What drives public trust in science-based policies? Ask PEriTiA

A multinational EU research project will review the role of science in policy decision-making using climate change as a proxy with the aim of establishing public trust.

We live in complex times. Times when the opinion of uninformed sources in social media seems to have a stronger influence than expert voices. And if this is a worrying situation at normal times, in exceptional times like in the midst of a global pandemic, knowing whom to trust becomes practically a matter of life and death, for the success of social interactions depends mainly on trust. Furthermore, from the perspective of policy making, trust in the origin of and the reasons for those policies are vital for their implementation.

Maria Baghramian, MRIA (UCD), professor of American Philosophy at University College Dublin and project coordinator at PEriTiA:Even the most basic activities of our daily lives require reliance on technologies and skills which are beyond our personal sphere of competence. In short, we lead a life that is dependent on expert knowledge and we seldom show any hesitation to rely on, and indeed to put trust in the superior knowledge. This fact is even more pronounced in the public sphere. To do their job well, policy makers, in both the public and the private sector, have to rely on specialised knowledge, reliable data and well-informed projections. Reliable information is the currency that makes the wheels of policymaking turn smoothly and experts are the source of such information. And this is where the question of trust comes in.”Read the full interview

However, the rise of digital (social) media and populistic politics countering the weight of science-based facts have introduced an element of doubt into expert opinion, and science-informed policy making.

José van Dijck, MR, professor at the University of Utrecht and leader of PEriTiA’s analysis group on media impact on trust: “For instance, how can we tell which information on Covid-19 is trustworthy? We have witnessed how misinformation in the form of bogus remedies against corona infections have flooded social media (…). Government officials who promote untrustworthy sources have turned out to pose immense challenges in trying to tame the ‘infodemic’, especially in the US and Brazil”Read the full interview

In PEriTiA, Policy, Expertise and Trust, an interdisciplinary group of stakeholders including philosophers, policy experts, ethicists, psychologists, social and natural scientists, media specialists and civil society organizations will collaborate to examine the role of science in policy and what influences people’s trust on expert opinion.

The project will be staged in three different phases: first, a theoretical part where the various aspects of trust, such as ethics, psychology or the media influence on trust will be investigated. This will be followed by an empirical part of survey data collection and analysis in Ireland, UK, Norway, Germany, Poland, Italy and France, mainly driven by social and natural scientists. Finally, the findings of the previous phases will be used to inform recommendations and start a dialogue with policy makers and public institutions.

As a test case, PEriTiA will use climate change, a controversial topic which has been subjected to disinformation and conflicting views, with a loss of trust in expert opinion.

Prof Bobby Duffy, Director of The Policy Institute at King’s College London, leads the PEriTiA’s data collection and analysis: Climate science is a crucial area of expertise given the perilous position the planet is in – and more than that, trust in expertise is vital, given the need for individuals and other stakeholders to shift their behaviour, urgently. Trust is therefore vital, as is understanding where distrust comes from and how it can be addressed.”Read the full interview

Obviously, COVID-19 has also had an impact on PEriTiA. Not only by limiting physical interaction among team members, but also in leading to the initiation of additional research tasks specific to the pandemic. In this context, PEriTiA aims to understand trust in expertise during the COVID-19 pandemic. For that specific purpose, they are gathering all the activities and work of PEriTiA’s members related to the pandemic: from discussions on immigration, to questions about freedom, sovereignty and disease tracking apps, or the psychological toll of lockdown preventive measures. Their findings are already available to the public through a designated section of the project webpage.

The ultimate goal of the project is to provide a set of guidelines for the characterization of trustworthiness of those involved in social and political decision making, from scientific experts to political and/or social leaders.

Prof José van Dijck: I hope this project brings together insights from various disciplines to help us understand how trust-building processes work and how they can be steered toward more social cohesion and a better democracy. I know this is a highly ambitious goal, but we need this kind of interdisciplinary connections to examine the basic processes of societal trust. Studying the impact of digital media is just a tiny part of that larger ambition, but I believe it’s an important contribution to understanding the fabric of human communication and its technological mediateness”.


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