The Growing Public Mistrust Of Experts In A Digital Age

I think the people in this country have had enough of experts… from organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best…

British politician Michael Gove made the above claim on June 3, 2016, during a debate about “Brexit” – a popular vote in which the populace largely disregarded the recommendations of economic experts. Experts, defined as those recognized by society for possessing special knowledge gained through experience and education, exist in all societies and in all fields of knowledge. Doctors, lawyers, climate change scientists, and your car’s mechanic are all experts, and people are raised to trust the perspectives of those socially demarcated as experts.

Yet with Britain’s Independent running headlines like “The real reason that we don‘t trust experts anymore” and America’s The Atlantic explaining “Why Trump Is Thriving in an Age of Distrust,” it is worthwhile for scientists to explore why there has been a significant increase in public mistrust of experts in recent years, and contemplating how this recent change has affected global public policy, especially relating to science and economics.

Even more pressing, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, mistrust is a recent phenomenon indeed – in the five years that the Barometer has been used to measure global public trust of business, government, NGOs, and media, the company has found a significant decrease in trust across country and sector. So what social changes in the way we think about expertise and knowledge have so dramatically reformed our view of experts?

Learn, Enjoy, Believe: The Dangers of Infotainment

One of the most powerful trends of the last decade that has degraded the trust of experts is the reliance of the general public on social media for news and entertainment, and the rise of enjoyable news programming. Infotainment – material broadcast through media that is meant to simultaneously entertain and inform – is increasingly popular in many Western societies, but its ubiquity does not improve our trust of experts. Unless infotainment is produced by experts, there is no guarantee of its factual accuracy nor of its balance between fact and opinion.

With so many options for news, from television to print to online sources, the consumer can choose which outlet and source to get his news from, leading to unprecedented competition on social media between experts and frauds alike. Consumers, looking for an enjoyable and easy-to-understand news source, look for the most entertaining and bias-affirming option available. The result, combined with the 24-hour news cycle, is the widening spectrum of infotainment, with consumers no longer dependent on reliable and reputable reporting for news.

Why listen to the expert when an exciting 30-second clip on YouTube and a blog post can somewhat explain the same phenomenon?

Tom Nichols argues that combining informative news and entertaining social media is dangerous and that the “fusing of entertainment, news, punditry, and citizen participation is a chaotic mess that does not inform people so much as it creates the illusion of being informed.” Because we can choose our infotainment, we self-select which news we consume and which experts we choose to trust or distrust.

Learning Mistrust: Changes in Education and Expertise

According to a recent 2017 Pew Survey, 58% of American Republicans stated that they believe universities and colleges have a negative affect on the country – a 21% increase since just 2015. This concurrent growing mistrust of education goes hand in hand with mistrust of experts, as universities are assumed to be staffed with expert professors and are seen as the site where experts are created through education. But changes in education over the last generation have led many to question whether universities are positive, whether they actually create experts, and whether the experts at universities can be trusted.

One of the largest changes in post-secondary education is the respect given to professors by universities themselves, and the hiring of adjuncts. Today, over 70% of university faculty are adjuncts or contingent faculty, with fewer tenure-track hirings across all disciplines. Professors are no longer given permanence or benefits by universities, and if the schools do not respect their own experts, why should the public at large?

Adjuncts also do not perform many of the extra functions that tenured faculty provides. They do not serve as club advisers, attend student events, and stick around after office hours. Many of the out of classroom moments in which students get to see experts as brilliant and capable humans are gone; instead professors are distant speakers with little connection.

This reality cannot be blamed on the adjuncts themselves; with a significant number of adjuncts being forced to teach at multiple schools or hold multiple jobs to receive benefits or stay off government assistance, the opportunities to stay on campus, for no pay but student benefit, are slim. Rather, when universities shift from tenure-track positions to adjuncts to save money, students suffer and public trust suffers. Professors are never seen outside the classroom, and thus seem inattentive, disconnected, and disinterested in the affairs of non-academics, hardly a positive impression for people only learning how to interact with experts.

Another major change in post-secondary education is a general move toward a more customer-oriented perspective on the purpose of college. While the purpose of a college education – to prepare oneself for the career world, while expanding one’s mind through learning – has not changed at its core, how that purpose is packaged and sold to students and their families has changed.

Universities care more about selling the college experience than supporting quality academic study and research. Both liberal and conservative professors and student groups volley for attention while universities struggle with brand.

Tom Nichols describes this phenomenon as the “customer is always right” syndrome: students, believing they are purchasing a degree rather than paying for the privilege of learning from experts, no longer view professors as authorities. Students are more interested in grades and final results than on the process of learning or gaining knowledge.

Students now view professors, the experts they are paying to learn from, as roadblocks rather than facilitators.

I Can Google It: Easy Access to “All” Information

The internet has completely changed the way that individuals seek out and find information to solve even the simplest of problems. A generation ago, people relied on encyclopedias, people with experience, and experts to obtain information. The walking, talking specialized encyclopedias of the past – respected experts – were revered in part because they knew large amounts of obscure information and carried that knowledge in their minds all the time.

