UN3120: Trust and Mistrust in Science and Expert | G. Eyal

Undergraduate Lecture
Tu 10:10AM-11:25AM

Skepticism about science and expertise is evident today in multiple arenas and clearly can no longer be considered a passing phenomenon. From climate change to vaccines; from mammograms to Coronavirus testing; from opposition to rules regulating acceptable levels of carcinogens to AI algorithms purporting to yield better decisions than human experts; the challenges to the authority of experts come from both sides of the political spectrum and take multiple forms. Most discussions of the challenges to expertise start from the question of mistrust.

They ask why do people mistrust science and experts given their obvious and well-documented successes and their contribution to immense improvements in collective well-being? This way of posing the question inevitably leads to the conclusion that people mistrusting experts are irrational, uninformed or duped. This, however, may not be the most productive way to pose the question. For the social scientist, mistrust is not the puzzle, trust is. It is not surprising that people would tend to mistrust decisions taken in locales far removed from their daily lives, that are supported by forms of knowledge and technical arrangements that can be relatively opaque and difficult to grasp. It is not surprising especially since these decisions impact some individuals and groups adversely, while benefitting others. Finally, every now and then, but predictably so, it becomes obvious in hindsight that the wrong decisions were taken.

Under these circumstances it is far more puzzling, counter-intuitive and difficult to understand why, how, and under what conditions people do trust science and experts. If we want to understand mistrust, and ultimately arrive at a more balanced arrangement of the relations between experts and laypeople, we need to begin by asking what is trust? How is it typically organized and secured? What sustains trust in experts and scientists? Only after we have some grasp of the mechanisms by which trust is cultivated, can we hope to have an explanation of the contemporary atmosphere of mistrust, that does not deteriorate into name-calling This course will be organized, accordingly, in two parts. In the first part, we will consider different approaches to trust, and specifically for how trust in science and experts is elicited and secured. The second half of the course will be dedicated to examining contemporary case studies of mistrust in science and experts.

Link to Vergil
Note: only courses offered during the two previous semesters have active Vergil links.