In 2016, when most British economic and foreign policy experts highlighted the benefits of staying in the EU and the downsides to leaving in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, many leave supporters responded with comments such as “people in this country have had enough of experts.”
This sense of disdain extends far beyond the Brexit campaign. Several researchers have found decreasing respect for expert viewpoints, including scientists’ perspectives, among American conservatives. Populists around the world have often embraced various forms of anti-intellectualism and rejection of expertise, preferring to emphasize the wisdom of the “common man.” While these trends affect experts in areas such as science and medicine, it is especially easy for populists and others to attack expertise in the areas of governance, politics and foreign policy.
There are many ways to define expertise but generally, an expert is someone with deep knowledge of a topic, developed through years of education as well as professional experience. Experts are often vetted through institutions, such as universities, book publishers, think tanks, traditional media outlets and relevant businesses. For those who value expertise, an expert’s opinion — while far from infallible — carries greater weight on the topic of their expertise than the opinion of someone who lacks expertise on the issue.
Many factors have combined to feed a recent decline in respect for expertise, especially in the areas of public and foreign policy. One major driver is a broader increase in anti-elitist sentiment in the West and arguably elsewhere. “We’re seeing a lot of public anger at political and social elites generally,” said Thomas Carothers, Senior Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There’s a general sense of distrust and alienation toward the system and sometimes, as part of that, there’s also a distrust toward experts.”
Another factor is the decentralization of media and the availability of the internet. There used to be a limited number of media outlets, who had “gatekeepers” — as Tom Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise,” has described it — that decided whether someone qualified as an expert. Sometimes that system went too far and filtered out important voices, but it also filtered out people who lacked deep knowledge on a subject. Today, with a huge range of media platforms, plus social media, anyone can put forth their view into the world, regardless of their actual knowledge or experience on a topic.
Furthermore, many people now believe that a few hours spent on Google qualifies them as an expert on a subject.
Hardening group identities also complicate things for experts who attempt to provide neutral analysis. As US broadcast media becomes more partisan, some networks increasingly value pundits who are entertaining and have strong partisan views over those with real expertise. In other countries, sectarianism or other divisions can limit space for balanced expert viewpoints.
The devaluing of expertise is dangerous in any society. Just as we want a qualified teacher to teach our children, a practiced surgeon to perform surgery, a competent engineer to construct a bridge, and a capable pilot to fly our airplanes, we should want experienced practitioners to inform our economic, health, education, national security and foreign policies. “Expertise doesn’t imply absolute knowledge or that other people don’t know anything, but there’s still value to knowing about the problems that you’re confronting,” said Carothers.
In the modern world, government leaders must make decisions about highly complex and constantly evolving economic, political and social environments. For example, “expertise is important in foreign affairs because the context is incredibly important, history is important and, in certain cases, mastery of technical detail is important,” said Peter Scoblic, a fellow at New America and former executive editor at “Foreign Policy” magazine. “One can sketch the outlines of a grand strategy based on values and broad ideas, but when the rubber meets the road, and you’re talking about details over trade deals, arms control, and other issues, it requires expertise to understand those details and why they do or do not matter.” Approaching such a complicated world with the attitude that expertise on such issues is unimportant is dangerously arrogant and very likely to lead to bad decisions.
Experts are not always right. They are human beings whose views are shaped by their particular biases and experiences. They can be susceptible to groupthink. As research by the University of Pennsylvania’s Philip Tetlock has found, political and economic experts are seldom good at predictions beyond a one-year horizon. Nonetheless, experts approach complex topics with a wealth of knowledge, facts, understanding of context and personal experience that is essential to formulating successful policy and avoiding past mistakes. The reality that experts are sometimes wrong does not negate the importance of their expertise.
In deeply divided societies, recovering ground for non-partisan expertise will be difficult, but there are some ways to improve relations between experts and the public. Experts should work hard to communicate in ways that are accessible and meaningful for their audience, though this alone would not reverse distrust. Carothers noted that it also might help to be more transparent about the ways in which experts disagree with each other and debate issues.
Fundamentally, improving trust in experts must go together with improving people’s overall faith in their governing systems. As Nichols wrote in 2014: “In an ideal world, experts are the servants, not the masters, of a democracy.” Wise leaders in any type of government will listen carefully to their experts and give them a significant role in developing policy, while the leaders steer their countries in a direction that takes values and political realities into account.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch