How much trust does science need in a democratic society?

An interview with Mathias Frisch and Torsten Wilholt

The philosophers of science Mathias Frisch and Torsten Wilholt have established the DFG-funded Centre for Advanced Studies "SOCRATES: Social Credibility and Trustworthiness of Expert Knowledge and Science-Based Information" at Leibniz University Hannover in 2022. The Centre offers an interdisciplinary research environment for philosophers and social scientists to examine presuppositions of and challenges to the credibility of science. In an interview, Frisch and Wilholt discuss the question the Centre will be addressing and plans for the Centre’s research activities.

The interview was conducted by Dr. Ulrike Schneeweiß in December 2022.

Crisis and Communication

Is science currently facing a credibility crisis?

Mathias Frisch: You have to take a differentiated view: Not all disciplines are equally in crisis. For example, there is probably no significant doubt as to whether quarks and black holes exist. The case is different for sciences whose subject matter and results have a greater impact on everyday life. During the pandemic, but also in discussions about the consequences of climate change, we can observe great skepticism towards the statements of scientists, at least among certain influential groups, which in some countries continue to be politically quite influential.

Torsten Wilholt: We are dealing with a number of different crises. On the one hand, there is an internal crisis of confidence in science regarding the reliability and reproducibility of results in some areas. In addition, there are external crises that have to do with the fact that science belongs to a circle of established institutions that some people distrust - this ranges from diffuse, ambivalent skepticism to fully developed conspiracy myths. In Germany, this is a minority phenomenon; in the United States, it affects not only minorities. And it would be incorrect to believe that we find this phenomenon only among social outsiders, among the 'disconnected'. Sociological studies show that we find distrust in science also among educated members of the middle class. That is enough to set off alarm bells. And it is clear that this crisis is not a crisis of a lack of understanding: it is a crisis of trust, which is also about questions of values.

What questions are you asking in the newly established Centre for Advanced Studies, SOCRATES?

Mathias Frisch: Our Centre will investigate the reasons for these various credibility crises. But in doing so we will certainly not presuppose that blind trust in science would be the ideal. Rather, we are interested in exploring the conditions under which science not only appears to be trustworthy, but also deserves the trust we place in it.

Wilholt: We think that there is still a lot of basic philosophical research to be done on the conditions for and challenges to 'trustworthy knowledge'. A first issue will be conceptual clarification: What does it mean to be trustworthy? What does it mean to be credible? SOCRATES will focus on one socially particularly relevant challenge to trustworthy knowledge: the crisis of trust in science. During the Centre’s first funding period of four years, we will focus on three more specific areas of application: climate science, the health sciences, and the replication crisis in some scientific disciplines.

Frisch: Some of the questions we are exploring are: How is knowledge generated in research and what consequences do different processes of knowledge generation have for the trustworthiness of the reliability and validity of knowledge? Do findings only apply in certain domains or can they be generalized - and if so, how? How should we handle results that are infected by large uncertainties? Knowledge must not only be generated in a trustworthy way but also communicated to policy makers and the public in an appropriate way in order to be trustworthy. Is it legitimate to hide uncertainties to ensure trust? We don’t think so! But how can uncertainties be communicated in such a way that scientific results are perceived as provisional and revisable but at the same time as trustworthy? Climate research and the early stages of the corona pandemic are examples we will use to address these and other questions.

Is epistemic trust different from other types of trust?

Wilholt: Yes, there are certain specifics to consider. For example, when one invests trust in a source of information, one has to accept that this trust may be redeemed in an unwelcome way - namely, by generating knowledge about facts that are undesirable or unpleasant. With knowledge-based trust, then, it is possible that trust is not disappointed by actually substituting knowledge for nonknowledge, but that the result nevertheless disappoints expectations in other respects. The resulting tension has not received enough attention.

Would it promote the credibility of science if scientists communicated more extensively amongst themselves before preliminary results or findings were published?

