Expanding on Status Distrust, Hugh Desmond

Are status differences really the difference-makers for stubborn distrust? And can stubborn distrust not be explained in many other ways as well? These are the two main questions raised by Sven-Ove Hansson (2022) in his thoughtful response to my article “Status Distrust of Scientific Experts” (Desmond 2022) … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Peter Meijer via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Desmond, Hugh. 2023. “Expanding on Status Distrust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (2): 5–12. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7zQ.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

This article replies to:

❧ Hansson, Sven-Ove. 2022. “The Components of Stubborn Distrust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 61-63.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Desmond, Hugh. 2022. “Status Distrust of Scientific Experts.” Social Epistemology 36 (5): 586–600.

In brief, that article proposed to take the reality of status differences into account in our understanding of apparently irrational (or “stubborn”) forms of distrust of scientific experts. Not only does it help make those forms of distrust more intelligible, but under certain circumstances, such forms of distrust could even be said to be justified.

There is more to be said about this, and I will take Hansson’s comments as an opportunity to expand on  what “status” means, and how to link status distrust to phenomena such as “fake” (or “alternative”) experts or conspiracy theories.

Somewhat separately, Hansson also asks why I focus on “upwards” status distrust (the distrust of lower towards higher status individuals). After all, “downwards” status distrust is at least as harmful. I will start with this issue.

I. Why Focus on “Upwards” Status Distrust When “Downwards” Status Distrust is at Least as Harmful?

Let’s take an example to focus the discussion: classism. Classism is bias towards those with a lower socioeconomic standing, as evident in various indicators including clothing, accent, mannerisms, alma mater, social network, pedigree, fame, etc. Classism as such refers to the bias, but it can also engender status distrust: the higher-status person distrusts the lower-status person in virtue of their status, and regardless of their competence or intentions.

1. Upwards and downwards status distrust are like fire and ice.

In virtue of their positions of social privilege, high status members do not need to express their distrust very visibly, either physically (e.g. protesting) or verbally (by publishing polemics against the statements of low-status individuals). They can simply shun or ignore them. Downwards status distrust may manifest itself by an absence: less attention, less excitement, fewer opportunities.

2. Downwards status distrust appears as more localized compared to upwards status distrust.

A pretty well-corroborated pattern is that high-status individuals are more likely to trust fellow citizens more than low-status individuals (Brandt et al. 2015; Keijzer and Corten 2017; Lount and Pettit 2012). High-status individuals have high levels of default trust. (Society, in fact, tends to be a more hospitable environment for high-status compared to low-status individuals.) Hence, when high-status individuals do not trust someone, the impression can easily be created that this is the exception rather than the rule, and therefore an attitude that is supported by good reasons.

3. Downwards status distrust is easier to portray as rational and justified.

Not only is downwards status distrust more localized, but the very ascribing of status to an individual is itself an indicator of trustworthy properties: competence/knowledge or some type of prosocial intentionality[1]. The converse (though invalid) inference is quickly made: a lack of social status indicates a lack of trustworthy properties.

The upshot is that downwards status distrust is much more invisible than upwards status distrust. Downwards status distrust can be easily portrayed as an objective judgment about a person’s competence or “fit” with a particular subculture. By contrast, upwards status distrust is highly visible because it appears to be so irrational, and because high status individuals (e.g. professionals, whether in medicine, engineering, architecture, etc.) also tend  by and large to be competent individuals.

I actually agree with Hansson that downwards status distrust is at least as harmful as the upwards kind. In fact, in many ways it can act as a corrosive to social trust. My intuition here, informally developed once (Desmond 2020) in the wake of the anti-racism protests of 2021, is that it less visible and more fundamental than racism or sexism. In other work (Desmond 2021), I’ve argued that overreliance on social status is like the Achilles heel of liberal societies. We see ourselves as autonomous agents, and are unaware of how much our desires and moral judgments are influenced by status hierarchies.

Why focus on upwards status distrust? The first reason is that public discourse will always tend to classify instances of upwards status distrust as irrational. Hence it makes for a more interesting philosophical result to show how this classification can go wrong. Second, as science has grown in prestige, scientists have become very high-status individuals. Science is typically considered to be the paradigm of reliable knowledge, to the extent that age-old professions—medicine, engineering, architecture,  etc.—have reoriented themselves as “applied science” in the past 100-200 years. Scientists may not possess wealth or fame compared to celebrities, but the crux of the notion of social status is that one’s opinion (or preference) is assigned weight in collective decision-making. (This is continuous with the concept of “prestige” as used by anthropologists following Henrich and Gil-White 2001.) So status distrust in scientists will tend to go in the “upwards direction” rather than the downwards one.

