The big question behind PERITIA: How to deal with a populist backlash against experts
Maria Baghramian, Professor of American Philosophy at the University College Dublin, is Project Leader and Coordinator of PERITIA (Policy, Expertise and Trust in Action), an EU-funded research programme exploring the conditions under which people trust expertise used for shaping public policy. In this interview, she presents the rationale behind the project and argues for a re-examination of the role of experts in democratic governance.
Question: As a principal investigator of the Irish project “When Experts Disagree” and as a core member of the ALLEA Working Group Truth, Trust and Expertise (TTE) you have already investigated questions regarding trust in science and expertise quite extensively. What are the main unanswered questions from these experiences which motivated you to initiate PERITIA?
Maria Baghramian: The research project ‘When Experts Disagree’ (WEXD, 2015-2017), funded by the Irish Research Council’s New Horizons scheme, was an attempt to come to terms with the complexities of peer expert disagreement.
However, with the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election, both happening within a few months of the launch of WEXD, the nature as well as the socio-political importance of the questions we were asking began to change. The question confronting us all, and not just our research project, is not how to deal with difficult cases of peer expert disagreements but, more crucially, how to deal with a populist backlash against experts who have become identified with elitism and intellectual arrogance.
The ALLEA Working Group Truth, Trust and Expertise, which began its work in 2017 under philosopher Onora O’Neill’s guidance, produced three working papers on questions of trust in science and the impact of the new media and modes of communication on trust. But the group had a strong sense that it was only scratching the surface of some difficult and urgent questions and that a great deal of work was still to be done.
“The question confronting us all is how to deal with a populist backlash against experts who have become identified with elitism and intellectual arrogance”
Q.: How will you and your colleagues in PERITIA answer these questions?
M. B.: PERITIA specifically seeks to understand and illuminate the conditions for the establishment and recognition of trustworthy expertise in the context of a changing socio-political landscape. The project develops the theoretical work of the ALLEA TTE working group but goes further by adding an empirical as well as an ameliorative element to its theoretical concerns. It is a fully multidisciplinary study of epistemic trust in expert opinion in the context of policy formation, and relies on the expertise of philosophers, sociologists, cognitive psychologists, economists, physicists, climate scientists, ethicists, and public policy experts.
Q.: PERITIA will be conducted in three main phases. What are these phases and how will they reach out to and benefit the target groups?
M. B.: The first phase of the project, as I mentioned, will build on the theoretical work of the two previous projects and its findings should be useful to all those interested in achieving a deeper understanding of the philosophical, social, and psychological underpinnings of public trust and trustworthiness. The second phase will be an empirical test on the theoretical findings of the project. This stage will be developed through surveys conducted across seven countries participating in the project as well as data collected through experiments conducted in economics labs in Dublin and Milan. The data from this phase will shed light on both the trends and the specific individual factors contributing to relations of trust and mistrust in experts. Finally, in Phase 3, the citizens’ fora hosted in five countries will provide an opportunity for direct engagements between the public, climate scientists, policy-makers on environmental matters. The data we collect in this phase should help us gain a better qualitative understanding of public trust, but it should also be of use to those directly involved in policy-making. (Learn more about PERITIA’s Research Design)
“PERITIA specifically seeks to understand and illuminate the conditions for the establishment and recognition of trustworthy expertise in the context of a changing socio-political landscape.”
Q.: In the third phase, climate change and climate science will be used as a test case for the project. Why have you chosen them and how are you going to assess trustworthiness and its role for political decision-making regarding climate governance?
M. B.: Climate change is undoubtedly the most pressing issue facing humankind. We believe that our multi-disciplinary and three-tiered approach to the trust in the science of climate change can make a positive contribution to the ongoing discussions about the topic. A great deal of research has already been carried out on the question of the interface between climate science and policy-makers but much of its focus has been on the highly vocal climate denialists in the US. Various attitude surveys in Europe, on the other hand, indicate that in Western European countries, over 90% of the population believe that the world’s climate is changing, and this is, at least partly, due to human activity.
