When Trust Betrayal Keeps Coming Back

Cobalt57 has a half-life of 257 days. The half-life of a bad divorce ranges from a few years to a lifetime.

And the half-life of betrayed trust is somewhere beyond that.

In fact, trust betrayed has a way of regenerating. Call it Zombie trust: when trust is trashed, it has a way of never really dying—it just keeps on coming back to get you.

Trust Betrayal and the Black Community

Two cases in point. From the early 1930s until 1972, a government sponsored study of syphilis in Tuskegee, Alabama systematically and intentionally lied to poor black sharecroppers about the “research” being done to help them. In fact, their infection was left untreated, so as to study the ravaging effects of the disease.

The study is pretty well-known in the black community, and is a powerful story about the depth, depravity and reality of racism in the USA.

Powerful enough that it has made black people afraid of taking part in medical clinical trials. It’s not hard to understand why. And yet, we have this news story:

In a report to be published in the journal Medicine online Jan. 14, experts in the design and conduct of medical research found that black men and women were only 60 percent as likely as whites to participate in a mock study to test a pill for heart disease. Results came from a random survey of 717 outpatients at 13 clinics in Maryland, 36 percent of whom were black and the rest white.

"The survey is believed to be the first analysis showing that an overestimation of risk of harm explains why blacks’ participation in clinical trials has for decades lagged that of whites. The results come at a time of increased recognition of racial differences in disease rates and treatments. Researchers point out that some kidney diseases, stroke, lung cancer and diabetes all progress more quickly in blacks and kill more blacks than people of other racial backgrounds.

"There is enormous irony that without African-American subject participation in clinical trials, we are not going to have tested the best therapies we need to treat African Americans," says study senior researcher, Hopkins internist and epidemiologist Neil R. Powe, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A. "So long as the legacy of Tuskegee persists, African Americans will be left out of important findings about the latest treatments for diseases, especially those that take a greater toll on African Americans and consequently may not have ready or equal access to the latest medicines."

The Zombie of Trust Betrayed is at work here. The past abuse of trust was so horrific that it continues to wreak havoc, even when—ironically—researchers could be of help.

Robert Zogby and the Polling Debacle

Here’s another case. After the New Hampshire Democratic primary polling debacle, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show invited famed controversial pollster Robert Zogby as a spokesman for the polling industry.

Zogby held his own in the unwinnable format—but the Zombie of Trust Betrayed got him—bad—a week later.

In a post on January 16, Rick Rottman recounts a first-hand story from 1992, when he took a European history course from Zogby at Utica College. Long story short, as Rottman tells it, Zogby offered to raise everyone’s grade a point if they came in and volunteered for an 8-hour shift at his polling business.

At first, everyone agreed to it. Later, everyone reneged. Pressed as to why, they all said they felt it was unethical. Zogby, as Rottman recounts it, blew a gasket.

Worse yet, says Rottman, he had gotten an A on his midterm before these events. He never saw the results of his final exam (on which he thought he had done well), but his final grade was a C—implying an improbable F on his final exam. Understandably, Rottman is inclined to wonder why.

That was 1992. Now, 16 years later, Rottman is in the blogosphere saying “John Zogby is the reason I don’t trust polls.” And it’s not hard to understand why.

Note: I want to be very careful about spreading critical comments like this. If Zogby has something to say, he’s got white space here in this column to do so. And if he convinces me Rottman is a nut job, then I’ll strip his story entirely out of this blog. Until then, however, Rottman is writing quite clearly about a first-hand experience which sounds credible to me—or I wouldn’t be citing and linking to him here.

Final examples of the half-life of mistrust: look to the Russian-Chechen conflict; the feelings between the Sunnis and the Shia.

Trust lasts a long time. Trust betrayed appears to last longer.