve never read about it happening to some bum.”

Oy. He’s never heard about a drugged-up vagrant face-planting in falling snow or washing up beneath a pier a week after disappearing from a freeway underpass because those accounts appear, if at all, on page 15 of some local fishwrap, just below the ads for adult diapers. Plus he doesn’t want to research such sadly common occurances because they don’t fit his preconceptions.

The missing-found-dead stories he chooses appear in People magazine or on dedicated websites precisely because they’re unusual — because some bright, inexperienced young man with monied parents and a shining future, on his own for the first time in his life, didn’t understand his capacity for alcohol — and that’s a tragedy.

There’s more. A lot of Paulides’ reasoning would be hilarious if not for the ever-lurking question, “Why does anyone believe this? Anybody with common sense and an elementary grasp of logic would see right through this cherry-picking and these dubious claims.”

The psychology of unwarranted trust

What are the best ways to give trust, wisely, not foolishly? Are there workably universal guidelines that can be spelled out — besides the obvious, like don’t trust any politician whose lips are moving or any stranger who’s showed up at your door to sell you a new roof or a truckload of frozen meat? That’s a question I’ve been mulling the last few weeks. I haven’t blogged about it because I wanted to have both coherent framing and useful conclusions. I still have mostly questions.

Take the readers who’ve formed almost a cult around Paulides and his mysteries and absurdities. It’s easy to dismiss these people as naive or dumb. But I don’t think so. Some may be, but OTOH we all know brilliant conspiracy-seekers, led there in part by their wide-ranging intellects, as well as their mistrust of official stories. Sometimes crucial information comes to light thanks to doggedly “crazy” investigators.

But Paulides’ readers — hundreds of thousands, if not a million or more of them — choose to trust the fascinating gobbledygook found in the Missing 411 books.

Some may trust because the author claims a long career as a police detective and therefore he’s a presumed authority on investigative techniques. Some may trust because if the official story from national park officials or the media smells rotten, anything that casts more shade on it must ipso facto be the pure shining truth.

Others may trust because they have no yardstick to measure against when Paulides tells them that this or that is “statistically unlikely,” “highly suspicious,” “no mere coincidence,” or “an overlooked detail you should take note of.”

Some may trust because Paulides encourages them to view themselves as co-investigators, and that strokes their ego or gives them a mission to pursue in their possibly excessive free time.

Besides, there are real mysteries about these disappearances. When Paulides quotes a search team member saying, “It’s as if he vanished off the face of the earth,” it’s easy to wonder if maybe the missing person did just that. When a toddler is found alive, but 12 miles from where he wandered away, you do wonder how he traveled so far.

But to grant any form of trust for the information as Paulides presents it, all those devoted readers have to suspend their own skepticism and analytical abilities. They have to trust where trust is blatantly inappropriate. Why does anybody do that?

You, me, and everybody else in the everyday web of trust

We shake our heads when we identify fools following the foolish or the perfidious. But in real life, most of us (and all of us at some time or another) have given unwarranted trust, and may have even given it to people who are practically wearing neon signs on top of their heads flashing, “I’m gonna screw you!”

Leaving aside unfortunate habits like trusting politicians, preachers, police, writers, “experts,” or other Authoritah because we’ve been indoctrinated from birth and haven’t absorbed all the Big Learning Experiences yet, we need to trust friends, family members, neighbors, and peers. And can we, really? If so, how and how far? Other than fallible signs, experience, and pure gut what guides us?

In freedom communities, mutual trust — and trustworthiness — is vital (as is some means of dealing with a minority who can’t be trusted). Yet between humans trust is art, not science. All humans, everywhere, at all time.

—–

We may choose to trust our husband or wife, even though said spouse is cheating on us and not even doing it very subtly. We may stand by our best bro even as evidence mounts that he’s a backstabber or a criminal. We may trust our favorite child even as she takes out credit cards in our name and depletes our bank account.

Because without that trust, our world shatters. Without the happy illusion that friends and family are on our side and we on theirs, we fall into an abyss of grief, fear, and life-altering decisions.

In some cases, our entire self-image may be at risk if we admit that a person we rely on is really a dirty-dealing bastard or a quiet betrayer. Or worse, we might be the untrustworthy person, but be so focused on maintaining an illusion of reliability that we’ll do anything to keep our own perfidy from coming to light.

