Public trust in science must be earned


The following article is authored by Gürol Irzik and Faik Kurtulmus​.


  • We need to improve the governance of the scientific research values that shape public policy.
  • Trust in science must be considered in relation to the scientific injustices that have harmed certain groups.
  • We should not conflate mistrust in science and public ignorance.

Contemporary states depend on science in both identifying problems that require public action and the course of action to pursue. This reliance on science poses a distinct challenge for democratic societies. They need the public to trust science so that it will support and comply with science-based policies. Democratic societies cannot force their publics to accept the science behind those policies or fool them into doing so. If this acceptance is to be in line with core values of democratic societies, such as respect for individual autonomy, the public needs to trust science due to good reasons that they recognise. Thus, democracies need to enable their publics to enjoy well-placed trust in science: trust with good grounds invested in the scientists with the required qualities for being trustworthy (Irzik and Kurtulmus, 2019).


The ideal of well-placed public trust in science distributes different burdens on different actors and institutions. Scientists must carry out their research reliably and responsibly, and when informing the public, they should communicate their findings honestly considering the public’s informational needs. Yet, it is not enough that scientists are honest and that their research is reliable. The public must also have reasons to think that this is indeed the case. Otherwise, their having well-placed trust becomes largely a matter of luck. But what sort of reasons could they have?


Most people are not in a position to understand and evaluate the reasons for believing a piece of scientific research to be reliable. They can, however, rely on indirect criteria and judge the scientists themselves: Are they really experts in the relevant field? Do they have conflicts of interest? Is there a scientific consensus about the claims they are making? etc. (Anderson, 2011). The educational system can train people to take such information into account, and the media can take care to make it available to the public. Scientific bodies, such as science academies, that are relatively free from political and commercial pressures can play an important role in informing the public about where the scientific consensus lies and thereby take on some of the responsibility for deciding whom to trust.


The social organisation of science can also be reformed to make it easier for the public to trust scientists, especially with regard to conflicts of interest. When there is a push to commercialise academic science and many scientists either work directly for or closely collaborate with commercial actors, the public’s need for unbiased guidance is ill-served and their level of trust declines (Angell, 2004, p. 210; European Commission, 2022, p. 47; Goldenberg 2021, pp. 133-5). Promoting scientific research independent of commercial or political interest can make it easier for the public to trust science.


Two issues, both relevant to the role of science during the COVID-19 pandemic, further complicate this picture. We think they shed light on the apparent public mistrust in science and show that people’s opportunities to enjoy well-placed science are not always equal.


The first complication concerns the inevitable role of values in science, especially when the science is uncertain and influences urgent decisions, as was the case with the science of COVID-19. In our inquiries about the world, there is always the risk of error. Since data never entail general hypotheses, we may accept them as true although they are false or reject them as false although they are true. Given limited resources, scientists must decide which error would be better to avoid by taking its social consequences into account. This choice reflects value judgments (Douglas, 2009), which in turn make well-placed trust harder to attain. When the magnitudes of the sacrifices different groups need to make are different, it makes sense for them to demand different levels of certainty from the scientific research that grounds social policies that affect them. It is, for instance, understandable that someone who is poor and whose livelihood will be disproportionately affected by lockdowns requires more certainty of their necessity than a middle-class office worker who can do their job online. When the value judgements of people do not align with those of the scientists, investing well-placed trust in science becomes more difficult for them (Irzik and Kurtulmus, 2019, pp. 1153-1156).


The second complication arises from the fact that different social groups have different histories of interactions with the scientific community. As a result, some groups need more evidence of the good will and honesty of scientists or the reliability of their research than others. For example, historically, the medical establishment in the US has been complicit in racist practices, and even in the recent past there have been gross violations of ethical norms, such as the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study (Washington, 2008). Given this history, it is more difficult for African Americans to enjoy well-placed trust. They need to be offered more evidence than other groups. Hence, citizens don’t enjoy equal opportunity to have well-placed trust in science (Grasswick, 2018). Predictably, this inequality translates into inequality in health outcomes (Alsan and Wanamaker, 2018).


Some cases of apparent mistrust about scientific claims seem more understandable in light of these complications. This has three implications for the future. First, we need a better way of governing the role of values in scientific research that shapes public policy. Citizens need democratic mechanisms to influence the values that guide scientific research that directly impacts them. Second, when thinking about public trust in science, we need to adopt a more fine-tuned approach that is sensitive to the histories and epistemic needs of different social groups. Unless we take this step, we risk not only losing the trust of certain groups but also worsening existing inequalities. Following from these two points, we must go beyond thinking of mistrust in science as a sign of public ignorance. Sometimes it is an invitation to scientists and scientific bodies to earn the public’s trust by attending to their legitimate worries and their need for assurance.


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Anderson, E. (2011) ‘Democracy, Public Policy, and Lay Assessments of Scientific Testimony’, Episteme, 8(2), pp. 144–164.


Angell, M. (2014). The Truth about Drug Companies. New York: Random House.


Alsan, M. and Wanamaker, M. (2018) ‘Tuskegee and the Health of Black Men’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 133(1), pp. 407–455.


Douglas, H.E. (2009) Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press.


European Commission, Directorate-General for Communication, (2022) European Citizens’ Knowledge and Attitudes Towards Science and Technology: Report. Publications Office of the European Union.


Goldenberg, M.J. (2021) Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press.


Grasswick, H. (2018) ‘Understanding Epistemic Trust Injustices and Their Harms’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, 84, pp. 69–91.


Irzik, G. and Kurtulmus, F. (2019) ‘What Is Epistemic Public Trust in Science?’, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 70(4), pp. 1145–1166.


Washington, H.A. (2006) Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of the Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday.




Gürol Irzik is professor of philosophy of science at Sabanci University, Istanbul, Turkey, and a member of European Cultural Parliament and Science Academy, Turkey. Currently, he is working on justice in the distribution of knowledge, public trust in science, and the social organization of science in democratic societies.


Faik Kurtulmus teaches political philosophy at Sabanci University, Istanbul. He works on issues that lie at the intersection of social epistemology and political philosophy, such as questions of justice in the distribution of knowledge and the role of science in democratic societies.


The facts, ideas and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO or any of its partners and stakeholders and do not commit nor imply any responsibility thereof. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this piece do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.