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Here’s how experts can rebuild trust in the post-truth era

By Adam Corner on December 21, 2016

'The millennial vote, putting women in the spotlight' event

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 #climatechange debate has arguably been in #PostTruth 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.

Tough sell

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.

For more from us on post-truth, Trump and Brexit:

Previously published in New Scientist

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam led Climate Outreach’s research work for almost 10 years, joining when the organisation will still young. He stepped down in early 2021 to start a new adventure in freelance work, which includes a role as a Climate Outreach Associate.  He helped grow the Research team and build long standing relationships with academic partners, including the CAST centre (Climate Change & Social Transformations).

Before that, Adam worked in the Understanding Risk research group at Cardiff University, researching public attitudes towards climate change. An accomplished and widely-published author, Adam wrote Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement, with Jamie Clarke, and his research and writing has appeared in academic journals, reports and briefings, and international media commentary. Adam also writes about music – including the increasing connections between music and climate change – for UK media, and can occasionally be found lurking behind the decks at pubs and parties in Bristol.

4 responses to Here’s how experts can rebuild trust in the post-truth era

  1. Barry Woods says:

    January 3, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    Is it worth commenting that Gove is quoted poorly (ie totally misrepresented.) and incomplete sentence

    Gove actually said, that he experts that the public had had enough of…
    were …

    “…the ones [experts] that got things consistently wrong..”

    Transcript, of the Gove video clip you linked to..
    https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/2016/20160603_sk

    The interviewer int erupted, and said what do you mean.. and Gove said not once, but twice, the experts that got things consistenetly WRONG. (extract from transcript)

    Gove: “…I think the people in this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying-”

    Faisal Islam: “This country have had enough of experts?! What do you mean by that?!”

    Michael Gove: “…-from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best, and getting it consistently wrong – ”

    Faisal Islam: “The people of this country have had enough of experts?!

    Michael Gove: “….Because these people, these people are the same ones who got consistently wrong what was happening – ”

    that seems fair, doesn’t it, he and the public (and I) I’m sure have no problems with experts that have a track record of getting things right!

    and he was specifically referring to thinktank style organisations about economics aswell

    (so not engineers, chemists, physicists, pilots, or any other branch of science or academia, but the ‘short quote’ is oh so useful for so many in the media/political classes to sneer at the imagined public as having had enough of experts. because they, the public are so stupid)

  2. Barry Woods says:

    January 3, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    How is Gove saying, (to paraphrase slightly from above transcript)

    – the public have had enough of experts ….the ones that get things consistently wrong –

    = posttruth.

  3. Adam Corner says:

    January 4, 2017 at 9:58 am

    You could interpret Gove’s comments in two ways – either that he thinks the public has had enough of experts (the ones who work for organisations with acronyms who get things wrong), or that he thinks the public has had enough of experts (because they work for organisations with acronyms and get things wrong).

    Listen to the rest of the interview, the hundreds of other statements and appearances Gove makes around the referendum, the central thrust of the Leave argument – that Brexit is about ‘taking back control’ from elites – and the wider discourse (i.e. the rise in populism especially on the political Right) and it seems to me that a fair interpretation has been placed on Gove’s words by me and the dozens of other journalists and media outlets who have pointed to this interview as capturing a rising sense of distrust in formal expertise.

    In any case, my argument here is that relying on formal (‘elite’) expertise at a time of rising populism is not a good strategy for rebuilding public trust and that pointing to examples of positive social consensus is a better approach.

  4. Abhinav Raj says:

    July 16, 2018 at 11:18 am

    Very Good Adam Corner, a great and knowledgeable effort. after reading the Blog I loved to share this info to https://thepolicytimes.com where my articles are published.

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