Nobel Laureate David Baltimore Tackles Issues of Trust

February 19, 2002

Tags: Awards + Announcements

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — From the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center to the Enron scandal, we are bombarded by the break down of trust in society. Drawing upon personal experience and world events, David Baltimore, the founding director of the Whitehead Institute and current president of the California Institute of Technology, tackled these issues in a talk entitled “Building a Community on Trust,” held on February 18 in Kresge Auditorium.

“Trust remains the foundation of the academic world,” said Baltimore. This is true at every level—the trust colleagues have in each other, the trust between students and teachers, and the trust that parents have in the schools that take care of their children, he explained.

Baltimore won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1975 for “discoveries concerning the interaction of tumor viruses and the genetic material of the cell.” More recently, he and his colleagues have been recognized for their work leading to the development of the cancer drug Gleevec.

Academia is Based on Trust

As an example of trust built into the system, Baltimore described Caltech’s unique honor code. All examinations at the school, for instance, are take-home. Some are open-book, others closed, some have set time limits, but always the students are expected to comply. “I suppose there is a little cheating, but basically the students maintain the trust. As a result, they know the value of trust when they graduate,” he said.

In his talk, Baltimore touched on past personal experiences with issues of trust, including the establishment of the Whitehead Institute.

When Jack Whitehead approached MIT with the idea of establishing an independently governed institute with ties to MIT, he was greeted with suspicion. The MIT community feared that such an institute might try to steal their intellectual capital. But Baltimore, already selected by Whitehead to direct the new research facility, insisted that MIT was the right setting. An affiliation agreement was crafted, but “really there had to be trust,” said Baltimore.

He went on to say that the success of Whitehead showed that systems and processes could rapidly evolve to create a major research institution. “You don’t have to be a Harvard and inherit those processes.”

Baltimore also emphasized the dependence of scientific enterprises on personal integrity and the growing importance of trust as science has become increasingly collaborative. “The push toward interdisciplinary science is evident everywhere, especially in biology,” he said. The sequencing of the human genome and the subsequent mining of this information are perfect examples. The Human Genome Project wouldn’t be possible without the many mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, as well as chemists, biologists, and physicists, who have been attracted to the huge endeavor.

These large collaborative efforts are generating a tidal wave of data that has required the development of powerful new tools to manage, compile, and manipulate the massive amount of information. As a result, trust is more important than ever, said Baltimore.

Of course, along with trust, there must be stringent testing and quality control, added Baltimore. “Millions of people’s work may be involved in building a satellite. Do they trust one another? Yes. But they have engineering tests also. At that level of expertise, trust is not enough. You have to be sure because of the catastrophic effects of inadvertent error.”

A New Frontier—The Science of Trust

Baltimore ended his talk with a discussion about the radical, new overlaps in experimental and social sciences. He suggests that decision making may be better understood by studying the brain. “This is the serious encroachment of scientific theory into areas where it previously did not apply,” said Baltimore, who seemed delighted at the overlap between neuroscience and philosophy, economics and ethics.

Scientists can now use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify the parts of the brain that are active in decision making. This may ultimately be used to disprove the selfish gene, a controlling notion in biology, said Baltimore. The hypothesis states that the so-called selfish gene causes humans to act in favor of the survival of their own genes, causing altruism toward one’s own family, for instance, and not toward another family.

Baltimore went on to describe research by Jean Ensminger, an economist and professor of anthropology at Caltech. She studied individuals in 15 different cultures, who were given $10 each and told to share a portion of the money with one other person—with the caveat that if the second recipient was unhappy with the first recipient’s offer, neither would get a dime. Results showed that the more capitalistic the society, the more generous the shared portion. Baltimore concluded that without trust a market economy couldn’t exist.

He closed his talk by voicing the hope that the “study of trust” might be next on the horizon.

The talk was the fourth in the Ford/MIT Nobel Laureate Lecture series, a five-year program sponsored by the Ford Motor Company.

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