The power of trust


On the 24th April at 20:00, Coolpolitics presented The power of trust in the NRC restaurant and cafe at Rokin 65, 1012 KK Amsterdam. This debate was in Dutch. To read a transcript of Karsten Meijer’s introduction click here.

Both science and politics are facing a crisis of authority. Politicians are accused of lacking in consistency and of promoting their own interests over those of their citizenry. Scientists meanwhile seem to feel pressured to perform and appear to be publishing some research projects before they have been fully thought out. Does the increasing interconnectedness of science, politics and the media raise unreasonable expectations within these sectors and society at large? Do politicians and scientists feel the need to meet the demands of openness and accountability? The world seems to be getting smaller and its civilians more assertive and maybe public figures feel in the circumstances that they can’t afford to lose face and, under pressure, occasionally act when they shouldn’t do.

The pressure on public figures is higher than ever and new developments must not be overlooked. The growing interdependence of science, politics and their portrayal in the media ensure high expectations from the public: transparency and accountability are the order of the day. The Royal Dutch Academy of Science (KNAW) also concluded in its latest report last May that the impending risks need to be addressed: “Ensuring trust is primarily a task for the scientific community, but external parties, such as financiers, government, media and education can also make a contribution.”.

Where do politicians and scientists stand in the current zeitgeist? Do they need to go back to basics or is more substantial change required, must we reinvent modern democracy? Can we come to constructive collaboration between the realms of science and politics without undermining public trust in either institution? Or are we mistaken, and does their authority remain self-evident to most members of the public?


Key Speakers:

Jelte Sondij is a Dutch presenter, working on programmes such as RamBam and The Social Club. Jelte started his career as a reporter for a programme called CQC where he worked on a series of reports about the Dutch troops in Uruzgan, Afghanistan.

Victor de Graaff is chairman of the Promovendi Vereniging (PhD association). At the University of Twente he is exploring the possibilities for creating a geo-social recommender system. This is a system for recommending geographically products, such as real estate or holiday homes, using social media-based user profiles.

The evening also featured Annelien Bredenoord (D66 Utrecht and member of De Jonge Akademie), Marjolein Moorman (PvdA, Amsterdam ) and Bernard Naron (European parliamentary candidate for the PvdA). In addition, the crowd was full of young politicians and scientists, invited to take part in the conversation. Proceedings began with the reading of a philosophical column by Karsten Meijer (Amsterdam libertarian, founder of online news magazine

All photography courtesy of Niels Vinck.

Address: Rokin 65, 1012 KK Amsterdam.


The power of trust, donderdag 24 april 2014, 20:00, Rokin 65, 1012 KK Amsterdam. Lees een afschrift van Karsten Meijer’s introductie hier.

Op donderdag 24 april 2014 zet Coolpolitics de lijn van interactieve gesprekken met het thema ‘vertrouwen’ voort. In het NRC Café organiseren wij het tweede debat van onze Time to Talk reeks. Discussieer mee op 24 april, in Amsterdam dit keer. 

In grootmoeders tijd spraken politici altijd de waarheid. Wetenschappers waren objectief en stonden boven praatjesmakerij. Rekenden zij in een vergeten tijd op ongelimiteerde steun en respect, tegenwoordig moeten zij vaker het stellen met twijfels en achterdocht.

De ooit zo vanzelfsprekende autoriteit van zowel wetenschappers als politici staat onder druk. De Politicus en De Wetenschapper stonden nog niet zo lang geleden op een voetstuk, maar vallen inmiddels hard naar beneden.

De wereld wordt groter, haar burgers mondiger en het leven sneller. Politici en wetenschappers kunnen zich steeds minder veroorloven. Daarmee ligt de presentatiedruk hoger dan ooit en mogen nieuwe ontwikkelingen niet over het hoofd worden gezien. Politici wordt verweten dat ze draaien en niet luisteren naar hun burgers. Wetenschappers worden ontmaskerd door twijfelachtig onderzoek. De toenemende verwevenheid van de wetenschap, politiek en de beeldvorming in de media zorgen voor hoge verwachtingen bij het publiek: transparantie en verantwoording zijn de orde van de dag.

Ook concludeert de Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van de Wetenschappen (KNAW) in haar laatste rapport van afgelopen mei dat de dreigende risico’s het hoofd moet worden geboden: “Waarborgen van vertrouwen is in de eerste plaats een taak van de wetenschappelijke wereld zelf, maar ook externe partijen zoals financiers, overheid, media en onderwijs kunnen hieraan een bijdrage leveren.”

Met Power of trust brengt Coolpolitics twee werelden samen, die van de politiek én de wetenschap. Wat is hun plaats in de huidige tijdsgeest van de samenleving, en wat hebben jonge wetenschappers en politici elkaar te bieden? Gaan we back to basics, of mogen we alles opnieuw uitvinden? En is er ruimte voor een constructieve samenwerking in de toekomst?



Het hoofdpodium wordt deze avond geboden aan jonge wetenschappers en politici. De aftrap van de avond is een filosofische column van Karsten Meijer (o.a. Amsterdamse libertijn, oprichter van online opinietijdschrift Daarna gaat Jelte Sondij – bekend van o.a. Jakhalzen, DWDD en RamBam – in gesprek met onder meer Victor de Graaff (Promovendi Netwerk Nederland), Annelien Bredenoord (D66 Utrecht en lid De Jonge Akademie), Bernard Naron (Kandidaat Europarlementariër PvdA), Marjolein Moorman (fractievoorzitter Pvda Amsterdam en docent Communicatiewetenschap) en Jeroni Vergeer (kandidaat Europarlementarier GroenLinks). Daarnaast nodigen wij jonge politici en wetenschappers uit om zich aan te melden en deel te nemen aan het gesprek.

