In the midst of the EU referendum campaign last year, Michael Gove, then the Justice Secretary, declared in an interview with Sky that the British people “have had enough of experts”. Immediately he was ridiculed for making such an absurd claim, both on social media and in the news at large. How could it be that people had tired of well informed and scientific analysis? Many felt such a statement was the best example of the Leave campaigns relationship with the truth. Amongst all the incredulity and mocking however, nobody thought to check if Gove was right. He was.
It was in spite of the overwhelming body of evidence from all around the economic community, stark warnings from scientific bodies and grim predictions of all world leaders that the British people voted to leave the European Union last summer. Perhaps people simply didn’t care for the potential impact and just wanted to get out, admittedly a more dynamic option (being a swash-buckling brexiteer certainly sounds more fun than being a solid remainer) than simply maintaining the status quo, but this seems rather unlikely. There have, of course, been an innumerable number of articles and opinions on exactly why 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, a topic which should be addressed in both more breadth and length than this, not unrelated, issue.
The simple fact is that experts are not relied upon any more by a large proportion of the population to provide information, particularly in a political context. There has been a long running effort from figures such as the odious Nigel Farage, which has been picked up more recently by conventional politicians, such as Gove, to brand experts as “elites”, a label that carries an accusation of feeling aloof from the ordinary person and of acting against their interests. Unfortunately, this has been, to some extent successful. While scientists enjoy an 80% trust rating according to Ipsos MORI, a noted pollster, economists are distrusted by a majority of people, some 52% (coincidentally the exact proportion that voted leave).
One particularly interesting paper on the topic of trust in experts is by Eiser et al, a group of psychology researchers at Sheffield University. In the study they asked people how highly they trusted scientists and property developers to tell them about possible pollution risks on brownfield sites, on a scale of 1-5, 5 being absolute trust. Unsurprisingly, the scientists romped home here, with a mean of 4.06 to a measly 1.47 for the property developers. The researchers went on to ask a number of different questions about each group, such as whether they have the respondent’s interests at heart and how open about their beliefs each group would be.
Here is the real take away from the data: expertise was not the best predictor of trust. Instead the most important factor in trust was the degree to which the respondent felt the group had shared interests at heart. Illustrating this in the case of the scientists by splitting respondents into those who had high and low trust of them:
There is some difference between the perceived expertise if the scientists from people who said they had high and low trust in them, but even those who don’t trust them generally agree they are experts. A much starker difference can be seen when looking at the degree to which scientists are seen to have the respondent’s interests at heart:
This is certainly a clear indicator that shared values rather than expertise is the best predictor of whether or not people will trust certain groups. This relationship is mimicked in trust in family and friends, which stands at 3.62 in the study, reasonably similar to that of the scientists, despite this grouping having the lowest perceived expertise of the six groups; naturally family and friends are by far seen as the group with the most shared interests. This is what allows the family and friends grouping to ‘overcome’ its woeful expertise ranking to attain a high trust value. Of course this data cannot be generalised entirely to all situations due to the necessarily narrow focus of the research, but it still provides a telling insight.
So trust appears to be about whether or not people are perceived to have shared interests with the group dispensing the information. This goes some way to explaining why Gove was able to, for once, hit the nail on the head with regard to experts in politics. The political world is becoming rapidly more divisive, with both sides becoming more and more entrenched in their opinions and viewing the other with naught but contempt. This is not at all a good state of affairs and will be addressed at greater length separately. What this means in terms of trust is people will be far less ready to trust those who they see as belonging to a political camp other than their own. Experts are generally seen as belonging to status quo, as they normally work for some prominent institution that has been around for years, meaning they become a victim of the attack on ‘elites’. Indeed, the term elites is often substituted for establishment, or preceded by liberal, educated, metropolitan, or some other such horrific insult. Thus it would appear natural that trust in experts has fallen, as the ‘elite’ they are part of is vilified, leading to lower perceived shared interests.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons Michael Gove felt he had just cause to issue his infamous proclamation on experts. But this is far from a uniquely British phenomenon; it is Donald Trump’s America that has travelled farthest down this dark path. His apparent contempt for the establishment, and his image as a complete outsider and insurgent certainly contributed to his surprising election victory. In a similar vein, he has fired off criticism off toward scientific bodies and all those who dare use fundamental mathematics to suggest maybe fewer people attended his inauguration than his predecessors. The Trump administration’s disdain of experts is already well documented; at the time of writing Trump has declined to fill the position of Chair of Economic Council and rumours abound he may abolish it entirely. Further to that, scientists at various government agencies have been told not to speak to the press about their findings. Economic statistics, particularly the unemployment rate (which does not fit with Trump’s narrative on jobs), have been rubbished by all candidate, nomine and President Trump. Donald Trump is wilfully and intentionally undermining public trust of experts.
The various acts of the Trump administration are again an issue for later discussion, but for now let’s make do with discussing why the global trend toward having enough of experts is bad for everyone.
It’s a reasonably simple argument in truth. Democracies rest upon the principles of open debate and discussion of ideas, in an attempt to convince people to vote for a particular party, or of members of government to vote for or against proposed actions. For a debate to be honest and worthwhile, it must be based on facts; there is little use in debating how effective a poverty reduction policy has been if nobody has any facts about the number of people in poverty for instance. Without bodies that are trusted to gather such data, or bodies whose data is dismissed, there can be not true debate, and thus democracy suffers. That’s never really a good thing.
So there it is. In a sense Michael Gove, in a most out of character move, actually got something very right; in a way people the world over actually have had enough of experts, but this is by no means something to celebrate. Instead it is symptomatic of the troubling times in which we live, and something that should be fought at every possible opportunity, to ensure that democracy does not give way to tyranny.
The referenced paper is written up as : Eiser, J. R., Stafford, T., Henneberry, J., & Catney, P. (2009). “Trust me, I’m a Scientist (Not a Developer)”: Perceived Expertise and Motives as Predictors of Trust in Assessment of Risk from Contaminated Land. Risk Analysis, 29(2), 288-297. The data and analysis for this post is available here.