But the question of public trust in climate science when it comes to climate policies is not settled. There is a disparity between expressions of trust in scientists’ views on the causes of climate change and an apparent lack of support for the policies that might help to reduce and counter the change. The apparent tension, if not the outright contradiction, between the avowed agreement with experts regarding the cause of climate change and the reluctance to act on the warnings about its potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity shows that the issue of trust in experts cannot be reduced to a positive or negative response to a questionnaire about trust in science. The issue is more complex.
Our study aims to investigate this complicated and complicating feature of trust in science. So, our focus is not going to be on the question of trust or distrust in the science of climate change only, but also on the more crucial question of trust in the intersection of climate science and the policy decisions based on expert advice. However, I should add that the project is using climate science as its test case, but the aims of the project are broader, and we hope that our conclusions will have more general applicability.
“Our focus is not going to be on the question of trust or distrust in the science of climate change only, but also on the more crucial question of trust in the intersection of climate science and the policy decisions based on expert advice.”
Q.: Many would argue that we are living in a ‘post-truth’ world, where scepticism towards expert opinion and political institutions is rising. However, problems like ‘fake news’ and propaganda have long been an integral part of social history. How are today’s challenges facing trust in institutions, particularly science and scientific expertise, different to those in the past? How are digital transformations changing the nature of belief, public opinion and political communication?
M. B.: The rhetoric of populism is one of the common denominators binding various dimensions of what rightly has been described as a crisis of democracy. The expression of scepticism about experts and their opinions is a feature of populist politics but is not backed by surveys regarding levels of trust in science. The latest IPSOS survey of levels of trust in various professions shows that scientists (at 60%) are the most trusted group of professionals, followed closely by medical doctors (56%), and teachers (52%). Only 11% of those surveyed find scientists untrustworthy. Similar results have been shown by other surveys.
So, it is interesting to ask why there is such a widespread perception that there is a lack of trust in science. One reason is that lack of trust in some specific areas of scientific advice like vaccination is a case in point. Since 2010, the uptake of measles-containing vaccines such as MMR has decreased in 12 EU member states: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. There is little doubt that the echo chambers produced by social media, in particular, the algorithms used by Facebook, have had an immense impact on spreading the false data about linkages between vaccines and various illnesses. This is where we clearly see the impact of digital media on the old phenomenon of disinformation and propaganda for political and monetary gains.
These ‘localised’ breakdowns of trust are also taken as indicators of a general crisis of trust, in part because of the very public expressions of scepticism about science and expertise by populist political figures and their followers and thus the narrative of the untrustworthiness of the experts is perpetuated and generalised. One of the main focuses of our project is on the role of social media on building or diminishing the reputation of opinion makers in science and in policy decisions. We will be holding a workshop and a conference on these topics and we hope that the publication of their findings will help to address this pressing issue.
“One of the main focuses of our project is on the role of social media on building or diminishing the reputation of opinion makers in science and in policy decisions.”
Q.: Critical thinking and media literacy programmes have long fostered a critical approach towards sources, particularly those found on the internet and media. Philosophers too have had a role in provoking scepticism even towards the most basic notions of truth. Did this create unintended consequences regarding the development of distrust towards experts and professionals in parts of society? Do you think there is any way to circumvent this problem and (re)build ‘justified’ trust, while simultaneously maintaining a healthy distance from accepting information at face value?
M. B.: I think scepticism, at least the type that philosophers advocate, helps rather than hinders the search for truth by fostering anti-dogmatism and open mindedness. The so-called era of post-truth, in my view, should not be equated with scepticism or critical thinking but with what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt has called ‘bullshitting’. There are important differences between lies, other falsehoods, and bullshits. Liars try to misrepresent facts and to negate or distort what they think is true; they are attempting to distort what they believe to be true. Bullshiters, on the other hand, are simply unconcerned about the truth. Bullshitters, as Frankfurt puts it are “indifferent to how things are”, they are not just attempting to distort the truth but to undermine the very distinction between truth and falsehood. So, as Frankfurt rightly points out, they present a far greater threat to truth than mere lies.
