Canadian Forest Service Publications

Trust and skepticism in dynamic tension: concepts and empirical refinements from research on the mountain pine beetle outbreak in Alberta, Canada. 2015. Parkins, J.R.; McFarlane, B.L. Human Ecology Review 21(1):133-153.

Year: 2015

Issued by: Northern Forestry Centre

Catalog ID: 35913

Language: English

Availability: PDF (request by e-mail)

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Drawing on published research involving public trust and environmental risk regulation, this study explores a differentiated view of trust that includes aspects of uncritical trust, critical trust, distrust and cynicism. Using survey research of residents (n = 1,303) in three mountain pine beetle affected regions of Alberta, Canada, we examine the attributes of research participants who are grouped into these four types of trust and argue that critical trust relates to a category of citizenship that is ideally important for the effective functioning of democratic society. In contrast to research that draws a strong connection between public trust and public satisfaction with resource management decisions, this study identifies several subtle but significant differences in these terms, calling for more careful attention to trust-related concepts as they are utilized in research and practice.

Plain Language Summary

Public trust in natural resource management agencies is seen as important in gaining public acceptance of policy and management actions. We used data from a mail survey on Alberta citizens to classify trust into four types: uncritical, critical, distrust and cynicism. Respondents with different types of trust also differed in their level of trust in the provincial government, their perception that their views and opinions are reflected in the response to the beetle, and in their satisfaction with the provincial government’s response to MPB. Those who are distrustful and cynical are unlikely to make valuable contributions to management and policy debates. Those who are uncritical are likely to accept the government’s information and decisions, and this type of trust is often preferred by management agencies. Although those who have critical trust are also likely to trust the government, they are more likely to question information and management actions. Results also showed a weak association between trust in the provincial government and satisfaction with the response to the beetle. This study has implications for natural resource management and policy. Fostering healthy scepticism should be an important objective for public engagement in natural resource management. A balance between trust and scepticism provides for critical engagement in discussion and debate about resource management options. Natural resource managers should be cautious in drawing a connection between the public’s trust in a management agency and satisfaction with policies and management actions. When people indicate they trust an agency, it does not necessarily mean they are satisfied with policies and management actions.