Frisch: We saw during the pandemic, when scientists were faced with the challenge of having to provide political decision-makers with decision-relevant information under extreme time pressure, that it is not always possible to wait and carefully vet results before they are passed on to policy makers. Of course, scientists must clearly identify preliminary knowledge as such. But even in the early stages of the pandemic, science was able to illuminate a plausible range of possibilities for what the virus and its spread could do.

Does science have the option of not answering questions when asked?

Frisch: In principle, I see science as having a duty to provide guidance in times of urgent crisis - but also as having a responsibility to choose very carefully what can be said. But it is also important to have an adequate understanding of science on the part of the recipients. Scientific knowledge is a collaborative product. Findings emerge in an iterative process of mutual criticism and exchange. It is certainly helpful if the public has a basic understanding of these processes. Here the media could play an important role in more frequently discussing examples of how knowledge is generated and consolidated over decades, and that wrong approaches, dead ends, and corrections are a frequent part of this process.

Wilholt: Conversely, it must also always be an option to deliberately not fulfill expectations to provide certain forms of knowledge in certain situations. In some situations, for example, it is advisable not to be easily taken to task for making recommendations that guide action - either publicly or behind closed doors.

So, is explaining to the public how science works enough to restore trust?

Frisch: In contrast to scientific experts, political decision-makers do not have the ability to check the quality of the processes in which the findings were obtained. They need different criteria than scientists themselves to assess the trustworthiness of scientists and of their findings. We want to find out what these criteria might be. What might a normative framework for assessing scientific expertise and trustworthiness look like? And how must the relationship between science and society be structured so that scientists and their findings are accepted as trustworthy?

Wilholt: In this context, it is also relevant to ask how the trust directed at individuals on the one hand and the trust directed at science as an institution and system and at certain practices on the other hand relate to each other and to what extent they make up the overall trust in 'science'. What do people trust, when they trust a source of knowledge? Which aspect is the decisive one? We do not assume that a lack of understanding alone is the cause of mistrust in science.  Thus, we also do not expect that making scientific processes understandable alone can restore trust.

A question of relations: Science as a phenomenon of society as a whole

In your research, you look in two directions: On the one hand, you are asking what the conditions are for scientists and scientific communities to appear trustworthy. On the other hand, you are investigating the conditions that policy makers and the public have to satisfy in order to be able to perceive science as trustworthy.

Wilholt: Yes, we see science as a phenomenon within society as a whole and want to understand the interactions that unfold between science and other parts of society. Here is where theoretical resources from other sub-disciplines of philosophy especially political philosophy and ethics will play an important role. The social sciences can also tell us a lot about the different publics of science communication. We see, for example, that skepticism about findings from research is not necessarily characterized by uncertainty or lack of certainty. In fact, members of certain groups say explicitly that it is a lack of dissent that makes them feel insecure. Some corona skeptics, for example, complained about what they perceived as too much certainty and a lack of opportunity for dissent.

Frisch: Some of the staunchest deniers of climate change, for example, have a high level of education and also some understanding of scientific research processes. It is precisely against this background that they claim there is too little room for dissent and criticism.

Wilholt: This shows that the problems may be more complicated than we have assumed so far. And that controversy, dissent, and science communication that acknowledges uncertainties are not in themselves obstacles to trust. However, uncertainty in published results is sometimes misunderstood as a license to self-select what one considers scientifically confirmed knowledge, or to assume that there is no solid knowledge that is useful as a basis for action. A better understanding of the connections between uncertainties in knowledge and confidence in knowledge can help to reduce such misunderstandings.
We would also like to make our insights in this area useful in practical terms. However, I must reiterate that the aim of our Centre is, at its core, basic philosophical research. The aim is to sharpen our understanding of the concept of trust and to describe more clearly the relationships between trust, dissent, credibility and trustworthiness.
Our questions have an unmistakable normative content. The term 'trust' is initially associated with something positive, but we ask: How much trust is appropriate? How can publics meaningfully calibrate the measure of their trust?
The goal of science communication, for example, cannot always be to maximize trust in science. Trust, as I said, also carries the risk of being disappointed. We ask ourselves the normative question of the appropriate relationship between trustworthiness and public trust.
This includes asking what the trust placed in them means for the scientists. The question is morally charged: Do they have a duty to live up to the trust? Or should they reject it? These are all essentially philosophical questions about what is good and right for a democratic society.