II. Is Status Really a Difference-Maker for Distrust?

The paper relies heavily on the concept of “status”. I did not define “status” with exacting precision, because it is one of these concepts that everyone has an intuitive grasp of, and because this intuitive grasp was more or less sufficient for the goals of the paper. That is why I explained the concept of status by illustrating how status functions in the professions and discussing how anthropologists understand social status (prestige vs. dominance; the role of competence; etc.).

However, Hansson raises three counterexamples, which suggest that status differences are neither sufficient nor necessary for instances of stubborn distrust:

a. High status is not necessary: stubborn distrust is also exhibited towards nurses who do not possess high degrees of status;

b. High status is not sufficient: the stubborn distrust exhibited towards scientists is not directed towards celebrities, who are high-status individuals;

c. Status differences are not necessary: high-status celebrities may exhibit stubborn distrust towards scientific experts.

I believe these counterexamples can be defused, and in fact can be turned into corroborations of the framework of status distrust, by a more detailed understanding of “social status”. In particular, status is always relative to a context (a social environment, a task at hand). Social status is rarely an absolute ranking: there are many “kinds” of social status (with respect to rankings) that may not always be commensurable.

Status distrust towards nurses?

Nurses may not seem to have high status, compared to some other professions, such as professors. In many countries nurses are underpaid and underappreciated. Professors, not nurses, are the ones who contribute to the opinion pages of newspapers, or whose advice is (even occasionally) sought by policy makers or corporate leaders. However, within hospitals, nurses have high status. Unless they are a medical professor, a professor visiting the hospital as a patient may find themselves with a low social status, in the sense that their opinion (e.g., about procedures or conditions for discharge) is not assigned nearly the same weight as that of the nurse.

This analysis predicts that status distrust towards nurses would be especially manifested in the hospital setting (refusing to take a shot, refusing to cooperate, etc.). By contrast, physician-researchers and heads of medical institutions (typically the highest status members within the medical profession) have a public profile, and one would expect status distrust towards them to be manifested much more broadly.

Absence of status distrust towards celebrities?

What is a celebrity? Many celebrities have special competences: acting, music performance, song-writing, novel writing, science popularization, politics. These individuals may have achieved celebrity thanks to some special excellence. However, a “celebrity”, literally, simply means someone who is well-known. Categorizing someone as a celebrity does not convey any information about how they achieved their fame. It allows for the possibility that someone may be a celebrity without any noteworthy competences—or at least, competences that we may recognize as such. Such individuals may be relatively rare, but they are visible enough that we have a special name for them: “media personalities”. It is not true to say media personalities, contrary to their reputation, lack competence: in general, they possess a particular talent for self-branding and self-promotion, and for navigating the media and social networks. However, these competences are invisible: media personalities do not publicize their knowledge about media and self-promotion, only their personas. Media personalities do not portray themselves as possessing competences that would make them sought-out by policy-makers, corporate leaders, or professionals. (If they were to brand themselves as “PR-experts”, which many probably are, they would cease to be media personalities.)

Whatever social status a scientist may have, it is a very different type to that of a media personality. It is grounded in scientific ability or knowledge. A leading scientist may be relatively unknown to the public, but their knowledge may be highly sought by other professionals, corporations, or policy-makers. Their individual opinions may sway policy.

The notion of “status distrust” builds on this conceptualization of status: the sway exercised on decision-making. Fame is secondary: fame only matters because, thanks to the prestige-effect, the opinions of a well-known individual carry weight regardless of their actual competence. Wealth is also secondary, in that it matters only because it allows an individual to set up institutions, or buy the services of experts and lobbyists, and thus multiply the weight of their opinions. Nonetheless, this understanding of status was a working assumption of the paper (first introduced in the abstract and on p.3), and to fully argue for it would require a separate paper that engages with the scientific literature on social status.

This understanding of status helps analyze why celebrities and scientists cannot be lumped together into a class of “high-status individuals”. For the sake of clarity, let’s take two rather stereotypical representatives of each class, Anthony Fauci for the scientists, and Kim Kardashian for the celebrities. Fauci can be judged to possess higher status than Kardashian in the following sense: he may not have the same level of wealth, receive the same media attention, or even be equally known by the broader population, but his opinions or judgments have much greater impact on individual lives by shaping public policy.  In this sense, I would say that Kardashian can be the object of envy or jealousy, but not status distrust, assuming that it is fair to say her opinions or preferences (or those of any media personality) have little impact on public policy, professional organizations, or trajectories of corporations.

Often fame and wealth are mistaken for status, but in rare moments the true nature of status can be publicly seen. For instance, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, various celebrities joined forces to sing “Imagine” by John Lennon as a way of inspiring the general populace. The recording was quickly ridiculed.  There was the widespread and remarkable realization that in the face of a novel and rather deadly virus, actors and celebrities were rather useless. They did not possess relevant knowledge or competences, and were far from being moral or spiritual leaders. Celebrities went from being viewed as high status to middling status individuals.

