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Have People Really Had Enough Of Experts?

Facts & figures don’t win hearts & minds.


Michael Gove is often misquoted as having said that “people have had enough of experts”, although some commentators have dug out the actual quote and presented it in its original context, which makes a nice change:

“People have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

I don’t agree with Gove on this matter (or on just about anything), mostly because the words of experts are often distorted by the press and politicians to support their agenda. Half-truths and oversimplifications in science reporting also diminish the public’s trust in experts. And although scientific literacy in the UK is good enough to counter many fact-free arguments, most of the population do not have a background in academic research and the poor explanations in the media aren’t good enough to give a true impression of the meaning of scientific studies. To say that experts consistently get it wrong isn’t a fair appraisal of the situation.

The media report on the results of single studies as if that set of results is the complete picture. One study, especially if it’s one of the first on that topic, doesn’t tell the whole story. We need replicability and consensus in the scientific community before we can properly advise.

Because scientific consensus is based on trends made up of many sets of results, some individual studies will be outliers that appear to show the opposite of what is expected. If we accidentally pick up on one of the anomalous results, thinking it represents something significant, the effort needed to retract the statement and correct the mistake is immense compared to the ease with which the “new, groundbreaking research” was snapped up by the newspapers.

Discoveries nowadays rarely are “groundbreaking”. There are a few exceptions (like this one), but most academics will work in very narrow fields of inquiry, building on previous research and refining ideas. As Western economies move further into service – and knowledge-based realms, more people work in the sciences and social sciences, and there are only so many revolutionary breakthroughs to go round. As well as that, we discovered and tested most of the “really big” theories in the 18th, 19th, and early-20th centuries. There’s not much left that’s going to change everything.

The change in the UK’s employment profile has created an abundance of experts. If you’re looking for someone to support your claim, you can find them if you look hard enough. Which then poses additional problems: how do we determine which experts are the most credible; and how can we ensure that evidence is being properly represented, and not cherry-picked to suit an ideology?

This is where the link with politics breeds even more distrust. The UK government has a track record of ignoring the advice of top scientists that they have employed to assist in policy-making, and of conceding to the views of the electorate if they go against what science says is the correct outcome. I guess that’s just a function of politics itself, but it harms the image of scientists, not just through misrepresentation, but also through the way they are treated disrespectfully by our leaders and the media. Here are some recent examples:

Professor David Nutt was appointed as an adviser to the UK government on the safety of medicines and recreational drugs. After he publicly stated that the scientific evidence was at odds with government drug policy, he was sacked.

Lord Heseltine was very recently sacked from his five advisory positions to the government on infrastructure, development and devolution issues. He opposed the government’s Brexit strategy, and Theresa May silenced him by axing him from a role that few others are qualified to fill. It has been raised many times that Brexit is bad news for the British economy, scientific progress and international relations, but the facts don’t align with the policy of the current parliament.

Dr. David Kelly, a weapons expert, was an adviser to the Blair government on the situation that precipitated the Iraq War. The government made unsubstantiated claims about Iraq’s capability to attack the UK with nuclear weapons, and these claims were repudiated by Dr Kelly. He was outed by ministers as the anonymous whistleblower who gave the story to a BBC journalist, hauled before a government select committee, and was found dead by suicide shortly after.

It would seem that the government doesn’t like truths that conflict with policy, but the distrust of experts in UK society runs deeper than this. People don’t like truths that conflict with their personal values. An opportunistic media fans the flames, but conspiracy theories and flat-out denial abound among the general public, regarding everything from climate change to civil rights. People often have a need to feel special, like they know the “real” truth, and that they can exercise control over unpleasant things that they actually have no influence over.

It’s not looking great for the experts. The government doesn’t want to listen to them, unless they unquestioningly support the ruling party’s aims. Academia is widely misunderstood and misrepresented, and scientists do not receive the respect they deserve in public life. Science isn’t what it used to be – there are no more Einsteins and Newtons, and not everyone can be Brian Cox.

Added to this, the public doesn’t see the relevance of academic research to their lives, and they don’t listen to advice that would force them to change their behaviour and mindset. Maybe we really have had enough of experts, not because they sometimes get it wrong, but because we don’t want to hear about what is right. It’s hard work to change minds, and the experts are already in a position of disadvantage.

But what if we looked at the problem differently? If we really want social change to happen, it has to come from within to some degree. While governments can make changes to legislation that forces people to change their behaviour, they still bear in mind the broad wishes of the electorate – or else they’d not be able to retain power. On an individual level, I’ve partaken in and witnessed numerous “debates” where one party is concerned with science and reason, and the other is all about spirituality or emotions. What often happens is each side just becomes more entrenched, building a resistance to any information or opinions that contradict the view they came in with. It would be nice if we could actually have a discussion where we each listen to different ideas, and instead of immediately clamouring for rebuttals, taking a little time to consider and question what we have learnt.

Scientists and skeptics don’t have a good reputation in this regard. Or at least, the more vocal ones don’t. Religion, alternative medicine, esotericism all have an advantage that expertise cannot deliver: they simply scratch a different itch. This “opposing view” (it’s not opposing anything - it’s not arguing on the same level as peer-reviewed research) gives people something to think about, talk about, to make them feel good. Facts are facts, and while it would be great to shift the conversation towards discussions of how to use that knowledge, we do often stall long before then, mistakenly framing the issue as “either/or”.

And then we have infighting in academia. Well, infighting is the wrong word – it’s just ignorance and disrespect. When experts in one field speak outside of their specialism and rubbish the work of a field they have no experience in, it displays their blind spots, single-mindedness and arrogance. It looks bad to the academic community; even worse from the outside.

If you’re an atheist, scientist or skeptic, you’re going to have to accept that many people aren’t, and you can’t stop them from believing in things that you know to be a load of crap. And if you’re religious, “spiritual”, New-Age, or whatever, well, the facts don’t give a shit whether you think they’re true or false, they just are. But every single one of us can help in the unending human quest for answers. We can speak and listen respectfully. We can challenge viewpoints, ideas and ideologies in a dignified and useful way. We can help people to reach their own conclusions – and that’s the key. You can’t change anyone else’s mind, but you can give them reasons to question what they know and think.

Some things are improving. The World Wide Web has given us access to all the world’s information (although the fact that it’s unfiltered means that we might not automatically choose the correct information), and there appears to be a sort-of Renaissance in media and publishing going on at the moment. It seems to be more fashionable to take an interest in history, science, art, literature, anything: the acceptance of geek culture has made it OK to be interested in intellectual pursuits. When I was a kid, it was cool to be stupid. Thank goodness those days are gone.

With a society that embraces and promotes knowledge, we have the drip-drip-drip of information slowly reaching all of us. It’s there if we choose to absorb it. And with the changing cultural expectation that it’s cool to be smart, maybe we haven’t had enough of experts after all.

 

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