How does working within the context of the Centre for Advanced Studies help you approach answers to these complex questions?

Wilholt: Many sub-questions are already being researched from diverse perspectives in various social science disciplines, psychology or even media studies. Our goal is to bring these perspectives together and enable a comprehensive analysis of trust. For this, a KFG is the perfect instrument. By inviting fellows and collaborating with researchers from different disciplines, we can expand interdisciplinary horizons in a unique way.

Frisch: We attach particular importance to inviting fellows who are as diverse as possible along different axes: disciplinary, cultural, or in terms of their national origin. This will enable us to address the problem of trust in science not only in the context of European democracies. Thus, we also want to examine aspects of the interlocking of science with indigenous or local knowledge systems, whose bodies of knowledge may complement those of the natural sciences. Indigenous knowledge, it is sometimes argued, is inherently local and reflects complex, local and context-specific relationships. In contrast, scientific knowledge, as we understand it, always seeks generalizations. The integration of such different types of knowledge systems is sometimes taken to be impossible.  Yet apparent incompatibilities of the two types of knowledge, when they come into contact with each other, also ose particular challenges to trust in scientific knowledge.

Wilholt: If we want to address major global challenges such as a pandemic or climate change, we seem to need knowledge with validity claims of a large scope. At the same time, we do not want to neglect bodies of knowledge with more local relevance. Therein lies a certain potential for tension, which we want to address in our Centre.

There is also a certain tension between the need to be highly specialized in order to conduct high-quality research and the added value of interdisciplinary approaches. How do they cope with the challenges of the highly interdisciplinary work in KFG?

Frisch: Interdisciplinary exchange will only work if we succeed in developing a common language, i.e. learning to understand each other's concepts and methods and checking to what extent they can be transferred to our own approaches. In setting up our Centre, we thought specifically about which forms and formats of cooperation would be useful and helpful in fostering interdisciplinary exchange, and we are planning to provide a range of formal and informal opportunities for exchange. That, incidentally too, has to do with the question of how to develop trust.

We've talked a lot about trust. What is the difference between trustworthiness and credibility?

Wilholt: There is no standard answer to that. We would describe it like this: Information is trustworthy if and only if it earns the trust of the recipient - whatever that means: Reliability, consideration of the respective interests and vulnerabilities, many other factors play into it. A source can be trustworthy even if it does not look like it. In our view, the concept of credibility, on the other hand, includes factual trustworthiness. However, it also includes the recognizability of this trustworthiness by the recipients of the information. A source can therefore lose its credibility without actually changing the quality of the information it provides. The goal of credibility is therefore always twofold: to provide trustworthy information and, moreover, to be recognized as a supplier of trustworthy information.

Dissent, values, and interests

You also examine dissent in the context of trust and credibility in science. How important is open dissent in order to arrive at consolidated findings?

Frisch: A lot has changed in how scientific knowledge is disseminated in the last ten or twenty years. Previously, there were sharper distinctions between internal scientific discussions and public discussion forums. Only scientists within a field were able to participate in scientific debates - through recognized publications and at conferences.
These venues still exist, of course, but today scientific papers are increasingly becoming publicly available, even before they go through a peer-review process and are published in journals. In some respects, this opening up of science is certainly a good development. For example, some philosophers argue that communication processes should be as open as possible, with the participation of as many diverse groups as possible, so that scientific objectivity can emerge.
On the other hand, there is also the danger that discussion that is too open, for example in social media, also enable illegitimate dissent, which, among other negative effects, ties up important resources of scientists - for example, when climate scientists have to deal with arguments in public that have actually been invalidated long ago. In our Centre, we want to investigate how the increasing mediatization of science, as stated by some researchers, influences the relationship between science and society.