I hasten to add that expertise and celebrity cannot be neatly separated. Fauci himself is a good example of how scientists can become celebrities in their own right. And some celebrities have taken to defending scientific consensus on various issues, from vaccination to climate change. When that happens, celebrities may come to have the type of sway held by leading scientists, and the status distrust felt towards scientists/policy-makers can be quickly be transferred towards the celebrities.

In sum: the logic of status distrust is not about fame or wealth per se, but about how much an individual can sway collective decision-making; in this respect, celebrities do not necessarily possess much status.

Anti-vaxx celebrities?

In the light of the previous discussion, one can venture that the phenomenon of anti-vaxx celebrities illustrates how some celebrities may perceive themselves as low-status individuals. (Let us here ignore those cases of anti-vaxx celebrities who are motivated purely by financial or career interests: such cases do not involve stubborn distrust towards scientific experts.)

Why would this be the case? I have no special insight into the first-person perspective of celebrities, but it is rather plausible to speculate that celebrities themselves often feel disempowered by the way they are used by industries or groups that are objectively quite a bit more powerful than they are: studios and streaming industries, media, politics. For these actors, celebrities are mere tools in the quest of profit, clicks, or votes. If a celebrity contemplates the respect given to science by professions, corporations, or policy-makers, they may not assign a high degree of status to themselves.

In sum, there is no reason why a celebrity and a non-celebrity may not both experience the vulnerability and uncertainty about scientists’ intentions/values that can contribute to status distrust. The only difference is that celebrities’ anti-vaxx attitudes are much more prominent in public discourse because of their large following.

III. What Precisely is the Explanatory Scope of the Logic of Status Distrust?

With the paper I wanted to examine “stubborn distrust” as the way in which the distrust that some exhibit towards scientific experts seems to be resistant to evidence, whether this is evidence regarding the knowledge of experts or regarding their intentions. I am not happy with the way issues have been presented by educated elites in recent years. And I genuinely believe that a good case can be made that more is at stake than the oft-repeated narratives of “we live in a post-truth era, where the true/false distinction is no longer made”, “fake news, fake experts, and or webs of conspiracy theories are manipulating hapless citizens”, or “the resentful political right is driving distrust”.
It’s not that these narratives might not have some truth to them – sticky narratives often have a kernel of truth. However, a question that should be asked more often is whether their dominant status is justified? The logic of status distrust is intended to show that we do not need to automatically categorize apparently irrational forms of distrust as in fact irrational.

The paper itself did not really make a detailed evaluation of how well the “status distrust model” of irrational/stubborn distrust stacks up against rival “irrationality models”. A further paper would have been needed to do justice to this matter, so I positioned the issue more modestly. The way I phrased it was that “[The main argument’s] modal force is that of a ‘how-possibly’ argument for the phenomenon of stubborn distrust” (588). So in the paper I do not claim that status distrust is a better or more complete account of stubborn distrust compared to various irrationality views.

However, I would not want to limit my reply to such a legalistic response. Hansson raises two rivals to the logic of status distrust:

a. Trust in “alternative experts”, not status distrust in (mainstream) experts, may account for stubborn distrust in experts;

b. Conspiracy theories, not status distrust in experts, may account for stubborn distrust in experts.

While the paper does not deny either rival account, I read Hansson as responding to the spirit than to the letter of the paper. And he is right that there was another undercurrent to the paper where the logic of status distrust was presented as more fundamental than the irrationality views, of which a. and b. are examples. (For instance, in section 7 I briefly show how status distrust can help account for the growth of conspiracy theorizing.) In other words, implicit in the thrust of the paper was another, more ambitious claim: we should largely abandon the irrationality views in favor of the status distrust model.

Fully arguing for this claim was outside the scope of the original paper, and certainly outside the scope of this reply. However, by analyzing the two alternative explanations raised by Hansson, I can sketch how this argumentation would work.

1. Alternative experts are trusted in virtue of their low status.

I would venture to suggest that alternative experts (“fake experts”) are more linked with status distrust than may seem at first. It is important to note how these alternative experts view themselves; almost invariably, they position themselves over against what they call “mainstream”. Even well-credentialed academics can portray themselves in this way.

These alternative experts have popularity but not necessarily status. In what way? Alternative experts are not respected in academia—they are not the ones getting the keynote invitations to the prestigious conferences. They are also, by and large (with a few exceptions) not the ones being consulted by policymakers.

