Trust & science

with #46 Maarten Van Dyck

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Maarten Van Dyck is a philosophy professor at Ghent University in Belgium, where he also directs the "Sarton" Centre for the History of Science. In October 2020, Maarten and I sat down at the brand new Ghent University Museum to talk about science communication in a time of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic (see link at the bottom of this page).

During that interview, Maarten touched on the role of trust in the advancement of science as we know it today, i.e. an "institutionalized social practice". In a time where skepticism and even conspiratorial theories are spreading over the internet, Maarten challenged the notion that science does not need trust, that science is all about facts, it is evidence-based, and therefore people should "believe in science". Actually, it turns out that the two pillars that allow science to work are facts, proofs, AND trust within the scientific community.

Maarten distinguishes two ways of thinking about trust and science: trust IN science, and trust WITHIN science. Trust within science is the trust that scientists have in each other, based on the assumption that they are in 1. good faith and that 2. they are intelligent. This means that they rely on other scientists' results not just because they "believe" them, but because there is a "good reason" to believe them. And the good reason is that science as an institutionalized social practice has a mechanism designed to distribute credibility. Very few scientists go and check their colleagues' results. This is because a basic level of trust is the premise to the system advancing. "It's very hard to imagine how science would be progressing, if you would always have to doubt other people" says Maarten (see full quote at min. 15:38).

What about trust IN science? On what ground should non-scientists accept and rely on what scientits tell them? Maarten says that "if people want to trust science, they need to be able to trust in these institutes [of science]" (see quote at min. 19:30).
Interestingly, Maarten does not necessarily agree that today we are seeing a crisis in the trust that people have in science. Like he said in our previous interview a year ago, the internet and social media in particular have drastically changed the way we communicate, the way we receive and exchange information, and this may be a game-changing factor that is only bringing to the surface a pre-existing situation. He also stressed the importance of time: trust is developed over time, by observing someone's behavior over time, and today's communication technology has shrunk time frames in a way does obstructs this process.

After clarifying the difference between trust and faith (in science education), Maarten gives his opinion on how to engage with skeptics, be it anti-vaxers or flat-eathers. He says that it is very important not to enter the conversation knowing where we want the conversation to end (e.g. "convince" the other party that we are right, that science is right), because that is a "very dangerous way of entering a conversation" (see quote at min. 34:26). There is always a rationale behind skepticism, and that should be addressed from a rational point of view. However, Maarten adds, we are never going to win an argument like that by "lecturing" the other party and insisting that they should "believe" because science is based on "facts". Trust is a way more complicated issue that may require us to engrain our position in a broader system of values, that we consistently embody over time, and that has desirable outcomes (a better life, a better society).

Thank you Maarten for this insightful conversation, which I hope we can continue one day!

Quotes and questions from the interview

1:02 Science depends on trust.

5:20 Science as a social practice depends on ways of dealing with trust in other people.

5:43 Science is some kind of an organized skepticism. You're only a scientist if you're wanting to doubt everything. But of course you need to know what to doubt. And to be able to develop interesting doubts you also need to decide what kind of things you're not gonna doubt, and what kind of things you're gonna trust, and what other people you're gonna trust. And so what makes science so powerful is that it's not just skeptical, but that it's also a way of dealing with trust.

6:58 The fact that someone is a scientist comes with a certain expectation within the practice of science, that whatever they are saying, they are not just saying it without good reasons. And that they can be trusted. Which doesn't mean that you cannot doubt part of what they're saying, but that you cannot put into doubt a basic level of trust. And so you can look at science as we know it as an institutionalized way of distributing trust, credibilty, in a way that allows this skeptical process of doubting, proving, looking for proofs, to get off the ground, because there is an infrastructure of basic trust.

8:39 What's the difference between trust and faith?

10:01 There is an element of dogmatism or faith within the structure of any scientific education.

15:38 It's very hard to imagine how science would be progressing if you would always have to doubt other people, always have to go to their lab to check what they've been doing, always have to re-start all their calculations because you're not sure whether they are intelligent enough to do the calculations, etc... well, science would become a morass, and not aprogressive activity where people can really build upon each other's work.

16:24 When we say that trust in science is in crisis today, do we actually mean science or scientists? Is there a difference there?

16:51 Science today is an institutionalized social practice.

19:30 If people want to trust science, they need to be able to trust in these institutes [of science].

20:12 Maarten says that more people than we think don't buy into the simplistic narrative that science is all about proofs and therefore it doesn't need trust.

20:52 Do scientistis "just" trust other people, or do they trust other people *for good reason*, i.e. within a very well specified context (the institute of science) that is designed to allow mutual trust and has a rather well developed system to distribute credibility. However, this institute needs to EARN the trust from the outside.

25:43 Do you agree that today there is a problem with trust in science? That today trust in science is in a crisis? That trust in science decreased in the past years or decades, and it's at a low point now?

27:35 The importance of time in developing and maintaining trust.

32:23 How do you engage a skeptic, someone who shows some resistance to trusting what science says - about COVID, for example?

34:26 When you talk to a skeptic to "convince" them of something you strongly feel about, for example that everybody should get vaccinated, you already know where you want the conversation to end, and "that's a dangerous way of entering a conversation".

Previous interview with Maarten Van Dyck

YouTube playlist with full interview and selected clips:

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Page created: October 2021