Trust in What?

Slate’s Ankita Rao reports that American’s trust in science has remained largely unchanged for liberals and moderates over the past 40 years, while that same trust has eroded among political conservatives from 63% to 35% during the same period. Rick Santorum epitomized this attitude when he suggested that Obama was a snob for thinking college education was an inherent good.

Rao’s article blames the interactions between science and policy as driving this distrust, where snobbery is interchangeable with an educated elite that is overwhelmingly politically liberal and therefore the enemy. The “reality-based community” (quoting Karl Rove) must be tied to science and therefore untied from pure oppositional ideology. Science and technocracy is polarized against populism and manipulation.

What are we left with? What do we trust in? We can choose raw religious feeling, but then there is the problem of reconciling those feelings with religious freedom, religious pluralism, and the vast secular reality that we confront on a daily basis. We can pick and choose ideologies, tying our fate to Ayn Rand, to Code Pink, or to Cato.

Better still, we should simply not engage in trust. That is the secret. Epistemological doubt is the critical initial step that leads, in turn, to the dissolution of the expectation that trust is intrinsically valuable. American democracy, developed from Enlightenment ideals, was conceived as opposed to trust in individuals by juxtaposing aspects of government against one another. This was unprecedented, of course, and was coincident with the growth of science as an explanatory framework that drained the authoritative institutions of their power.

Similarly, we might be able to reestablish trust in science by educating the anti-elitists about the inherently contingent nature of scientific reasoning. Science is flawed, but it is our best hope for knowledge. And, simultaneously, we should make sure that policy-making that is based on scientific arguments is plodding and slow, allowing for the careful evolution of opposition, challenge and, ultimately, synthesis.

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