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Building Trust through Dialoging

With “dialoging" I seek to describe conversational practices that probe collaborators’ abilities to explain and understand in order to fine-tune trust expectations and establish the realm of expertise for which a collaborator can be trusted. Such dialoging pervades collaborations ofscientists among which differences of expertise, either due to interdisciplinarity or seniority, are palpable. When experimental processes, findings or interpretations seem dubious or incomprehensible, a scientist should ask questions—and when asked a question, he or she should provide an answer. Explaining and understanding, here, have to be conceived from a first-person/second- person relation; they are anchored in the exchange between me and you (Chang, 2011; Scriven, 1962).

In asking questions and having them explained, and in explaining questions and having them understood, scientists can evaluate each others’ trustworthiness. In the conducted interviews, the theme of explain- ing/understanding is repeatedly brought up in the context of trust by different interviewees, yet most comprehensively by Adam. In the interview with him, the theme of explaining/understanding is interestingly referred to from two different angles. First, Adam talks about having a scientific question explained in discussions with other group members from different disciplines in order to “get the gist." Second, and a little later, he speaks about explaining a question himself to find out whether potential collaborators qualify as trustworthy enough:

Adam: [...] I guess from, just from a conversation, I guess, you can tell whether somebody is technically competent by the way they talk about, ah you know, talk about things.

Q: OK, so what would be an example for a signal that tells you this person is maybe not competent? Not competent enough?

Adam: Ah, if they are missing if they are missing fundamental lines of argument, if they are confusing cause and effect for example, that would be bad. And if they are vague on something which is really quite important, and if, and if I explain something, something that is quite basic, and they still don’t, still don’t get it. (Adam, senior scientist, groupl)

By talking to other scientists, Adam seeks to picture what the other person knows. But in addition to that, he gets an impression of whether or not the person he is talking to responds properly to his questions and his priorities, that is, whether this person picks up on “what is really quite important." I will call this ability “explanatory responsiveness."

With the notion of explanatory responsiveness I denote the willingness and the skill to tailor an explanation to an interlocutor’s epistemic needs. Being explanatorily responsive means to possess a professional sensitivity for me—you dialoging, which provides an explanation that can be understood within the context of the epistemic background that the person receiving an explanation possesses. Explanatory responsiveness combines cognitive abilities and moral commitment, that is, like trustworthiness it has an epistemic and a moral facet. If a speaker is explanatorily responsive, she will commit herself to the listener’s informational needs. She will tell her listener something that “makes sense." To do so, the speaker is required to have some knowledge about the capacity for understanding that the addressed person possesses.

Sperber et al. (2010) offer a noteworthy complement to my observations on understanding and explaining that helps to shed further light on the role of explanatory responsiveness in fostering trust. Their argument can be summarized as follows. What someone says is interpreted in light of his trustworthiness. If a hearer believes a speaker to be trustworthy right from the outset, she will tend to interpret his utterances in a way that make them acceptable to her, that is, in a way that creates coherence between his utterance and her prior beliefs. If the hearer does not hold any prior attitude of strong trust towards the speaker, her interpretation may not be guided by the wish to interpret what is said in an acceptable way. Rather, she interprets what is said in a way so as to emphasize its relevance to the communication between her and the speaker. Sperber et al. show that relevance-guided interpretation need not coincide with acceptability-guided interpretation—in fact, there might be a trade-off between the maximization of relevance and interpretative charity (Sperber et al., 2010, p. 368). Now, if the speaker shows explanatory responsiveness and addresses the listener’s informational needs in the above-mentioned sense, such a trade-off is unlikely to arise and acceptance along with mutual understanding is alleviated. Mutual understanding, in turn, helps consolidate trust relations.

One might assume that it is difficult to provide explanations for scientists with different disciplinary backgrounds. But in Adam’s experience, interdisciplinary dialoging is possible across disciplinary boundaries:

Q: [...] I mean, if someone from another discipline tells you something, it necessarily sounds a bit weird, because this is a different field, they have different standards maybe and they .

Adam: Yeah, maybe, but but still we are normally talking about a very specific situation, a very specific thing like how do you get from this mineral to that mineral or how does this physical process work and there then although we come, we have different expertise, we have to come with an argument that is rational and logical and makes sense. (Adam, senior scientist, groupl)

Because he is familiar with the subject matter, Adam is able to measure explanations against certain generalized expectations concerning the argumentative structure of the explanation offered (cf. Goldman, 2001, p. 93f-): does the explanation offered sound “rational and logical"? Formal reasoning is a strategy for epistemic vigilance (cf. Sperber et al., 2010, p. 376ff.), viable even when detailed, disciplinary expertise is lacking.

Formal reasoning is particularly effective because it can contribute both to second and first-order reasons, both helping to establish the trustworthiness of the speaker and the reliability of the content that the speaker conveys. Note, however, that formal reasoning alone provides only insufficient first-order reasons to justify a scientist in believing what his or her collaborator conveys if experimental results are at stake. In experimental scientific practice, formal reasoning cannot do away with epistemic dependence and trust.

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