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Leah Henderson: ‘Trust holds society together. Most successful when it is invisible’

03 July 2023

Leah Henderson is appointed as Endowed Professor of Societal Trust at the University of Groningen as of 1 July. The chair is a special appointment sponsored by the Koninklijke Hollandsche Maatschappij der Wetenschappen (KHMW) in collaboration with the Rudolf Agricola School for Sustainable Development of the UG. Henderson answers nine questions to elaborate about her upcoming research and outreach activities on the theme of societal trust.

Text: Heidi Scholtz
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dr. Leah Henderson and director Frans Sijtsma of the Rudolf Agricola School. Photo: Marco in 't Veldt

In general, what is the aim of the chair and what are your plans with it?

‘The aim of the chair is to develop our understanding of societal trust. This includes understanding what is currently undermining societal trust and creating positive visions for how to improve it. My plans are to develop an interdisciplinary platform for research, teaching and outreach on this topic.’

How does your previous research connect to the chair?

‘My background is in philosophy of science, so I have long been thinking about questions to do with trust in science and in scientific experts. More recently, I have branched out into social epistemology, and here trust has become a core theme in my research. I have been looking at questions like: when can differences in people’s trust in sources of information drive polarisation? What should you do when trust in your own judgement is undermined? What is involved in building common ground to overcome deep disagreements?’

Why is this field much needed right now?

‘Trust is the cement that holds society together. It is like glue. And actually it is most successful when it is invisible. We really only start to talk about trust when it is coming unstuck in various ways. Then we see how critical trust is for social cohesion, and also for cooperation. At the moment, we are facing urgent environmental challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss, which require unprecedented levels of cooperation and trust. But at the same time, there is increasing polarisation. And this is not just because people are disagreeing over values. There is an even more worrying tendency for people to move away from a shared understanding of how the world works, and develop completely different world-views. A major reason for this is that some groups of people are losing trust in the ‘mainstream’ sources of information, and developing trust in alternative sources.’

What are common examples why people lose trust in usual sources of information and develop trust in alternative sources of information?

‘As I just mentioned, this has been happening a lot around climate change, with groups of people denying that climate change is even happening or that it is human-caused. The response to Covid-19 has been another important example. It is often a particular combination of conditions which leads to people losing trust in usual sources and developing trust in alternative sources of information. Some of these conditions can be quite personal – how people happen to be connected to others in their immediate environment and their recent experiences. But a large driving force is also the polluted information environment we live in, which is full of misinformation, and which is difficult for individuals to navigate.’

What are your thoughts on how society should deal with misinformation?

‘There is no simple answer to this. Certainly there are a lot of untrue claims circulating, and the internet and social media provide new and effective ways to make these have even greater reach than before. But to me, even more concerning is ‘disinformation’, which is the active manipulation of information. This includes propaganda and other more insidious methods. I feel that there is still a lot of room for progress in understanding how these methods work. We need to understand the mechanisms in order to see the best ways to deal with them. But the solution will need to go much deeper and address reasons that cause people to be vulnerable to this disinformation – and that may include much broader issues, like inequality in society.’

Can you give examples of how you plan implementing a philosophical approach to societal trust embedded in your own teaching and research?

‘Philosophy plays a crucial synthesising role in bringing various scientific disciplines together and making sense of their findings. Societal trust is a complex concept. We need a really broad lens which takes an interdisciplinary approach. Perspectives from psychology, sociology, argumentation theory, law and political science are all important here. A first step is to listen and share perspectives. I plan to make a podcast series called ‘Why trust?’ where I will interview scholars from a range of fields to create a multifaceted picture of the nature and origins of social trust.’

Societal trust forms part of the Agricola School’s long-running research: can you give examples within your research that you would like to initiate or perhaps have already initiated as part of the school’s focus on sustainable development?

‘Yes, Agricola School does indeed focus on the broad problem of creating a sustainable society. Societal trust is a prominent part of long-running research within the school, for example on issues such as the effects of local gas extraction in the Groningen region on trust between citizens and government. My plan is to bring researchers from different disciplines together by forming a research group on the theme of societal trust. It is important for the success of the schools that they create a solid basis for interdisciplinary research. But this is not easy. It takes time and energy. This chair creates a great opportunity to spearhead this process. Three areas in which I would like to particularly focus are the role of trust in disagreement and societal polarisation; the effects of misinformation and disinformation on trust; and trust in science, especially in relation to the problem of climate change.’

What do you hope to achieve after the 5-year period of your appointment?

‘I hope to achieve some deeper understanding of societal trust, but also to make concrete suggestions about what can be done to create a society with a healthy and solid basis of trust. I also would like to create an interdisciplinary collaborative community within the university which will carry this work into the future beyond the 5 year appointment.’

Last modified:03 July 2023 4.42 p.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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