Does mediatisation also affect scientific knowledge itself?

Frisch: That is a question we want to investigate. There are indications that very vehement criticism from the public and politicians, for example, is causing climate scientists to present their results very cautiously in some places - perhaps more cautiously than the state of research would have allowed or suggested. This, of course, influences further research that refers to these results. On the other hand, publicly presented criticism and skepticism can also have positive effects: In the controversy about whether there was a hiatus of climate change it appears that some research was the result of skeptical challenges from outside of science. How science reacts to public criticism and skepticism is thus a double-edged sword.

This already sounds as if values and interests can have an effect on science. In you Centre you also ask how the influence of values in science can be reconciled with the epistemic authority of science.

Frisch: Yes, the traditional value-free ideal for the sciences has proven illusory. Also trust presupposes at least some shared values.  Yet there is an important motivation for the value-free ideal: ensuring the objectivity of science. A central question for us to investigate is to what extent scientific objectivity is possible even in the non-value-free space.

Wilholt: We live in a world where scientific knowledge is of such critical importance that we as a society depend on trustworthy science. Trusting or not trusting a source of information is a decision. And people with different values and interests will always have different evaluative frameworks for making that decision.
So, people in a plural society, with different interests, are equally dependent on being able to trust scientific sources of information. And science has a substantial interest in being trustworthy. As already mentioned, we are interested in the question of how both can cultivate an appropriately trust-based relationship with each other. This certainly cannot work by stipulating certain binding values. How, moreover, this relationship can be shaped is an interesting area for fruitful philosophical research.

Value decisions in science are also a keyword for your third research field in the first funding period of the Centre: the replication crisis in some disciplines a crisis of confidence within science. What questions are you asking yourselves?

Wilholt: We start from the observation that there are institutionalized practices and incentives that lead to scientific degrees of freedom being stretched very far and, in some cases, questionable research practices being applied. These include, for example, publication practices that strongly prioritize positive results and lead to their overrepresentation in the literature - with many possibly being false positives.
The incentive system places a high value on productivity. This seems to be at the expense of reliability of results in some research areas. At the same time, productivity is a legitimate goal and a legitimate aspect of the public interest in knowledge. Replacing non-knowledge with knowledge involves both productivity and reliability.
From a philosophical perspective, we are interested in the relationship of intra-scientific values - the normative question of what is the right ratio of different legitimate aspects of epistemic interests. What factors determine this? Why does this relationship seem to be a different one in different disciplines? For example, the reliability goals common in particle physics would simply be unattainable in social psychology-due to the much less favorable signal-to-noise ratio. In order to be able to accept findings in social psychology at all, i.e. to achieve a minimum of productivity, we have to be satisfied with comparatively less reliability.
But how scientists behave and how the system aligns itself is also influenced by external scientific values: How important is the knowledge they generate? What damage might be done if erroneous or false-positive results are published? We want to investigate how the balancing processes work and how a certain relationship comes about, whether there are historical coincidences behind it or which forces are at work. 
In contrast to the crisis phenomena discussed earlier, the focus of this complex of questions is initially on intra-scientific trustworthiness. The discourse on how to regain it is currently moving strongly in the direction of replacing trust with control - through 'open science', the disclosure of procedures, data, results. 
I have the impression that some proponents of open science are under the illusion that total openness can free them from the need to trust in the honesty of their colleagues. In my view, the attempt to substitute control for trust in intra-scientific relationships is doomed to failure. In our Centre we look at the problem from the perspective of the philosophy of psychology and the philosophy of experiment, among others, and hope to find approaches for other ways to regain lost trust.