The Covid-19 pandemic has become a real-time test for trust in expertise. Since the beginning of the crisis, scientists and their research have been in the centre of public attention; some as independent voices, others as direct advisers to politicians; often in uncomfortable positions and perhaps too frequently contradicting each other. At the same time, the effectiveness of the policies to tackle the pandemic relies, to a large extent, on citizens’ trust in those experts and the politicians in charge of urgent decisions.
What lessons can we draw from the handling of the pandemic for understanding trust in policy-driven expertise? How have different countries dealt with the delicate enterprise of communicating and relying on uncertain and evolving evidence and advice in extremely difficult times? Is a loss of public trust in expertise the “collateral damage” of this crisis or are people trusting experts more than before?
In a lively and interactive discussion moderated by our colleague Shane Bergin, five of PERITIA’s principal investigators shed light on the different strategies used to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic across Europe, their impact on trust in expertise, the general role of science in society, as well as the problems researchers face when there is a high demand for reliable scientific evidence and a high level of uncertainty at the same time.
“The good news is trust in scientists pre-pandemic was very high… The less good news is that politicians are absolutely at the other end of this spectrum.” Bobby Duffy
“Science aims at truth and increases its range of explanation but never reaches full truth. At each given time scientists choose the best explanation possible.” Maria Baghramian
One of the takeaways of the discussion was that humility remains an important feature of scientists to gain and maintain trustworthiness in the communication of scientific evidence, and even more so when asked to provide recommendations. Tracey Brown from Sense about Science claimed that it is a form of recommendation trust we are looking at in this crisis. Covid-19 has presented us with the need for urgent decisions on whether we trust recommendations that people are making. This is not an epistemological question, it is the question ‘Do I trust what someone is telling me to do?’. Thus science does indeed get ‘dirty’ in this crisis, because there are many scientists putting forward political recommendations which ultimately are putting trust in science at risk.
“There are trade offs to be made in this crisis, and the line of being recognised as an expert or not as a ticket to debating such trade offs is a questionable one. We are all kind of experts when it comes to the effects that policies have on our daily lives. We should all ask ourselves ‘Who are we asking to trust?’ and should take a great variety of views and positions into account with a great deal of empathy.” Tracey Brown
The panelists pointed out that scientific expertise is domain specific. Once you move outside your own area of expertise, you are no longer an expert. Unfortunately, this simple truth is often forgotten or ignored, but is essential for gaining and maintaining trust. For the same reason, multidisciplinary panels are needed for addressing complex and multifaceted problems like Covid-19. As Maria Bahgramian pointed out, a complex problem like the pandemic needs to be tackled from a number of perspectives.
In the immediacy of danger or even death, the first response was probably rightly coming from the virologists, but after that a coordinated response should come from experts in different fields of the natural and social sciences. It might be better to avoid personal expertise from individuals and to rely on panels of experts rather than individuals for policy decisions and advice. This reduces the level of exposure and potential threat for individual experts, but also ensures greater checks and balances. The SAPEA project is aiming at this on the European level, for instance.
Communicating science at times of great uncertainty
Another challenge is how to communicate science that is uncertain when people are desperately longing for clear answers, and do not want to hear about uncertainty. How can laypeople deal with disagreement between experts? How can people without specific expertise assess who is and who isn’t an expert on a given matter?
“I would recommend that scientists communicate clearly why research always needs a period of experimentation and rigid testing before answers can be given with any degree of certainty. It’s during this period that discussion is essential and the audience should be able to acknowledge this. Being transparent may be the best strategy here.” José van Dijck
One way to do this and engage the public could be citizen science models and deliberation systems. They can be a great tool for policy. However, like any other tools, they can be abused and hijacked by interests groups, so they should be treated with caution.
“Citizen science initiatives could be complementary to education, they are not a substitute. Especially in the case of the pandemic they should have been used more. The problem is that they can be a rather slow tool, at least in the absence of an already existing infrastructure, and the pandemic caught many people unprepared.” Carlo Martini
Panelists claimed that there needs to be greater investment by the media in communicating the actual work of science and the scientists, something that has been increasingly neglected by a rapidly changing media landscape. Paradoxically, however, the pandemic may lead to an awareness of the need for better science communication in the future.
How to build a climate of trust
Looking ahead at the US elections on 3 November, Maria Baghramian referred to one of the greatest ‘accomplishments’ of President Donald Trump during his first term – his ability to create a climate of distrust in society on all levels, from media and politicians to experts. The use of social media for communicating science, the correct framing of scientists’ humility, or the spread of ‘recommendation trust’ are some of the elements that can help to build a climate of trust that replaces the damage inflicted by “anti-expert populism”.
“We can do exactly the opposite (to Donald Trump), trying to establish not only trust in experts and politicians, not only conditions of trustworthiness, but a climate of general trust where we can accept the fallibilities of experts, of politicians (…).” Maria Baghramian
Maria Baghramian, Professor of American Philosophy at University College Dublin, PERITIA Lead Investigator
Bobby Duffy, Director of The Policy Institute at King’s College London
Carlo Martini, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University
Shane Bergin (Moderator), Assistant Professor at University College Dublin
Berlin Science Week
The webinar was part of the programme of the Berlin Science Week, a 10-day international festival between 1 — 10 November, bringing together the world’s most innovative scientific organisations to celebrate science, to connect and to engage the local and international science community with the public. Learn more about the Berlin Science Week here.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870883. The information and opinions on this website and other communications materials are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Commission.
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