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Experts, Publics and Trust During the Pandemic: Sociological Perspectives

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The pandemic has brought into focus the fraying of relations between experts, policy-makers and relevant publics in liberal democracies. Evidence of political intervention and rapid reversals of guidelines have clearly harmed public trust in expert advice. It also focused attention on the vulnerabilities of the organizational and dramaturgical arrangements that are supposed to endow expert advice with credibility and objectivity:

  • The imposition of restrictive measures based on risk assessment has rekindled populist resistance to “rule by unelected experts.”

  • The collapse of the gatekeepers represented by the rise of social media and the diffusion of preprints has amplified the cacophony and drowns out sober public discussion.

  • The situation is made worse by the continuous clashes between competing paradigms of public health and pandemic management (e.g. the recent “Great Barrington Declaration”).

This fraying of relations has profound consequences. Recent research shows that levels of public trust in institutions are good predictors of COVID-19 mortality rates.

How should social researchers analyze the factors and processes that contribute to this fraying of relations? What insights can be gleaned from comparative analysis, either of liberal democracies, or across the liberal-authoritarian divide? What have we learned about the determinants and nature of trust that can shed light and perhaps guide interventions in the current moment? What are the specific vulnerabilities of different forms of organizing the relations between experts, policy-makers and the public, and how can they be addressed?

We will explore these questions and more with an esteemed panel of social researchers including Rogers Brubaker, Stephen Hilgartner, Andrew Lakoff and Zeynep Tufekci. Moderated by Gil Eyal.

A concise and accessible primer on some of the core issues at stake is available here. This virtual event is free and open to the public; register here to attend.