A further element of what is called ‘post-truth’ is the conflation of belief with feelings and freedom of opinion with the freedom of choosing to believe whatever may seem most palatable irrespective of any justifying or contrary evidence. Again, these are not epistemic attitudes that can be identified with philosophical scepticism, in fact they are its very anti-thesis. The sceptic, at its most extreme, claims that we cannot know anything. The ‘post-truth’ attitude claims that anything that seems right to us, or is to our liking, is true. They mistake truth with strength of conviction and feelings of certainty.
As to remedies, in the long run, unless we bring about our own self-destruction, truth will win because the world resists the imposition of false narratives on it. False theories do not work and sooner or later we are going to find out that they do not. Refusing vaccination in large numbers kills, believing that climate change is a Chinese hoax will not stop the impact of global warming on our habitats. The famous quip by the great American philosopher Willard van Orman Quine that “creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind” doubly applies to the case of truth. The challenge facing us is to make sure that we do not hasten our demise by ignoring the hard facts of a world that will survive long after we are gone. Establishing direct two-way dialogues between scientific experts and the general public is one of the key aims of PERITIA, which I think can help in countering this danger.
“It is not so much trust in experts that is at issue but trust at the nexus of experts and policymaking that creates serious concern about the role of experts in democratic governance.”
Q.: A project exploring “how emotions and values influence the process of placing or refusing trust in expertise that shapes public policies” might be perceived as attempting to (re)establish a kind of authority in experts and professionals which recent ‘populist’ movements have termed ‘elitist’. PERITIA’s mission explicitly states that public trust in expertise has a clear role in democracy, which is supposedly threatened by populist politics. Alluding to Plato, placing trust in experts can easily be perceived as technocratic and anti-democratic. How will PERITIA avoid or deal with retracing a perceived border between ‘experts’ and the ‘general public’ without feeding the anti-elitist narrative?
M. B.: There is something very basic and inescapable in our reliance on experts. Division of cognitive labour, which comes with the division of other types of labour, is essential to the functioning of complex societies. A distinction between experts or specialists and novices is an inevitable consequence of this division. The idea that we can have an ‘equality’ of knowledge but also a complex social order does not make sense. The headlines about the breakdown of trust in experts distort the plain fact that we rely on experts on daily basis – we take our cars to the mechanics, our children to the dentist and our computers to the IT people.
It is not so much trust in experts that is at issue but trust at the nexus of experts and policymaking that creates serious concern about the role of experts in democratic governance, so much so that the sociologist of science, Steven Fuller claims that widespread dependence on experts is “the biggest single problem facing the future of democracy”. The concern, as you suggest, goes back to Plato but has resurfaced in the work of quite diverse philosophers in the 20th century – the American Pragmatist John Dewey, the German critical theorist Hannah Arendt and the French postmodernist Michel Foucault are some examples. The main concern common to these critics is that the role of and potential rule by experts fundamentally lacks an ethical grounding and has no genuine interest in the common good.
The emphasis that PERITIA places on the unavoidable affective and normative dimensions of trust goes some way towards addressing this concern. In my own work, and contribution to the project, I explore the ways in which science is value-laden and how the acceptance of this fact will allow us to step out of the dichotomy of thinking in terms of objective scientific facts vs the subjective, or at best intersubjective world of values. The approach, championed among others by feminist epistemologists, allows us to think about the role of values in making scientific decisions, for example in deciding about the costs and benefits of taking an inductive leap in theory construction and theory acceptance. Some of the publications of PERITIA over the next three years will deal with this question.
“In my own work, and contribution to the project, I explore the ways in which science is value-laden and how the acceptance of this fact will allow us to step out of the dichotomy of thinking in terms of objective scientific facts vs the subjective, or at best intersubjective world of values.”
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