A democracy cannot function without experts, but they must have the trust of the citizens
I have a confession to make. I am incompetent – seriously incompetent.
I kind of know how a car works – I understand the principles on which the internal combustion engine is based, I know what a clutch does, what the role of the fuses is and so on. But if my car were to break down, I am pretty sure I would not be able to fix it.
I also lack the competence to bake bread, croissants or bourbon biscuits. It’s not that I never tried, but one attempt, producing something with the texture of concrete and the flavour of cardboard, and that was enough to make me conclude I don’t quite have what it takes to be a baker.
And when I am not feeling well, I generally believe I have some idea of what is wrong, but I am happy to admit that my competence in actually diagnosing the trouble and determining the appropriate remedy is negligible.
But this doesn’t worry me: I trust the mechanics in the garage, the local bakers (and occasionally their counterparts in the supermarket), the doctors at my GP’s practice, and dozens of other ‘experts’ in things where I am incompetent, to be able to do a decent job for me, without screwing up, and without screwing me over.
Image source: Mai Le/Flickr
The incompetence of the experts
Am I crazy to do so? It is clear that I am taking a bit of a gamble here.
Because experts are not always as competent as we might assume. A recent Atlantic article exposes a fallacious argument by a respected professor of astrophysics. The academic had declared in the New York Times, with great conviction, that “there have been aliens”. Questioning the idea that there has already been plenty of intelligent life in the universe before us, he stated, “borders on the irrational”. Unfortunately, the astrophysicist’s claim rests on a heroic (and unscientific) probabilistic extrapolation of the single known instance of intelligent life. What looks like scientific evidence really turns out to be no more than speculation.
This may be a pretty harmless example of an incompetent expert, but there are more dramatic ones, such as that of Roy Meadow, a (now struck off) paediatrician, who acted as an expert witness in several trials of women being accused of murdering their children. His dubious interpretation of the statistics on cot death made him claim that the likelihood of two cases in the same family was the square of the likelihood of a single case. This makes it appear far more unlikely (1 in 73 million) than it is in reality (estimated at 1 in 100), and his analysis led to a wrongful conviction in one case (and to his demise).
We should be sceptical when, like in these two examples, experts move outside their area of expertise. But sometimes the halo effect makes us believe them, even if they perorate about a subject about which they know little more than a random guy in the pub. (Experts themselves are also not immune to the overconfidence bias and to illusory superiority beyond their specialism: it can be very tempting to think one’s expertise is more universal than it is in reality.)
Experts are not infallible within their domain either. Books with titles like Hubris: Why economists failed to predict the crisis and how to avoid the next one, and countless articles have pointed out the apparent inability of a whole profession to warn the world of the impending disaster of the 2008 global financial crisis. They can make mistakes, like the art expert who valued a piece made by a high school student at $50,000, like Cristiano Ronaldo, a global top-5 soccer player, missing a penalty kick in the 2016 European Football championships, or like weather forecaster Michael Fish who, in October 1987, dismissed worries about an imminent hurricane, just a few hours before the worst storm to hit South East England for three centuries caused the death of 19 people and did damage worth about £5 billion in 2016 money.
Is any of this a reason to stop trusting experts? It would certainly be wise not to trust a baker to fix your car simply on the basis of his expertise with Danish pastries, or a mechanic with performing open heart surgery because he happens to be skilled at taking apart and reassembling a diesel engine. But failure to accurately predict an economic crisis or a storm is not necessarily a sign of a total lack of expertise. The best experts in art history or football can make mistakes. Real expertise (as opposed to the self-proclaimed variety) is a characteristic that is earned over time, through a reputation that is an accumulation of the expert’s performance over a long period. A single failure among many more successes does not have to mean fundamental incompetence.
Deep, deep distrust
So how come such a large proportion of the population is disregarding the views of experts, as a survey carried out the week before the UK’s EU membership referendum suggests?
Image source: Financial Times
One possible reason is that situations in which experts are found to have made errors are given more prominence in the media than instances where they get it right. Man bites dog gets more airplay than dog bites man. And because most of us don’t really know that many experts, the availability heuristic ensures that whenever we think about experts, it’s the ones whose authority has been called into question that come to mind first. This easily leads to hasty generalization: all we know about the few experts that we know of is that they made a mistake, so experts in general are unqualified and should not be trusted.
Reasoning about complex issues is hard, and that tempts us into intuitive, impulsive decisions. Often these are influenced by our social circle as well: shared beliefs play an important role in providing the social proof that we have a right to belong to our chosen group. Once we have adopted a stance, we then post-rationalize it by picking selective evidence in support of our choice.
If experts then come along who disagree with our gut-feel, we find it a lot easier to dismiss them as incompetent and untrustworthy than to reconsider our belief. And the disbelief in an expert’s authority can be further fuelled by the suspicion that they have a particular agenda (especially if it is one that is different from ours), or that they are paid for by the other side in an argument. Don’t just question their competence, mistrust the sincerity of their motives.
These plausible mechanisms can contribute to the erosion of trust we see in the polls, but they don’t fully explain the depth of the trust deficit. It is likely that populist media and populist electoral campaigning help stoke up these feelings of distrust to disturbingly high levels. A sobering example: a poll just before the British EU membership referendum found that 46% of those intending to vote Leave (and 30% of Remain voters) thought the statement “It is likely that the EU referendum will be rigged” is probably true.
But populism can only take hold in a disenfranchised population. In a blogpost from earlier this week, Branko Milanovic sketches some possible root causes – in the West, he singles out the unequal manner in which the benefits of economic growth have been shared.This is serious stuff.
We inevitably need experts to help us with the jobs for which we are incompetent – fixing cars, baking bread, and curing illness and injuries. And in a well-functioning democracy we need experts to help us with deciding how our communities are governed, to think about, to advise on, and – on our behalf – to set and implement the policies that shape our society. We cannot do this all ourselves any more than we can all fix our cars, or treat cancer or a broken leg.
But that requires trust in the experts. The deficit of trust in politicians, academics, economists, business leaders, and think tanks like the IFS and bodies like the UN and the IMF – as the Yougov survey suggests – is an immense threat to a democratic society. To overcome this deficit of trust, it is imperative that, one way or another, the disenfranchised section of the citizens is re-enfranchised.
And that is a challenge with which we will, ironically, have to trust the experts.