Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Trust and Consistency

In a modernist world, we trap untrustworthy behaviour by detecting inconsistency. The suspicious husband or wife, the diligent auditor, the astute detective - all these are looking for signs that a given story doesn't add up.

But there are several problems with this approach to trust.
  • Suspicion feeds on itself. A suspicious person can almost always find grounds for suspicion. If we are not careful, we can get lots of false positives.
  • Professional investigators learn to overlook isolated signs, and only follow up when they detect a regular pattern of inconsistency.
  • Looking for internal inconsistency focuses on one kind of truth - the coherence notion of truth, rather than the correspondence theory of truth.
  • In some cases (such as accounting/auditing), professional investigators develop a discursive practice, in which the only things that can be investigated are those that can be expressed in the language of the practice. Thus an auditor can only investigate a business problem if it can be manifested as an accounting irregularity.
In contrast, a postmodern approach expects and tolerates inconsistency. People and companies make and correct errors, and are forgiven. For the postmodern investigator, an obsessive and closed-minded consistency is an immediate sign of untrustworthiness.

Furthermore, people and companies today are subjected to unprecedented levels of scrutiny, and all sorts of inconsistencies are made visible. Public figures (including company bosses) make unguarded remarks, which may be blown up out of context, and they are sometimes forced out of their jobs because they are thought to have said something inconvenient or offensive. It seems this is because the public can no longer trust them - one remark shatters an image (how fragile!) of respectability.

But to the extent that our world may be shifting from modern to postmodern, we should expect changes to the prevailing notions of respectability and trust. See for example this discussion on Transparency and Forgiveness, which asks what standards of criticism we should apply to unguarded remarks.