Fotografieën Niels Vinck.

Adres: Rokin 65, 1012 KK Amsterdam. De zaal is open vanaf 19.30 uur.


Trust in science and politics: between blind faith and unreasonable fear 

 (a Dutch version of this text is available on the Coolpolitics website)

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”

This quote from Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, has lost none of its relevance today. We can easily apply it to the world we live in – a world in which the transparency of our society gives us much cause for optimism. After all, who amongst is still able to keep their bad intentions private? Yet, at the same time, how much is actually made public? Nowadays, you never really know what you do not know, and that can be frightening.

What effect does transparency have upon authority? Is all this openness good or bad for our trust in institutions? Suppose that the organisers of this evening are right and trust in science and politics indeed decreases as a result of transparency: what would we then be able to do about it? This isn’t an easy question, because trust is a complex and slippery subject. To get a better idea of the situation, I’m going to follow the example of the sociologist Luhmann who proposes splitting the concepts of trust and confidence. ‘Trust’ is something you have in situations, in which you have to believe that someone else is doing what you expect them to be doing or what they promised you they would do. ‘Confidence’, however, is based upon knowledge of the person in question and, as such, automatically presupposes a certain level of transparency.

We would rather not consider ourselves naive. Nevertheless, our confidence often ends up being based on ‘trust’, as life would otherwise become intolerable. Think of the countless interactions you have had with others in the traffic getting here. In doing so, most of us, neurotics aside, trust our fellow drivers without seeking to check either their track records or licenses before doing so. Suppose someone betrays your trust and gets in your way or otherwise behaves in an unexpected fashion. Perhaps you’ll then end up in a hospital, where, neurotics aside, you will trust the doctors to do their jobs, rather than seeking to discuss suturing techniques. So, as you can see, we often rely blindly on the knowledge and expertise of others in our daily lives.

‘Confidence’, meanwhile, is applied on the basis of objective data on – or past experiences with – a person or an institution. All drivers are checked by the authorities in the form of their driver’s licenses. The doctors that you may visit are also assessed by the hospitals where they work, a prerequisite for their employment being evidence of their education and expertise.

‘Trust’ is thus about believing and ‘confidence’ about knowing.

In scientific fields, the emphasis has shifted from ‘trust’ to ‘confidence’. For example, a university sets targets for the number of publications and the amount of outstanding graduate students. Coincidentally, this week, as an employee of Tilburg University, I had to hand in a report of any additional activities, which I had carried out. They wanted to know what I did, in the interests of “scientific integrity”. Does that get us anywhere? Yes. These measures have ensured that the non-committal culture in universities has been ousted. We now see far less academic fossils who haven’t written anything in years and considerably less eternal students who have yet to achieve any meaningful credits.

However, a university can place too much emphasis on ‘confidence’ and when taken too far a good system can lead to an overreliance on false certainties. A professor who continuously publishes material certainly meets the targets, but this does not automatically make him a good scientist. Precisely such a “confidence – climate” can also come hand in hand with undesirable behaviour. The step from seeing science as a product to the commital of fraud is all too small (a fact we are also aware of here in Tilburg). It appears then that security in itself is sometimes insufficient and that we have to occasionally also believe in the integrity of our scientists.

The situation in science is not unique. In healthcare, business and tax matters one also sees a lot of our ‘confidence’ aspect of trust. Presumably this has a lot to do with the so-called “risk – control reflex” of politics: when a risk is realised (as somewhere something goes drastically wrong), then the only appropriate response seems to be to gain more control in the form of rules. Politics must be seen to be doing something to generate ‘trust’ and thus can only with great difficulty not enforce more ‘confidence’ based legislation when something goes wrong.

Scientists are responsible for their findings. Politicians have a different responsibility. They are responsible for promises, but should also, in retrospect, be accountable for their consequences. It is therefore understandable that they tend to cover themselves; be it with rules, transparency and integrity standards or additional oversight, politicians are always going to look to minimise risk factors.

Maybe we should strictly monitor this “hedging propensity” of our politicians, yet again maybe we should just give them some more breathing space, so that they do not feel required to constantly act so cautiously. What is certain is that ‘confidence’ can lead to an intolerable and hesitant society, with an excessive concern with safeguarding against risks. A society based on ‘confidence’ is an inefficient, unimaginative and anxious society. However, an excess of ‘trust’ is also undesirable. A critical culture is valuable and keeps us on our toes. ‘Trust’ can be confounded and prove, with hindsight, to have been unjustified. Particularly in a political context, it is important that ‘outsiders’ are able to participate and that ‘insiders’ are monitored. ‘Trust’ can not be allowed to become blind faith.

We need to be able to retain the discretion to determine on a situational basis, which form of trust is the most suitable. Once more it’s a question of balance: a juggling act between irrational fear and blind faith. In the words of Lincoln: “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”.

Karsten Meijer

This column was contributed by Karsten Meijer during Time to Talk #2: The power of trust on April 24th 2014 in Amsterdam’s NRC Café. Karsten Meijer (1987) is the founder of deFusie: an online news magazine, where young scholars are able to bring together their specialities and the issues of the day. He studied law and philosophy in the Netherlands and North America and also works as a researcher at Tilburg University.