Whom to trust? Public concerns, late modern risks, and expert trustworthiness

This article discusses the conditions under which the use of expert knowledge may provide an adequate response to public concerns about high-tech, late modern risks. Scientific risk estimation has more than once led to expert controversies. When these controversies occur, the public at large – as a media audience – faces a paradoxical situation: on the one hand it must rely on the expertise of scientists as represented in the mass media, but on the other it is confused by competing expert claims in the absence of any clear-cut standard to judge these claims. The question then arises, what expertise can the public trust? I argue that expert controversies cannot be settled by appealing to neutral, impartial expertise, because each use of expert knowledge in applied contexts is inextricably bound up with normative and evaluative assumptions. This value-laden nature of expert contributions, however, does not necessarily force us to adopt a relativist conception of expert knowledge. Nor does it imply active involvement of ordinary citizens in scientific risk estimation – as some authors seem to suggest. The value-laden, or partisan, nature of expert statements rather requires an unbiased process of expert dispute in which experts and counter-experts can participate. Moreover, instead of being a reason for discrediting expert contributions, experts'' commitment may enhance public trustworthiness because it enlarges the scope of perspectives taken into account, to include public concerns. Experts who share the same worries as (some of) the public could be expected to voice these worries at the level of expert dispute. Thus, a broadly shaped expert dispute, that is accessible to both proponents and opponents, is a prerequisite for public trust.
Keywords expert controversies  late modern risks  public trust
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DOI 10.1023/B:JAGE.0000017391.41994.d2
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