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Trusting State, Trusting Science


University of Geneva

7-8 December 2023

Conference venue: Espace Colladon


The recent COVID-19 pandemic seems to have shown the importance of public trust in science in an unprecedented way. In a democratic society such trust seems to be essential for implementing evidence-based policies in any area of government, including in particular the environment, public health as well as economics. Fundamental questions concerning the relationship between science and the democratic state have recently received considerable attention in contemporary philosophy of science, as has the issue of public trust in science and experts in general. What has not been discussed as much is the relationship between trusting science and scientific institutions on the one, and the state and government institutions one the other hand. Therefore, this workshop will bring together philosophers of science, epistemologists and moral philosophers as well as political theorists and practical philosophers in the attempt to answer the question “What does trusting science mean, and how is it related to trust in evidence-based policies?"

To make better sense of these questions and to get closer to answering them is the aim of our workshop. We believe that to answer them satisfactorily, we need a solid theoretical foundation. Thus, we should start with basics and ask what trust is. What kind of mental phenomenon is it? What is the relationship between trust, rationality, and agency? Then we can move into the practical realm and ask: What does a person do when they trust science? What is the relationship between trusting science and trusting the state to use scientific evidence for policymaking? And, of course, what does it mean for science and policy to be trustworthy?



Thursday, 7th December

9:45-10:00 Conference Opening

10:00-11:15 Emanuela CevaNavigating Institutional Uncertainty:The cognitive grounds of Officeholders’ Mutual Trust

Abstract: This paper examines what kind of trust among officeholders in public institutions should be at work to uphold institutional action under conditions of uncertainty. External factors such as resource scarcity or emergencies can contribute to institutional dysfunction, but internal factors related to the actions of officeholders are also important. I build on an understanding of public institutional action as a work in progress. I argue that a key internal element for this project to unfold is that officeholders share the necessary cognitive grounds to trust each other’s action in their institutional capacity. I focus on the officeholders’ knowledge of their mutual commitment to act in ways that can be vindicated with reference to their power mandates (office accountability). In the context of interrelated institutional roles, trusting that others are so committed gives the trusting officeholder reason to act with the same commitment. By expressing trust, officeholders empower each other and set in motion institutional mechanisms that support public institutional action. This kind of cognitive trust has a special importance over other forms of dispositional or affective trust in sustaining the internal dynamics of public institutional action under conditions of institutional uncertainty.

Chair: Kyryll Khromov

11:30-12:45 Rebecca Wallbank: The Nature of Evidence-Resistant Trust 

Chair: Mathilde Cappelli


14:15-15:30 Michele Bocchiola: Institutional Trust and the Challenges of Non-Epistemic Peerhood

Chair: Matthieu Debief 

16:15-17:30 Richard Holton and  Jacopo Domenicucci: Trusting People, Trusting Institutions


Much of the philosophical discussion of trust is concerned with distinguishing it from mere reliance. Trust, it is frequently said, involves the imputation of good will to the person trusted, or the taking of reactive attitudes towards them, or the forming of a personal relationship with them. How then can we be said to trust an institution? Even on a three-place view of trust, where one trusts someone to perform some action, it is hard to see how an institution could be held to have good will, or be seen as a proper object of the reactive attitudes. But on a two-place view, where trust is held to be a personal relationship, in much the same way that friendship is, an attitude of trust towards an institution looks even more misplaced. An institution does not have the psychology, and does not participate in a network of other personal relations, that could make such trust appropriate. We might think then that we have a case of polysemy: that trust should be understood differently in the case of institutions. We characterize it as typically involving reliance, expectation, loyalty and interacting personal relationships. Loyalty is then examined in the tradition stemming from Hirschman concerning voice and exit. But there is a risk that the features of personal trust are often unwarrantedly extrapolated to trust in institutions, and that those who manage institutions exploit this. This is considered in the case of the relationship that many in the UK have toward the National Health Service.

Chair: Fabrice Teroni

Friday, 8th December

9:15-10:30 Samia Hurst: Trust and trustwithiness in pandemic response

Chair: Florian Gatignon

10:45-12:00 Stephen John: Building and maintaining the natural veil of ignorance: trust, alignment and vaccination

Chair: Kyryll Khromov 


13:30-14:45 Kyryll Khromov: Trust, Phronetic Risks and Value Collapse

Chair: Raphael Scholl

15:00-16:15 Anne Meylan: Refusing the COVID-19 vaccine: what’s wrong with that?

Chair: Julien Deonna

16:30-17:45 Torsten Wilholt: Is Trust in Science a Good Thing?

Abstract: In this talk, the title question will be discussed three times in three different versions. In a first section, I will observe that while a traditional view holds that epistemic dependence makes trust is indispensable both within science and with regard to the reliance of the public on science, it sometimes seems that this is now considered obsolete in light of the crisis of confidence and the intended changes to improve the odds for replications. The open science movement appears to operate under the maxim “trust is good, control is better”. Is substituting control for trust a viable path to epistemic improvement? In a second section of the talk, I will address the question in the following way: Trust is a special form of shaping interpersonal relationships of reliance. Is it the right form to aspire to in the case of the relationship of the public to science, or would it not be better to strive for plain reliance (and, as it were, take the drama out of the relationship)? And finally, I will discuss a third version of the question: When we talk about public trust in political contexts, the observation suggests itself (and is regularly made in political theory) that distrust is at least as important as trust for a functioning democracy. Can this be applied to public trust in science? Should an interplay between trust and distrust prevent abuses of power also in this context, or are there reasons that make distrust specifically problematic in the epistemic context?

Chair: Marcel Weber

17:45-18:00 Closing Remarks

Kyryll Khromov and Marcel Weber on behalf of lgbig, Rebecca Wallbank on behalf of Thumos

Financial support by the SNF (project: Philosophy of Infectious Disease Epidemiology: Modeling, Values, and Policy Advice).

27 sept. 2023

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