3 forms of "trust in science" ... a fragment
Friday, March 31, 2017 at 8:22AM
Dan Kahan

From something I'm working on . . . 

Three forms of trust in science

There are a variety of plausible claims about the role of science attitudes in controversies over decision-relevant science. These claims should be disentangled.

One such claim attributes public controversy to disagreements over the reliability of science. Generally speaking, people make decisions based on their understandings of the consequences of selecting one course of action over another. Science purports to give them information relevant to identifying such consequences: that vaccinating one’s children will protect them (and others) from serious harms; that the prevailing reliance on fossil fuels as an energy source will generate environmental changes inimical to human wellbeing, etc. How readily people will make use of this type of information will obviously depend on an attitude toward science—viz., that it knows what it is talking about.

We will call this attitude decisional trust in science.  Trust is often used to denote a willingness to surrender judgment to another under conditions that make the deferring party vulnerable.  People evince what we will call “decisional trust” in science when they treat the claims that science makes as worthy of being relied on under conditions  in which misplaced confidence would in fact be potentially very costly to them.

That attitude can be distinguished from what we’ll call institutional trust of science.  We have in mind here the claim that controversy over decision-relevant science often arises not from distrust of validly derived scientific knowledege but distrust of those who purport to be doing the deriving.  People who want to rely on science for guidance might still be filled with suspicion of powerful institutions—universities, government regulatory authorities, professions and professional associations—charged with supplying them with scientific information.  They might not be willing, then, to repose confidence in, and make themselves vulnerable to, these actors when making important decisions.

Both of these attitudes should be distinguished from still another kind of attitude that figures in some accounts of how science attitudes generate public controversy. We’ll call this one acceptance of the authority of science.

Science in fact competes for authority with alternative ways of knowing—albeit less fiercely today in liberal democratic societies than in other types of societies.  Religions, for example, tend to identify criteria for ascertaining truth that involve divine revelation and the privileged access to the same by particular individuals identified by their status or office.  Science confers the status of knowledge, in contrast, only on what can be ascertained by disciplined observation—in theory, anybody’s—and thereafter adjudicated by human reason—anyone’s—as a valid basis for inference.

The Royal Society motto Nullius in verba—“take no one’s word for it”—reflects a bold and defiant statement of commitment to the authority of science’s way of knowing in relation to alternatives that involve privileged access to revealed truths. This is—or certainly was at the time of Royal Society was founded—a profound stance to adopt.

 But it would of course be silly to think that the volume of knowledge science generates could possibly be made use of without “taking the word” of a great many people committed to generating knowledge in this way.  The authority of science as a way of knowing, in a practical sense, presupposes decisional trust in and institutional trust of science.

But it is perfectly plausible—perfectly obvious—that some people could be uneasy with science because they really don’t view its way of knowing as authoritative relative to one of its competitors.  We should be sure we are equipped to recognize that attitude toward science when we see it, so that we can measure the contribution it could be making to conflicts over science.

Article originally appeared on cultural cognition project (http://www.culturalcognition.net/).
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