Experts are everywhere since the Covid-19 pandemic started, but why should we trust them? And why not?
“Why Trust Experts?” invites everyone to reflect on the role of expertise in our daily lives. We have all seen the key role played by experts in advising citizens and politicians during the pandemic. Now may be a good time to ask ourselves some relevant questions around trust in expertise. How does trust in experts work? How is trust in science related to trust in media? Why is trust in expertise important for democracies? How can we learn to trust trustworthy experts?
Why Trust in Expertise Matters?
Our lives are guided by all sorts of expertise. Doctors treat us when we are sick. Scientists check if our food is healthy. Politicians receive advice from experts of all kinds. But how does trust in expertise actually work?
We trust an expert when learning from others or based on his/her track record of competent performance and training. For instance, we know a person is a doctor and believe he/she is competent in his/her area. In philosophy, this is called “epistemic trust”.
We trust experts not only because of their professional background. We assume that they are honest, reliable, and well intentioned. Emotional aspects are thus important for understanding trust in expertise. There may also be ideological and psychological considerations.
When do we refuse to trust experts? When they disagree, when they make mistakes, when they seem dishonest or ideological. The uncertainty inherent in scientific debates may cause people to refuse to trust any expert claims.
It is commonly stated that there is a crisis of social trust in democratic public institutions, but how far is this crisis extended to expertise and science?
There is no clear evidence of a crisis of trust in science and PERITIA is looking into this. Recent surveys seem to detect high levels of public trust in science and research (Pew Research, Trust Barometer, IPSOS Mori) with no major changes in recent years. These levels are generally stronger when compared to other actors in other fields such as politics or media.
What is often agreed is that there are various forms of science or expert scepticism. There may be cause for concern in some areas of expertise where public policy plays an important role – for instance, vaccination, economics, or climate change.
Furthermore, there is a very worrying rise of populist “anti-science” rhetoric. PERITIA seeks to shed some light on how to deal with a populist backlash against experts who have become identified with elitism and intellectual arrogance.
Expertise, Media and Policy
Media plays an important role in shaping trust in science and expertise – how scientific information is presented and by whom matters. For instance, news stories exaggerate scientific findings or the public distrusts journalists for various reasons. A declining trust in media can ultimately affect trust in science or expertise.
Digital media adds complexity to this. With the proliferation of online sources and social media, public debates are open to all in unprecedented ways. For example, users can access medical information by just searching online. This access gives us an apparent control and autonomy over information, but how do we assess the trustworthiness or credibility of these online sources? In a digital world, there is no easy way to establish checks and balances.
A third challenge is the rise of computational propaganda and misinformation. Scientific consensus around topics such as climate change or vaccination have become the target of political actors. New digital communication tactics are being used in these campaigns to deliberately sow false beliefs, distrust, and misinform us. Social media platforms deserve special attention on this as their automation and anonymization allow for sophisticated dissemination in larger scales.
There are many examples of providing expertise to policymakers. Governments and political actors seek expertise through multiple channels: their own bureaucracy, political advisors, interest groups, think tanks, temporary or permanent bodies, research institutions, consultancies…
But what models are in place and which are best suited to enhance trust in expertise? This is a central question that PERITIA is addressing. To do so, our team is investigating scientific advice mechanisms across various European countries (Poland, UK, Germany, and Nordic countries).
Our research focuses on the trade-offs between public trust, citizen participation and the quality of the expertise. Is the quality of the expert debate compromise by opening it to ordinary citizens? Can this participation enhance (or diminish) public trust in the expertise used by policymakers?
Expertise and Democracy
Since the early 1970s, there has been an increasing reliance on expert opinion in policy decisions. Due to the complexity of today’s society and policy, expert advice, evidence and data are needed more than ever to improve societal well-being. We see this in recent public debates like Covid-19 or climate change, but it also applies to heated discussions around artificial intelligence, food safety, economy or education.
This central role of expertise in our political system but also in our lives makes even more necessary for citizens and policymakers to learn how to trust trustworthy expertise. Well-placed trust in expertise can help us take the correct decisions and improve our forms of governance in our technologically advanced societies.
There has always been a tension between the ideals of democracy and the reliance on expert advice for policy decisions. Democracy thrives on debate and disagreement and constructive debate. However, science has often been perceived or presented a “non-debatable”. How can we rely on experts in complex societies while ensuring democratic norms of debate as equal citizens? This dilemma is at the heart of PERITIA´s investigation.