Originally published in New Scientist.
Scientists and others will need to embrace a new set of tactics if they hope to be heard above the charlatans who dominated in 2016.
With the rise of fake news and hate crimes plus the divisive Brexit and Trump campaigns, it is easy to despair at the political and cultural turmoil that engulfed the West this year.
Understanding it is fiendishly tough. But one factor is clearly discernible amidst the melee: an apparent collapse in trust in elite knowledge and expertise.
In one sense, this is not new. An increasingly visceral distrust of politicians, the media and bankers has been building, especially since the global economic crash in 2008. In 2016, that crystallised into a roar of anger against “the establishment”.
Similarly, while political spin and deception in election campaigns are as old as the hills, a newfound enthusiasm for provably false claims defined this year and made post-truth a new buzzword. British politician Michael Gove’s prim insistence that the public has “had enough of experts” captured this perfectly.
Sadly, this is all too familiar to those who follow the climate change debate, which has arguably been in post-truth terrain for years. Just as the economic experts’ warnings against Brexit didn’t have the desired effect, the scientific consensus on climate change hasn’t swayed public opinion the way it was expected to.
In Donald Trump, the politics of the present and the murky history of climate change denial collide. So it is understandable that scientists recoil in horror and re-emphasise the need to protect the role of science-based decision-making (as this open letter to the US president-elect by 800 climate and energy experts does). But unfortunately, although scientists remain generally well-trusted, any request to “listen to the experts” is currently a tough sell .
There is an alternative approach. It is to emphasise where a consensus exists among the people rather than just the experts. One recent UK poll, for example, found that although most Britons favour renewable energy, they drastically underestimate how many people agree with them. Wrongly believing that opposition to renewable energy is the norm, they may then follow what they perceive as the herd, publicly at least.
This phenomenon, which social psychologists call “pluralistic ignorance”, is not confined to views about climate change. Another recent study found that while most people said they held “communal” or “compassionate” values, many also mistakenly thought most other people were selfish. As a result, they were less likely to act selflessly themselves. Likewise, a survey this month found a similar misunderstanding of others’ attitudes.
Paying more attention to the idea of a social consensus in no way implies relegating or dismissing expert knowledge, simply supplementing it with an understanding of how beliefs are formed, strengthened and propagated. After all, the “ordinary man or woman on the street” is a consistently trustworthy figure in opinion polls.
Scientists and other experts are good at checking their facts, and being “right”, without always impacting public opinion much. Populists have the knack of being persuasive, but are too often not tethered to the facts.
Rebuilding public trust in 2017, and rescuing the political discourse from the clutches of post-truth charlatans, means getting better at being “right” and persuasive at the same time.