ALLEA has published the first issue of a new discussion paper series with the title “Loss of Trust? Loss of Trustworthiness? Truth and Expertise Today”. The paper addresses current discussions on the so-called “post-truth” era and draws attention to the questions of placing and refusing trust in expertise, and how expertise and scientific evidence are being contested in a changing landscape of communication.
Based on discussions of ALLEA’s international and interdisciplinary Working Group Truth, Trust and Expertise, the paper proposes to refocus the debate on the alleged loss of trust in expertise beyond people’s generic attitudes of trust and mistrust reflected in polls. In doing so, it delves into the question of how people place and refuse trust in expertise, and warns that trust in expertise is “valuable when placed in trustworthy agents and activities, but damaging and costly when misplaced”.
Truth, trust and expertise matter in every walk of life. Personal choices and profound policy decisions rely on our ability to place and refuse trust wisely. That is to say, to determine whether a truth claim is trustworthy. But how do we place and refuse trust? Such judgements primarily, but not exclusively, involve the exercise of epistemic trust. To invest epistemic trust in a person, an organisation or a procedure is to trust their capacity as providers of information. A great deal of this information that we absorb is acquired from others and the level of trustworthiness we ascribe to their speech and testimony. This introduces an affective, or emotional, dimension into our judgements on what is trustworthy or not.
The following briefing will be of interest to many from researchers to policymakers, from journal editors to science popularisers, from institutions to publics. However, this briefing covers broad questions affecting many people and so although it is helpful to bring the questions raised together in one place, there will be elements more or less relevant to each individual and group and we would expect that each will reflect most on those elements. With that caveat, this briefing concludes by posing some reflections for further consideration and action:
The initial response to claims that experts were not trustworthy was to regulate them more closely. The importance of accountability whilst still encouraging academic endeavour needs to be thought through further. We need to know whether our accountability systems support the intelligent placing and refusing of trust.
There needs to be further reflection on the different conventions and practices that exist in science in the Wissenschaft sense of the word. How can people know what counts as trustworthy evidence when what counts as good evidence differs in different scientific fields?
How can we move forward with ways of working that acknowledge that there are different ways of framing problems and different interpretations of issues, but without descending into relativism rather than achieving consensus?
Contact and engagement in person with a wide range of people, and of differing views and backgrounds, is important for individuals and societies (as well as functioning democracies). Dialogue is essential. How though can we secure dialogue in an age of social media?
How do we speak truth to power and publics whilst nourishing a culture that welcomes expertise and can be tolerant of the odd disruption this brings? If expertise and science are to engage effectively in the public and policy arenas how can such knowledge draw together and deliver good trustworthy advice?
What are wider publics meant to make of this cacophony of placing and refusing trust, of almost boundless available information, and the feeling of proliferating expertise? Is it a question of placing greater emphasis on understanding how expertise and science as social constructs work so as to enable a better sense of the nature and significance of the ‘expertise’ being viewed? Would this help us place our trust more accurately and more wisely?