When I say “we” I’m not saying you — at least not in this particular aspect of trust. I expect readers of this blog are truth-facers. That you’re here among the skeptics says you’d rather bear the pain of betrayal than the folly of gullibility. You also don’t want to be the hidden betrayer yourself because you value your integrity more than you value either sneaky gain or false appearances.

Still, even we-the-skeptical-inquirers and sometimes rough-edged followers of principle have to give trust and earn trust.

I’ll bet not one of us, not even the most savvy, is blissfully unfamiliar with the rage and agony of being betrayed by a deeply trusted somebody. It’s even likely that a memorably painful childhood or young-adult betrayal led us into our savvy skepticism and toward more careful choices about whom and how to trust.

—–

Do you have some friend, some lifelong companion, some close relative that you can “trust to the death” — trust in every way with complete confidence? And has your trust been tested (hopefully not to the death) so you know it’s solid?

If so, you’re lucky. Or unusually wise.

With most people trust must be more conditional. For instance, I trust Furrydoc and Neighbor J with personal information no one else knows and with responsibility for my house keys and my estate, such as it is. I’m fortunate to have such friends. But I wouldn’t, for instance, expect them to risk their safety on the strength of my word alone, nor would I risk mine on theirs. That’s a different variety and degree of trust.

If an animal was in dire straits, I could always trust my former friend L to dash out of the house in her pjs and robe in the middle of the night to save it. But I learned I couldn’t trust her with even a single personal confidence. Telling L anything was like putting it on a billboard. Afterward she’d get that kid-with-cookie-crumbs look and swear, “Wasn’t me!”

I trust the honor of The Wandering Monk absolutely. He would never cheat me or deliberately do me dirty in any way. But I don’t always trust his stories about his past or his statements about what time he’ll arrive for a project. The former is way more important, so I trust him in all the big ways and again I’m hugely fortunate to have him in my life.

You can trust me always to tell the psychological truth when I blog. But OTOH I’m a writer. I change names and occasional factoids to protect the innocent. I occasionally embellish. You can trust my spirit, but not always my details.

Everywhere around us, we’re confronted (and sometimes confounded) by complex webs of trust/mistrust.

Yet trust — at a limited but (this is vital) predictable level — is one of the keys to a successful freedom community. The need to give trust without being suckered and sucker-punched is universal. But never more so than when small groups of individuals have to depend on each other in hard times.

Experience can turn us into paranoid old recluses, suspecting hypocrisy, dishonor, and lies behind every casual encounter. We can on the other extreme remain an emotional child who falls for every con that comes along. Or we can be — or strive to be — the Goldilocks who finally figures out which bed or bowl or chair or person is good for us (good neighbor, friend, co-worker, etc.) without all that uncomfortable testing. But we can only reach that point by trial-and-error.

I suspect I seem on the paranoid spectrum as I write this. Probably true; experience has taught me to give trust cautiously and not at all to certain classes of people — those high up, those low down, those who claim my trust as their right or my duty, and those whose personal charm is too good to be true.

But like nearly everybody, I go through daily life trusting all over the place. I trust my friends to be genuine, my neighbors to be part of a network of mutual interests, store clerks to give honest change, delivery drivers to properly handle packages, strangers on the street to be peaceable, other motorists to be safe and courteous. I trust myself to be watchful in case I’m wrong on those assumptions. Others trust me in the same way.

Life is, blessedly, a stream of trustworthiness. Most people are trustworthy at least to the limited extent we need commonly to trust them and be trusted by them.

It’s just that the exceptions — especially when we’re not expecting them or are particularly vulnerable to them — can be so memorably agonizing. And in hard times, so disastrous.

I wish I had a nice five-step technique for avoiding the untrustworthy or recognizing the untrustable aspects of otherwise good people. I’d write a listicle. But nope.

Still, we can at least keep our good sense, refresh our faculties for filtering BS, open our eyes to evidence (without opening them so far that they fall out of our heads over every Paulidesian claim), and otherwise learn skills to enable us to better practice Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum: Trust, but verify.

10 Comments

  1. Joel
    Joel May 28, 2019 1:24 pm

    About the stories I tell – I always insist that every single one of them is, er, based on truth.