Here again, to evaluate the status of an individual, it is important to identify the social and institutional environment in which the individual is assigned status. Having a large following on the internet does imply high status in those particular internet communities. What they say has large sway over a large number of people. However, society is much larger and more complex than internet communities, and a high degree of popularity does not translate into great sway in society as a whole. Alternative experts, by and large, do not influence policymakers, corporate leaders, professionals. Nor do they  influence mainstream academics, who, by and large, are the ones guiding policymakers, corporate leaders, and professionals.  Alternative experts have some degree of status—they may have large sway on the behavior and decisions of their internet followers—but they do not shape public policy. This is why  alternative experts with millions of followers online could still be categorized as relatively low-status individuals in society as a whole.

Moreover, an important reason alternative experts are popular is precisely because of their low status. They position themselves as being outside the mainstream. Their low status in society as a whole is the source of their high status within the internet community.  They are trusted by their followers because they are distrusted by “the establishment”.  In this sense one could venture that the success of these alternative experts can be viewed as the result of status distrust towards mainstream scientific experts.

2. Conspiracy theories are confabulations of the underlying reality of status distrust.

The most clear-cut instances of confabulation occur in split-brain experiments. In such cases, the right brain moves the left hand, but cannot convey to the language centers in the left brain why it moved the left hand. Instead of acknowledging they cannot verbalize the reason, the patient confabulates some story as to why they are acting in that particular way.

I would advance the conjecture that conspiracy theories are confabulations of the “real reason” for distrust, namely status distrust. The logic of status distrust in itself need not lead to conspiracy theorizing. In principle it involves a nuanced judgment, is responsive to changing evidence, and even be justified under certain circumstances. It has limited explanatory force and operates within rather strict conditions.

However, this reasoning is very rarely properly articulated by those who hold it. Why this is so is another question. We are rarely aware of how interconnected our agency is with status hierarchies. For instance, we easily experience rejection as objective evidence of our intrinsic worth, and not as a social phenomenon. We may also have great difficulty articulating exactly why we trust some people, or deeply distrust others. It is hard to explicitly formulate deeply held values, and explain how they diverge from those of others, since these differences may be largely manifested in ways of life rather than abstract discourse. Hence, from a first-person perspective, status distrust can appear as an unanalyzable primitive. The distrust is felt, sometimes intensely so, but a rational justification seems to be lacking.

This psychological environment is ripe for some post-hoc reasoning. From this perspective, science-denialism and conspiracy theorizing are simply rather simplistic attempts at a post-hoc justification of prior distrust. Each attacks a core condition of trust. Science-denialism attacks the competence of experts; conspiracy-theorizing attacks the intentions of experts. Like many confabulations, both are very weak epistemological positions and are easily disproven. In extreme cases,  subjects may be more attached to their confabulation than to outside evidence, and this then can grow into forms of conspiracy theorizing that take on delusional formats (Flat Earth; some versions of QAnon). The tenacity of science deniers and conspiracy theorists is evidence of  how important a sense of trust is to us. Once deep distrust takes hold, distrust can turn into rage and hate, and humans will adopt a scorched earth approach rather than cede ground.

Author Information:

Hugh Desmond, hugh.desmond@gmail.com, Research Fellow, Leibniz University Hannover; Assistant Professor, University of Antwerp.


Brandt, Mark J., Geoffrey Wetherell and P. J. Henry 2015. “Changes in Income Predict Change in Social Trust: A Longitudinal Analysis: Socioeconomic Status and Trust.” Political Psychology 36 (6): 761–768. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12228

Desmond, Hugh. 2022. “Status Distrust of Scientific Experts.” Social Epistemology 36 (5): 586–600.

Desmond, Hugh. 2021. “In Service to Others: A New Evolutionary Perspective on Human Enhancement.” Hastings Center Report 51 (6): 33–43. https://doi.org/10.1002/hast.1305

Desmond, Hugh. 2020. Systemisch Racisme: Een Essay. https://hughdesmondnl.substack.com/p/systemisch-racisme-een-essay.

Hansson, Sven-Ove. 2022. “The Components of Stubborn Distrust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 61-63.

Henrich, Joseph and Francisco J. Gil-White. 2001. “The Evolution of Prestige: Freely Conferred Deference as a Mechanism for Enhancing the Benefits of Cultural Transmission.” Evolution and Human Behavior 22 (3): 165–196.

Keijzer, Marijn A. and Rense Corten. 2017. In Status We Trust: A Vignette Experiment on Socioeconomic Status and Reputation Explaining Interpersonal Trust in Peer-To-Peer Markets [Preprint]. SocArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/pc7nw.

Lount, Robert B. and Nathan C. Pettit. 2012. “The Social Context of Trust: The Role of Status.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 117 (1): 15–23.

[1] It is important to recognize here that status is not quite the same  as socioeconomic class: it is empirically a more nebulous phenomenon, even though perhaps conceptually more clear, since the status of a person depends on the weight given by others to their opinion and preferences. My presentation of status is more or less congruent with the concept of prestige as in e.g. Henrich and Gil-White 2001.

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