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Schneier’s ‘Liars and Outliers’ fails to get to core of trust

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LIARS AND OUTLIERS: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive. By Barry Schneier. Wiley. 384 pages. $24.95.

Though we often desire to be local, we are global people. We may trust our neighbors next door, but how do you trust the thousands of people in your sphere whom you do not know by name or reputation?

This is the modern conundrum that Barry Schneier attempts to tackle in his new book, “Liars and Outliers.”

Schneier sets out his goal in his overview: “To develop a full-fledged theory of coercion and how it enables compliance and trust within groups.”

He defines four types of societal pressures: moral, reputational, institutional and security systems.

He posits that there is a fundamental tension between acting in the interest of the group (whether it be one’s family, colleagues, society, etc.) and self-interest.

But Schneier loses sight of his goal.

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He does not adequately define concrete laws or principles, and he often qualifies statements with such lines as, “It’s actually more complicated than that,” or, “I’m glossing over a lot of subtleties here.”

A well-regarded security technologist, Schneier never really gets to the core of trust; his “system” is not a system at all, but more like a series of outlines.

He advocates security systems to coerce compliance, but to what extent, concluding that we need just enough societal pressure to keep crime and other defections at “acceptable” levels.

Schneier’s research is impressive, using a range of sources to illustrate his points. His notes and references, themselves interesting, approach almost 100 pages.

Despite its shortcomings, the book is thought-provoking and well worth reading. He may not answer all of the questions he raises, or the ones you think about while reading, but he gives the reader many concepts to ponder about whom and how we trust in a complex, global environment. The answer seems to be, with care and our eyes wide open.

Reviewer Michael Nelson, a writer and editor based in Charleston

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