Who Do You Trust?

After leading class discussion last week, I began to mull over this question of trust. “Oh,” you say, “why is trust even a question?” As an academic-sort of person, I wonder at little things now. I read through Chuck Zerby’s Devil’s Details as well as Grafton’s Footnotes: A Curious History wherein both of them trace the development of footnotes and methods of trusting scholars findings.

Dr. McClurken added an additional set of readings about an academic hoax a few years back. The comments on this post struck me with the idea of “trust networks.” Dr. McClurken had mentioned this issue that the authority behind the project duped a number of colleagues into believing in the legitimacy of the work. I have to admit that I can appreciate the unsettling of the academic waters. Projects like this kick up a bunch of muck in the water and teach us that trust can sometimes be misleading. Just as scholars could fake early footnotes with sources that were tampered with, we historians and scholars will struggle with these issues. Somehow, we become far too trusting. Yet it is impossible to fact check every footnote or each aspect of a project. Something will slip under our radar, yet the more vigilant the scholar, the better the field.

At times questioning trust causes rifts between groups. How dare you doubt x researcher? Don’t you know that he/she has a degree in such and such a field? But academic work does not necessarily equate with bias-free texts. It might even be a bit depressing to know that the scholarly field is not as trustworthy as it might seem, but aren’t we all better off for having the wool taken off our eyes? Although we should expect that our colleagues will be honest and upright, knowing that the academic career is more than a little cutthroat gives us a better lay of the land. Why yes I am dancing around this issue! If academics will question the validity of primary source materials, should we not question our trust circles even further? Watch your back, things are not as clear as they may seem.

Maybe this whole matter of trust turns academia into a spy game or a thriller of sorts, filled with dangerous scholars toating deadly footnotes meant to lull a colleague into a false sense of security. You can place more mechanisms to ensure trustworthy work, yet in the end anything can eventually be circumvented. Trust at your own risk.

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