Why democ­racy re­quires trusted ex­perts

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jean Pisani-Ferry

Last month, I wrote a com­men­tary ask­ing why vot­ers in the United King­dom sup­ported leav­ing the Euro­pean Union, de­fy­ing the over­whelm­ing weight of ex­pert opin­ion warn­ing of the ma­jor eco­nomic costs of Brexit. I ob­served that many vot­ers in the UK and else­where are an­gry at eco­nomic ex­perts. They say that the ex­perts failed to fore­see the fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008, put ef­fi­ciency first in their pol­icy ad­vice, and blindly as­sumed that the losers from their pol­icy pre­scrip­tions could be com­pen­sated in some un­spec­i­fied way. I ar­gued that ex­perts should be hum­bler and more at­ten­tive to dis­tri­bu­tional is­sues.

The piece elicited far more com­ments from read­ers than any of my oth­ers. Their re­ac­tions mostly con­firm the anger I had noted. They re­gard econ­o­mists and other ex­perts as iso­lated from and in­dif­fer­ent to the con­cerns of or­di­nary peo­ple; driven by an agenda that does not co­in­cide with that of cit­i­zens; of­ten bla­tantly wrong, and there­fore in­com­pe­tent; bi­ased in favour of, or sim­ply cap­tured by, big busi­ness and the fi­nan­cial in­dus­try; and naive – fail­ing to see that politi­cians se­lect analy­ses that suit their ends and dis­re­gard the rest. Ex­perts, said some, are also guilty of frac­tur­ing so­ci­ety by seg­ment­ing the de­bate into myr­iad nar­row, spe­cialised dis­cus­sions.

Re­mark­ably, I also re­ceived com­ments from pro­fes­sion­als in the nat­u­ral sciences who said that cit­i­zens’ grow­ing dis­trust of ex­perts was per­va­sive in their dis­ci­plines, too. Sci­en­tific views in fields like en­ergy, cli­mate, ge­net­ics, and medicine face wide­spread pop­u­lar re­jec­tion. In the United States, for ex­am­ple, a Pew Re­search sur­vey found that 67% of adults think that sci­en­tists lack a clear un­der­stand­ing about the health ef­fects of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms. Mistrust of GMOs is even higher in Europe. Whereas over­all sup­port for science re­mains strong, many cit­i­zens be­lieve that it is ma­nip­u­lated by spe­cial in­ter­ests, and on some is­sues, the com­mon view de­parts from the es­tab­lished ev­i­dence.

This di­vide be­tween ex­perts and cit­i­zens is a se­ri­ous cause for con­cern. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy is based not only on univer­sal suf­frage, but also on rea­son. Ideally, de­lib­er­a­tions and votes re­sult in ra­tio­nal de­ci­sions that use the cur­rent state of knowl­edge to de­liver poli­cies that ad­vance cit­i­zens’ well­be­ing. This re­quires a process in which ex­perts – whose com­pe­tence and hon­esty are trusted – in­form de­ci­sion-mak­ers of the avail­able op­tions for meet­ing vot­ers’ stated pref­er­ences. Cit­i­zens are un­likely to be sat­is­fied if they be­lieve that ex­perts are im­pos­ing their own agenda, or are cap­tured by spe­cial in­ter­ests. Dis­trust of ex­perts fu­els dis­trust of demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ments, if not of democ­racy it­self.

Why is there such a di­vide be­tween ex­perts and so­ci­ety? Ev­ery coun­try has had its own series of high-pro­file pub­lic health or safety scan­dals. Ex­perts have been guilty of slop­pi­ness and con­flicts of in­ter­est. Hard-won rep­u­ta­tions have been quickly lost.

But crit­ics of­ten fail to recog­nise that science in­volves more – and more strin­gent – scru­tiny than, say, busi­ness or gov­ern­ment. It is ac­tu­ally the stan­dard-bearer of good prac­tices con­cern­ing the val­i­da­tion of analy­ses and the dis­cus­sion of pol­icy pro­pos­als. Er­rors reg­u­larly oc­cur in academia, but they are more swiftly and sys­tem­at­i­cally cor­rected than in other fields. The col­lec­tive na­ture of sci­en­tific val­i­da­tion also pro­vides guar­an­tees against cap­ture by spe­cial in­ter­ests.

The prob­lem may, in fact, be deeper than the com­mon grievances against ex­perts sug­gest. A few decades ago, it was widely as­sumed that progress in mass ed­u­ca­tion would grad­u­ally bridge the gap be­tween sci­en­tific knowl­edge and pop­u­lar be­lief, thereby con­tribut­ing to a more serene and more ra­tio­nal democ­racy.

The ev­i­dence is that it has not. As Ger­ald Bron­ner, a French so­ci­ol­o­gist, has con­vinc­ingly shown, ed­u­ca­tion nei­ther in­creases trust in science nor di­min­ishes the at­trac­tion of be­liefs or the­o­ries that sci­en­tists re­gard as ut­ter non­sense. On the con­trary, more ed­u­cated cit­i­zens of­ten re­sent be­ing told by ex­perts what science re­gards as truth. Hav­ing had ac­cess to knowl­edge, they feel em­pow­ered enough to their own.

Cli­mate change – which the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity over­whelm­ingly re­gards it as a ma­jor threat – is a case in point. Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 Pew Re­search sur­vey, the three coun­tries where con­cern is the weak­est are the US, Aus­tralia, and Canada, whereas the three in which it is the strong­est are Brazil, Peru, and Burk­ina Faso. Yet av­er­age years of school­ing are 12.5 for the first group and six for the se­cond. Ev­i­dently, ed­u­ca­tion alone is not the rea­son for this dif­fer­ence in per­cep­tion.

If the prob­lem is here to stay, we had bet­ter do more to ad­dress it. First, we need more dis­ci­pline on the part of the com­mu­nity of ex­perts. The in­tel­lec­tual dis­ci­pline that char­ac­ter­izes re­search is of­ten lack­ing in pol­icy dis­cus­sions. Hu­mil­ity, rig­or­ous pro­ce­dures, the preven­tion of con­flicts of in­ter­est, an abil­ity to ac­knowl­edge mis­takes and, yes, pun­ish­ment of fraud­u­lent be­hav­ior are needed to re­gain the cit­i­zens’ trust.

Se­cond, there is a case for re­vis­ing cur­ric­ula to equip fu­ture cit­i­zens with the in­tel­lec­tual tools they will need to dis­tin­guish be­tween fact and fic­tion. So­ci­ety has ev­ery­thing to gain from cit­i­zens whose minds are both less sus­pi­cious and more crit­i­cal.

Fi­nally, we need bet­ter venues for di­a­logue and in­formed de­bate. Se­ri­ous mag­a­zines, gen­eral-in­ter­est jour­nals, and news­pa­pers tra­di­tion­ally filled the space be­tween the ether of peer-re­viewed jour­nals and the deep sea of hoaxes; yet they all strug­gle to sur­vive the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion. Other venues, per­haps new in­sti­tu­tions, are needed to fill that space. What is clear is that democ­racy can­not thrive if it is left empty.

crit­i­cise the cognoscenti and de­velop views


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