The role of expertise in our changing world

In times of political unrest or change, we look to the experts to guide our decisions, opinions and values. 2016 was  a huge year for global politics – the EU Referendum, the US Presidential Election, the ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement. Last year we needed expertise more than ever – to tell us the facts and to tell us the impacts of our decisions. But where does this expertise come from, and do we really listen to it?

There is a growing public mistrust in expertise. This first became apparent during the EU Referendum when the experts and facts were ignored in favour of politicians such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. During the referendum campaign the former Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, said “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts” whilst other politicians and public figures made similar comments. If this is true – then we have a big problem because we need the facts if we’re to make any positive political or social change.

For many, the issue isn’t with the experts but in fact with the expertise itself – it’s biased, it’s ‘boring’ and it’s often far too complicated for us to understand.

Bias, Misuse and Manipulation

Facts and statistics are frequently misused or manipulated to best suit the interests or aims of a person or corporation. This is extremely common in politics, and in regards to climate change and environmental issues.

During their campaigns, both Nigel Farage and Donald Trump used expertise to support their campaigns – facts and statistics that supported their views and manifestos. Some of these facts will have been manipulated, whilst others may have been completely false. An example of this would be the £350 million a week for the NHS that Nigel Farage famously claimed Britain would have if we left the European Union.

During the height of climate scepticism, vast amounts of data was released by ‘experts’ that claimed to prove that climate change was a hoax. The issue was that much of this data was biased and manipulated. Why? Because many of the experts were funded by corporations such as Shell and Exxonmobil who had a vested interest in disproving climate change in order to protect their business as oil companies.

Where do you find the facts?

Expertise and facts aren’t easy to find or understand – particularly if you’re looking for unbiased, non manipulated data that you can interpret yourself. Every news outlet, website, publication has some sort of political stance on an issue. In Britain, you’ll find media outlets such as The Sun and The Daily Mail are much more favourable of Conservatives, whilst The Guardian and The Observer are more likely to endorse the Labour party. This means that every article, fact, statistic we read as a nation has been framed to influence our political views in some way.

Unless we read every paper, every article on an issue – be it fracking, who to vote for, what’s going on in Syria – we’ll never get an unbiased explanation of the issues facing the world right now.

What is the solution?

We know that experts play a huge role in society, politics, development and change. It is clear that we need experts to inform of us of the facts and of the impacts of our decisions. However, it is also clear that the current relationship between the public and these experts is not good – and as vital as expertise is, it is currently not being communicated with the public in an unbiased, effective way.

It isn’t possible to stop bias – we’re all biased. This blog I’m writing now is biased and influenced by my views. It is however possible to be more transparent about bias and to better communicate this bias (e.g. I could tell you that “I’m a Labour supporter, I wanted to stay in the EU, and I hate Donald Trump” and that these views may be expressed in my blogs). In an ideal world, we’d live in a society with:

  • More transparency – we’ll know where facts and statistics come from and the political stance or intention of these facts as we read them
  • Better communication – we’ll cut out the middle man (the media) and have more experts communicating directly with the public
  • More perspectives – we’ll have a better proportion and ratio of experts and perspectives and be exposed not just academics but ordinary people and their civic expertise.

Maybe one day my ideal world will become a reality, but until then I’ll focus on being open-minded and trying where I can to expose myself to all of the facts and statistics, from every source (even though I hate the Daily Mail), so I can see the bigger picture  of an issue before I make my judgement. Perhaps if we’d all done that before the US Election or EU Referendum, things would be very different now…

 

If you’re interested in expertise, the role of experts and the environment then I recommend following the University of Warwick’s ERC Toxic Expertise research project. This blog was inspired by an event I attended which they held in November 2016 during which different academics, politicians and experts spoke about this topic.

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