Democracy and distrust after the pandemic

29 March 2022


Democracy and distrust after the pandemic

Reported by Nick Cosstick, Policy Researcher at CSaP

The immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportune moment to consider the role of political bodies, scientific expertise, and public trust in experts––in the USA, the UK, and the Global North more generally.

On 11 March 2022, the University of Cambridge's annual Dr Seng Tee Lee Lecture was delivered by Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies (STS) at Harvard Kennedy School in the U.S. Her talk at St John's College, Cambridge, concerned how the pandemic has revealed the nature of our current model of trust, the political nature of expert institutions, and state-level differences in public reasoning.

Given the ongoing nature of the post-pandemic period and our evolving conceptualisation of ‘trust’, she did not offer firm conclusions. Instead, she offered two kinds of reflections. Firstly, reflections from long-established STS work about crises concerning knowledge and political action. Secondly, reflections on her own experiences of navigating her way through the pandemic.

You can watch the lecture back here:

Enlightened maturity versus the 21st century social compact

To situate her analysis of trust, Professor Jasanoff considered Immanuel Kant’s analysis of ‘enlightenment’. He argued that: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed state of immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.” One of his examples of immaturity was a person’s diet being decided for them by their doctor. Professor Jasanoff summarised Kantian enlightened maturity as the ability to exercise one’s own judgment in decision-making.

She compared the Kantian notion of ‘enlightened maturity’ to––what she termed––the ‘21st century social compact’: the modern socio-political agreement which “seems to turn the clock back on Kantian enlightenment”. She said: “Today, we have masses of areas––practically all of our lives––in which we delegate authority to experts, precisely to tell us how to behave––metaphorically, what our diet should be––we grant them epistemic authority to know for us how we should be exercising judgement.” The compact holds that we should trust in science, which is why the distrust in Anthony Fauci (Chief Medical Advisor to the US President) during the pandemic was viewed as problematic. Professor Jasanoff experienced the current lack of enlightened maturity in her own institution’s advice during the pandemic. For example, masking guidelines ignored any uncertainty concerning their prescriptions.

Ultimately, she argued that Kant’s failure to foresee the 21st century model of enlightenment can “in a way” be blamed upon his failure to take heed of Shakespeare’s warning (in Hamlet): “There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The political nature of expert institutions

Professor Jasanoff further developed her analysis of the 21st century social compact. She argued that our expert institutions are “not simply telling us the state of the world in an unmediated fashion, so that we can trust those claims in a direct way. Instead, they're exercising authority that is political in the very same way that our elected bodies… are political.”

Expert institutions engage in three activities which are part of the politician’s toolkit. Firstly, ‘representation’: representing the world as it is and passing knowledge and opinion on through these bodies––thereby supplanting the role of communal knowledge. For example, during the pandemic, celebrations of Operation Warp Speed represented science as having the requisite solutions. Secondly, ‘aggregation’: generating a coherent view from disparate views. For example, the famous ‘hockey stick’ curve in climate science presents a coherent view on rising temperatures as a function of data from disparate sources––thermometers, tree rings, corals, ice cores, and historical records. Finally, ‘bridging’: drawing a connection between what one knows (or, believes) and what one needs to know in order to engage in political decision-making. For example, the precise amount of money to stimulate the economy during the pandemic was not known, but the conviction that stimulus was needed was widespread. Arriving at the exact amount of money used­­––in each country which made use of stimulus––was the result of a bridging process.

Civic epistemologies

Professor Jasanoff mentioned a research project that she is involved with on how 16 different countries––including the USA and the UK––responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. She highlighted that one of the theoretical tools used in this work is the concept of ‘civic epistemologies’: the extent to which a nation’s public reasoning is the result of preferences which are baked into “a culture’s collective ways of doing things”.

She argued that there are, on aggregate, state-level differences in civic epistemologies. For example, Professor Jasanoff noted the USA’s version of public accountability is generally characterised by assumptions of distrust, whereas the UK’s version is generally characterised by assumptions of trust. She held that this is the reason why the UK has had a greater emphasis on the accountability of public figures when they were caught breaking the lockdown rules.

Nick Cosstick

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Professor Sheila Jasanoff

Harvard Kennedy School