Dec2 Albert Ogien (CNRS EHESS) Trust in Science, Trust in Scientists


For some, trust is a cognitive phenomenon, for others an emotional or attitudinal one, for a last group a moral and social one. This indeterminacy immediately confronts us with the paradox of trust : on the one hand, it is a combination of knowledge and ignorance ; and on the other hand, it implies a kind of leap of faith that always exceeds any justification. One way to get out of this paradox consists in turning to our common ways of speaking about trust.

An analysis of the ordinary grammar of this word leads to the conclusion that it is used to qualify whether a state, an attitude or a commitment (each one giving rise to a series of different usages). But this distinction can be reduced to the difference between « being confident » (which refers to a condition or a mechanism) and « trusting someone » (i.e. getting involved in a three-term relation : A trusts B to achieve X).

These two major ways to conceive of trust nevertheless refer to the same phenomenon : the fact that individuals rely on an innumerable mass of background expectations that allow them to give credence to the permanence of everything he has no reason to doubt the existence of when acting alone or jointly. That is why trust is often reduced to that feeling of assurance (confidence) on the basis of which individuals apprehend the elements of the world as realities that are neither brittle nor illusory.

However, the notion of trust gets a varying content depending on whether one makes use of it on a personal mode (in the context of a relationship with relatives or partners of a specific exchange) or on an impersonal mode (in a relationship with institutions, organizations or technical equipments). Sometimes, however, the use of the word falls within these two registers. This is the case with Science : when considering the institution, one would rather speak of trust ; when considering the people working within this institution and the attributes they should display, one would rather speak of trust in scientists. In the first case, the judgment is set on the notions of rationality, discovery, progress, knowledge, technical applications, etc. And in the second case, on the notions of honesty, selflessness, transparency, benevolence, openness, etc. It is the ways in which these two registers are articulated in the contextual uses made of the concept of trust (how they differ, how they meet, how they blend ) that I would like to consider in this paper.

I expect this conceptual analysis of the notion of trust to expose some elements that would help identifying a series of category mistakes which fuel the quarrels between the proponents of science and the “merchants of doubt”.

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