Credibility and Trust in Scientific Fact-Making
The sociology of scientific knowledge is particularly well suited to shedding light on such phenomena as scientific controversy, credibility crises, and the public trust and distrust of experts: this body of work identifies credibility and trust as the very underpinnings of scientific knowledge-production. Not just relations between laypeople and experts, but also relations among scientists themselves are enabled by the social organization of trust and the construction of credibility.
Since its inception in the 1970s, the sociology of scientific knowledge has argued that scientific fact-making is a collective process amenable to sociological investigation. As Steven Shapin explains, "no scientific claim 'shines with its own light'—carries its credibility with it. …" Analysts of science have therefore "become intensely interested in the specific processes of argumentation and political action whereby claims come to be accepted as true or rejected as false." In practice, a range of theories has been offered as to how the credibility of knowledge claims is secured. For Bruno Latour and his colleagues and collaborators, credibility is the stake in an agonistic struggle. In this approach, science is "politics by other means," and the credibility of a knowledge claim depends on the play of power: the scientist who can appear to make nature "behave" in the laboratory, whose rhetoric is more persuasive, who is able to summon up the more compelling
citations, and who is able to enlist more allies, patrons, and supporters by "translating" their interests so that they correspond with the scientist's own is the one who constructs credible knowledge and gains access to further resources as a result. The most effective claims are those which become "obligatory passage points": the journal article that all must cite to justify their own work, the technology that all must employ to accomplish their own research—in general, the way stations through which other scientists, patrons, or members of the public necessarily must pass in order to satisfy their interests or achieve their goals. The more well traveled such passage points, the more fully institutionalized the knowledge claims become.
Alternatively, analysts such as Barry Barnes, Harry Collins, and Steven Shapin, while emphasizing the role of conflict, also understand scientific credibility as emerging from the nexus of cooperative relationships that constitute scientific communities. Since no one can "know" all or even a fraction of the corpus of scientific knowledge through direct experience, science is made possible through the allocation of trust. "Trust and authority," writes Barnes, "are the wires of a great system of communication which makes the specialized knowledge of society widely credible and widely usable." Clearly, laypeople are almost always in the position of having to trust what experts tell them is true. But trust is crucial even to the relationships among scientists, as Collins demonstrates in his arguments concerning the phenomenon of "experimenters' regress": "The competence of experimenters and the integrity of experiments can only be ascertained by examining results , but the appropriate results can only be known from competently performed experiments." Independent replication of a finding does not resolve the dilemma of whether to believe, because no two experiments are ever exactly the same in all details, and so the status of an experiment as a replication must also be socially negotiated. In order, then, for any finding to be accepted, scientists cannot be utter skeptics. Either they must trust that the experiment was competently performed (thus granting credibility to the result) or they must trust the result (thereby conceding that the experiment was competently performed). At any given moment, some knowledge must be taken on faith, if science is to proceed as a social institution. Even expressions of distrust are "predicated upon a background of trust," explains Shapin: a scientist cannot distrust a particular finding or person except against the background of other shared knowledge which is unproblematically trusted.
These conceptions of the social relations that govern scientific knowledge-production have several implications for understanding cases such as AIDS research. First, these analyses suggest that scientists, other professionals, and laypeople alike find themselves frequently in the business of assessing the credibility of knowledge claims and claimants, and asking who or what they should trust and believe. The difficulty is that—for laypeople and to a considerable extent for experts as well—such assessments can usually be made only indirectly, through the scrutiny of external markers of credibility. Who conducted the study? Where was it published? What does the New York Times have to say about it? What does my doctor think? Even such everyday iconography as the diploma on the wall serves an important signaling function within a social system stitched together by assertions and assessments of credibility.
Second, this understanding of credibility implies a special role for certain face-to-face interactions, such as those between doctors and patients. In a world significantly organized by impersonal bureaucracies, doctors serve as "'access points' … at which 'faceless institutions' present a particular human face to those who encounter and pass through them." Doctors are among the experts that laypeople are most likely to encounter firsthand; their credibility can be read in their words, body language, and "bedside manner." This social location gives practicing physicians a distinctive function in controversies involving doctors, patients, and scientists.
Third, since trust and credibility may be fragile resources, scientists, doctors, and other experts are keenly attuned to potential disruptions in the social circulation of credibility. In effect, scientists barter their credibility for the extension of resources by patrons and the public, who typically stand back and respect the autonomy of scientists, allowing them to determine the specific division and allocation of research funds, judge one another's work, and police abuses. One consequence of this arrangement for the expert claims-maker is that maintaining legitimacy (both one's own and that of science in general) becomes of paramount importance: when legitimacy is threatened, the credibility of one's claims is in jeopardy, and with it, the availability of resources and the maintenance of professional autonomy. Like other professional groups, scientists frequently participate in shoring up their legitimacy, including engaging in public relations work and attempts to manage the presentation of scientific findings in the mass media. This labor is made difficult by the number of factors that can
diminish the public's perception of the legitimacy of science, including instances of scientific fraud, malpractice, and incompetence; technological disasters; the failure to solve problems considered socially significant; the perception that scientists are "crossing the line" into politics or advocacy; admissions of uncertainty on the part of experts; and dogmatic professions of overcertainty. The very existence of disputes between experts can cause legitimacy problems for science, given the "belief that science 'naturally' produces consensus by the collective pursuit of 'the scientific method.'"
The AIDS crisis is a case in which the normal flow of trust and credibility between experts and laypeople has been disrupted. The autonomy of science has therefore been challenged; outsiders have rushed into the breach. But something else has happened as well: some of those outsiders, particularly groups of AIDS activists, have constituted themselves as a new class of "lay experts" and put forward their own claims to speak credibly about the epidemic.