    But I hate hate hate not being able to depend on a person to do what he/she promises, and have devoted myself to not being that person. Keep your promises even if it’s at your own expense and you need to adjust your next promise, and at least that part of your life will go well for you – that’s something I’ve tried to live by … er, ever since I adjusted my life to a mode where being forced to promise the impossible was no longer in my actual job description. I sleep better at night and the angry telephone calls have tapered off.

    I can’t control what other people do, but I can control what *I* do. Also I can try to stay away from depending on undependable people.

  2. Myself
    Myself May 28, 2019 1:53 pm

    I come from the school of thought that trust is earned, never given, and I’ve thought this way almost all of my life.

    I also hold to the trueism that there is no one who won’t betray you for the right (or wrong reason)

    That being said I have no issue with a wide range of people, I’ll listen, even join forces if it’s advantageous, doesn’t mean I’ll trust anyone completely (or at times at all)

  3. David M. Gross
    David M. Gross May 28, 2019 8:09 pm

    Seems that you’re talking about more than “trust” here. Well-placed trust is one mechanism of intellectual hygiene, but only one of several. You also need, for example:

    Curiosity
    inquisitiveness
    open-mindedness
    philomathy
    skepticism
    Intelligence
    wisdom / philosophy
    factual knowledge
    Rationality
    devotion to the truth / good faith reasoning
    careful evaluation of evidence
    Heedfulness
    seeking out good advice
    scholarship
    vigilance
    Discernment / understanding
    good judgment
    ethics
    perspective
    righteousness
    Intuition
    insight
    Emotional intelligence
    self-awareness
    Attention
    awareness
    sati (mindfulness)
    sensitivity
    observation

    I recently came across an interesting project from down under: “Rationality Dojos” (http://rationalitydojo.com.au/) that are ways to try to instill and practice good habits of information processing and effective living. Seems like they might be on to something.

  4. John Wilder
    John Wilder May 29, 2019 1:09 am

    Paulides is the equivalent of professional wrestling. Enjoy it, but never assume it’s real.

  5. Steve Watt
    Steve Watt May 29, 2019 4:57 am

    When I was a child, we were brought up believing if it was in a book it MUST be true or else why would a publishing house publish it? As I grew older I realised that was wrong but, as with many things you learned young, the thought stays with me. I think that is one reason a lot of folks follow obvious crap that appeals to our curiosity.

  6. david
    david May 29, 2019 5:17 am

    I’ve thought about this all night. I wanted to say I start out trusting anyone until proven wrong, but I knew that was a lie. I think I’m mostly Willing to trust anyone but actually Don’t Trust very many people at all. Ever.

    Perhaps that’s because of some of the failures that did occur when I erred and put trust in a few folk who later betrayed it. Epic hurts resulted, yet as callous as I can be, I could not issue the beat-downs (real or metaphorical) that were deserved for the betrayals. All I could do was cut ties, turn my back and walk away, permanently.

    That said, it doesn’t mean I’m a recluse. I have apparently normal dealings with people and family. Some of that is even based on trust. But if anything is important enough that it would be damaging to me should some transaction or situation go awry, I handle it myself. And that even applies to my current live-in girlfriend whom I know I cannot trust with money or my well-being. There are two exceptions who receive full trust due to their high standards of personal honor – my oldest daughter and one of my few male friends.

  7. ellendra
    ellendra May 30, 2019 9:33 am

    There needs to be a word for that neutral ground between “trust” and “suspicion”. Kind of like how “courtesy” fits in the middle between “respect” and “scorn”. Something that means “I’m assuming this person I don’t know is going to behave mostly honestly, but I’m ready to act in case they don’t.”

    Driving is a good example of that. You assume the other drivers are generally going to follow the traffic laws and conventions, but you’re ready to react in case they don’t. It doesn’t carry the stress of paranoia, but it also doesn’t carry the vulnerability of blind trust.

    On the subject of not trusting news sources, Scott Adams frequently blogs about ways to spot fake news and other forms of bias.

  8. Desert Pundit
    Desert Pundit June 1, 2019 1:06 pm

    Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer

  9. R R Schoettker
    R R Schoettker June 5, 2019 8:27 am

    “For men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.”
    — H.L. Mencken

  10. Claire
    Claire June 5, 2019 10:49 am

    R R Schoettker — Amen, Bruthah.

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