What happens when trust breaks down completely

I had an interesting hour long discussion with a pair of Flint residents who had lived through the water crisis.  When they finished telling me their experience, which included repeatedly feeling ignored when they expressed their concerns, I thanked them for their time.  One of them very politely explained that he didn’t think I believed them either, which came as a bit of a shock.  Some of their concerns might have been scientifically incorrect, but they were morally right when they talked about how they had been mistreated?

What happens when people are morally right, but scientifically incorrect?  The thought came up again after reading this story in the Post over the weekend:


The story makes the point that scientists trying to study the melting of glaciers in South America, or engineers trying to install warning devices to deal with the potential flash floods they create, find themselves threatened by communities that believe the technical professionals and their equipment create the droughts caused by climate change.

Science can function internally without public trust, so long as there is just enough trust to pay the bills.  Intellectual credibility will keep policy makers writing the checks.   But science cannot change society without some amount of moral credibility.

The fact that the public may or may not have trusted science in Flint after the lead was detected may or may not lead to a larger health problem.  The issue of science not trusting the public may create another health problem.   These problems are not separable from the larger story of mistrust in a city that was written off before the lead appeared in the drinking water.

Similarly, in Peru we see scientific trust as completely inseparable from public trust.  The scientists and engineers may have been able to do a better job of winning public trust- but that also may have been impossible when trust in other institutions was completely erased by corruption.

Science is not democratic.  But science cannot impact a society without the trust of a truly democratic society.  And for that reason, science is in a forced engagement with the public, and may find it almost impossible to function as an autocracy dictating to the public.

Why does science view the external critique so negatlively?

“I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.”  (George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant.”)

Reading through Donovan Hohn’s New York Times Article on Marc Edwards, “Flint’s Water Crisis and the ‘Troublemaker’ Scientist,” bought to mind George Orwell’s comments on the British Empire in his famous story “Shooting an Elephant.”

Orwell’s story focuses on the moment when he, as a young British Colonial Police Officer in Burma, realized that the British Empire was morally wrong and unsustainable.  He describes how he had to kill an elephant that had gone rogue, killed a man, and then calmed down.  He kills the elephant not because it poses a danger, but because a watching crowd of Burmese is watching him, and he has to maintain his status.  Because the story was published in 1936, a year before he went to fight as a volunteer with the Republicans in Spain, he takes a moment to mention that the flawed British Empire is still not at the level of fascism.

The narrative of Professor Edwards, and science in general, as the hero of the Flint Water Crisis, or of other environmental crisis, is a difficult one to dismiss.  Hohn does portray Professor Edwards as a hero, but as one with flaws, and as one whose hero status has come at the expense of others whose contributions were critical.  In spite of this, Professor Edwards’ status as the hero of the crisis has remained strong in scientific and policy-making circles.  His experience, and outspokenness, are held up as an ideal for how scientists are to behave in such situations.

Part of the reason why a larger narrative, where Professor Edwards is not shown as one of many contributors, is that the scientist-hero narrative is so extraordinarily useful.  It is useful not just to the scientific community, which holds him up as a hero even as he brutally critiques the values of 21st century academic authority.  A figure like Dr. Edwards is incredibly useful to anyone fighting for clean water, or accurate environmental data.  The Flint residents whose suspicions Dr. Edwards confirmed are less useful in creating this narrative.

For all of these flaws, then, Dr. Edwards is pushed through as the hero of the crisis, because of the very real risk that a flawed empire based on hierarchical expertise will be replaced by one that permits even more destructive behavior.  Bruno LaTour’s 2004 article, “Has Critique Run out of Steam?  From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” raises a similar point.  LaTour wonders if critiques of scientific knowledge, which have the potential to improve science, were instead allowed to become excuses for undermining certainty, and positive action, in areas like climate.

The question for a scientist interested in the environment and health protection reading a critique of scientific expertise is this: will it lead to a better science, or will it lead to an undermining of scientific authority so complete that action on the environment, or public health, becomes impossible.  Perhaps part of the answer depends on how successful science is in absorbing an embracing the critique- but would even that be complete?

(Note: Originally published with an incorrect title for George Orwell’s story.)