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.

One Reply to “What happens when trust breaks down completely”

  1. That “science not trusting the public may create another health problem” is an astute and powerful observation. So are your closing remarks about science’s “forced engagement” with the public, which can be carried out in more (or less) “democratic” or more (or less) “autocratic” ways. I do wonder, however: why do you see science’s engagement with the public as “forced”? Is this “forced” status something “natural” or “inevitable” about science or is it culturally constructed through the way science is perceived, taught, and presented? Do you think there are ways to perceive, teach, and present science as, by its nature, “in engagement” with society? To take this a step further, do you think there are ways to perceive, teach, and present science as, by its nature, “in democratic engagement” with society? What would have to change in our institutions of government and academia for such a shift to take place?

    One quick note about the scientific accuracy or inaccuracy of non-experts’ statements. Given that:

    * Some aspects of the specific science involved in the Flint water crisis are being contested,
    * Some expert statements about the safety of Flint’s water do not correspond to residents’ bodily experiences or MDEQ’s data, and
    * Flint residents have been correct about problems with their water before, while all the experts dismissed them or ignored them,

    it is extremely important that any judgments about the scientific inaccuracy of a resident’s claims be spelled out and defended in painstaking detail. Because of your status (and my status and the status of all of us in this class), when you (or any of us) make statements about the inaccuracy of a Flint resident’s science, we are likely to be believed unquestioningly even if, in the end, our assessment turns out to be incorrect. For this reason, it’s crucial that we are transparent about what statements were made, logics employed, and sources used (by all sides), so that we make possible reader/listener scrutiny of all parties’ positions. I hope this makes sense.

    Looking forward to reading the Washington Post article. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

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