Today, with smartphones in our pockets and Google in our browsers, anyone can have the answer to any question with them at all times. This makes many feel that they are experts themselves, or that experts have no special talent or knowledge, and thus deserve less trust. Wikipedia means that anyone can be an expert for a moment.

Yet smartphones make us jacks of all trades, masters of none. With the wide variety of questionable sources on the internet, you cannot truly know if the information found on the web is credible unless it comes from, unsurprisingly, an expert source. But experts also have such a depth of knowledge about a subject that they bring exceptional insight; simply having access to all answers means that you understand the best solution to the question.

Just as a doctor knows to look for related symptoms when preparing to diagnosis an illness or a car mechanic remembers to check your windshield wipers because he knows you never remember to replace them, experts have growing and synthesizing knowledge that allows them special insight. This kind of insight takes time to develop; most internet users are looking for a specific answer right now. The ability to reach for an answer at our fingertips has made us skip nuance for ease of access. Infotainment that is easy to digest and provides the answer you want to hear is easier than digesting the nuance of experts.

Unfortunately, many are making it even easier to find the information that they want on the internet, real or fake, by refining their social media to provide them with the skeptical perspectives they desire. This padding of one’s perspective is a major reason experts can be ignored: confirmation bias.

All the Experts Agree With Me: Confirmation Bias

The challenge of ignoring experts is that, usually by nature of being experts, these individuals are highly trusted. They work at top institutions that are imbued with authority, such as universities, think tanks, governments, and other research entities. These experts often possess honors and titles, including degrees and offices, which demonstrate a public acceptance of these experts’ authority.

However, by choosing to ignore these institutions and to instead focus on other institutions, such as mass media, social media, and internet resources, individuals can pad their mistrust of expertise in an effect called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the practice of interpreting new data based on your currently held beliefs by seeking out data that supports those beliefs. Individuals experience a sense of safety and reassurance learning that their beliefs are correct and held by others; confirmation bias allows us to extend that good feeling by seeking out supporting views.

Confirmation bias is a necessary part of rejecting expertise – in order to feel safe turning away from socially accepted experts, individuals need a new socially-accepted perspective. By seeking out others who reject experts and those who provide alternative expertise, we use confirmation bias to reaffirm our distrust of experts.

Reaping What is Sown: Consequences of the Mistrust of Experts

Perhaps the largest consequence of the growing mistrust of expertise is that voting populations in Western democracies are not well informed about candidates or policies. After the 2016 British referendum about leaving the European Union (known as colloquially as Brexit), the most Googled phrase in England was “What is the EU?”, demonstrating that a significant number of voters had deliberately avoided listening to any experts on the issue.

In the United States, a significant portion of the American population opposed to health coverage under the Affordable Care Act (known colloquially as Obamacare) actually benefit directly from the ACA and express shock learning that the two terms refer to the same health care program. Few disagree that Trump’s campaign achieved success by catering to voters with little understanding of domestic or foreign policy.

Mistrust in experts has had serious implications for environmental science worldwide. Nearly 97% of scientists agree that human beings are causing rapid climate change. Yet there remains a serious climate change denial movement, which has succeeding in shaping the environmental and diplomatic policies of the United States government. Scientists have become frustrated with the growing popularity of the Flat Earth movement, which relies on YouTube videos and amateur writers to support a conspiracy theory entirely dismissed by the scientific community.

And finally, as stated above, the distrust of education and academic experts has ripple affects in Western societies. In America, there is a rise in homeschooling and growing reach of Christian charter schools and colleges for those who would prefer their children learn from different sources than experts.

What to Do: How Can Scientists Rekindle Trust

There are several ways that scientists, both STEM, and social sciences, can rebuild public trust in experts. The first is through publicly accessible and enjoyable infotainment that is actually produced by experts, brimming with facts and peer reviewed theories. By making academic work accessible and fun, scientists can humanize themselves, making expertise seem more folksy and expert information more enjoyable.

The second way to rebuild trust of experts is to support organizations which connect the public to experts. The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the British Science Association not only support scientific research but also provide training to help scientists make their work more accessible to the general public. Museums across the country, which often serve as scientific “gateway drugs” to get children interested in studying sciences, are seeing funding cut and need more support from academia.

Finally, academics, scientists, and other experts should actively speak out against public misinformation campaigns, such as climate-change denial or anti-vaccine campaigns. Experts should use social media and other public tools to speak directly to the public to challenge misinformation campaigns to rebuild public trust.

Rebuilding public trust in experts is necessary for the advancement of scientific research, for encouraging a well-informed voting population, and for ensuring public safety and environmental protection. Though sociological changes in how we view education, process knowledge, and consume information have shifted public view of experts, hard work on public relations can help stem the tide of mistrust of expertise.