Skepticism and the Value of Distrust

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Faced with current urgent calls for more trust in experts, especially in high impact and politically sensitive domains, such as climate science and COVID-19, the complex and problematic nature of public trust in experts and the need for a more critical approach to the topic are easy to overlook. Scepticism – at least in its Humean mitigated form that encourages independent, questioning attitudes – can prove valuable to democratic governance, but stands in opposition to the cognitive dependency entailed by epistemic trust. In this paper, we investigate the tension between the value of mitigated scepticism – understood as the exercise of reason-based doubt in a particular domain – and the need for trust in experts. We offer four arguments in favour of mitigated scepticism: the argument from loss of intellectual autonomy; the argument from democratic deficit; the argument from the normative failures of science; and the argument from past and current injustices. These arguments highlight the tension between the requirements for trust and justified scepticism about the role of experts. One solution, which we reject, is the idea that reliance, rather than trust, is sufficient for the purposes of accommodating experts in policy matters. The solution we endorse is to create a ‘climate of trust’, where questioning experts and expertise is welcomed, but the epistemic trust necessary for action upon information which the public cannot obtain first-hand is enabled and encouraged through structural, institutional, and justice-based measures.
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Archival date: 2021-11-25
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