Mellon Sawyer seminar: trust and mistrust in experts and science during the pandemic

Gil Eyal, Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology

In recent years, anxiety has grown among scientific leaders about a climate of public distrust in experts and science. Commentators point to numerous incidents—from “Climategate,” to the Brexit campaign, to the actions of the Trump administration—as evidence that such distrust is widespread, and that it is exploited and amplified by interested parties. Similar concerns are being raised now regarding the role of public health experts during the pandemic, whether their advice is being heeded, and the spread of various conspiracy theories. While some have been quick to pronounce the “death of expertise,” we think the story is more complicated. The widespread concern about declining levels of trust, and the related reform proposals seeking to increase trust in establishment institutions like government, science, media and universities, presume that we know what trust and distrust are, that distrust is bad, that our measures for these things are reasonably adequate, and that we know how to build trust where it is lacking. None of these assumptions should be taken for granted.

The Mellon-Sawyer Seminar on Trust and Mistrust of Science and Experts will bring together scholars from multiple disciplines, engaging the Columbia community and the surrounding public in productive discussion on issues of trust and mistrust, in the form of reading groups, public forums, and workshops. We aim to build a series of conversations among different parts of the university by moving thematically through four orienting cases: (1) trust and mistrust of public health experts during the pandemic; (2) rhetoric, risk, and trust in climate science; (3) minority communities’ trust in science; and (4) the politics of vaccination. These are subjects where the tensions and difficulties underlying discussions of trust are exposed in stark relief.

The seminar will launch in fall of 2020 and conclude in the spring of 2022.