Science in-and-of society (mid-1990s to present)

The critique of the public deficit models ushered in a reversal of the attribution. The focus shifted to the potential deficit of the scientific elite and experts, and to their prejudices of the public.

The critique correctly highlighted the pitfalls of reifying knowledge — scientific knowledge is what surveys measure — and insisted on a focus on how experts interpreted and worked with these measures (Ziman 1991; Irwin and Wynne 1996). Wynne (1993) suggested the term institutional neuroticism to point at prejudices of scientific actors towards the public that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and a vicious circle: the public, cognitively and emotionally deficient, cannot be trusted. This mistrust by scientific actors will be paid back in kind by public mistrust; we end up in a crisis of confidence. In this mind-set, negative public attitudes signal to scientists: the public is not to be trusted. This circularity and confirmatory bias of an institutional unconscious calls for soul-searching and more reflexivity among scientific actors, and endorsement of social epistemology with a plurality of knowledge centres (Jovchelovitch 2007).

Evidence of negative attitudes from large-scale surveys is contextualised with focus group research and ethnographic observations and indeed interpreted as a ‘crisis of confidence’ (House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology 2000; Miller 2001). Science and technology operate in society and therefore stand relative to other sectors of society. The views of the public held by scientists and experts come under scrutiny. Prejudices operate in policymaking and communication efforts; and the rhetoric that performs these alienate the public. Such a decline in public trust vis-à-vis science might also indicate the revival of an enlightened public with sceptical but informed opinions (Bensaude-Vincent 2001). It remains unclear, however, whether there is an actual decline in public trust or only an institutional anxiety giving rise to moral alarm. Cumulating evidence points towards a robust position of science among other societal institutions, but occasional challenges of that authority on controversial issues, which would be consistent with a ‘Bungee Jump’ model of scientific authority facing punctual leaps from a steady backup (Bauer et al. 2019).

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