In his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, the historian and public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari argues that our hunter-gatherer brains are not capable to fully grasp the scale of moral dilemmas that confront us today. As a result, we downsize these issues, fall back on dogma or worse, construct conspiracy narratives that claim to offer an explanation to our problems.
Indeed, we live in a world of increasing complexity. The rapidly evolving and interconnected processes of globalization and digitalization have created ever more intricate problems. At the same time, the expectations towards citizens and policymakers to stay informed and make accurate assessments of current challenges have sharply risen. Topics such as climate change, the global economy, migration or artificial intelligence all require broad technical comprehension and critical thinking skills. To assist the public in forming a solid understanding of political issues, experts have served as impartial intermediaries that attempt to explain the intricacies of the problems society is confronted with. However, in recent years, our perception of experts as well as the roles they assume have changed. In this article, we discuss these trends, examining the backlash towards established forms of knowledge and how the rise of post-truth politics has contributed to a polarized public discourse.
The Rise and Fall of Technocracy
Modern society is based on a social division of labor. This applies just as much to the manufacturing processes in Adam Smith’s pin factory as it does to the field of expert knowledge. We are bound by time, talent and interests to extensively explore the variety of domains that exist. As a result, we rely on the know-how of experts, people that have dedicated their lives to the study of a particular field, to inform the public discourse and our political decisions. However, along with increasingly complex policy challenges and the need for ever more technical solutions, expert responsibilities have shifted. Moving away from former roles as advisors and educators, they are increasingly found in positions of political power. Various technocratic institutions such as the European Commission or independent central banks illustrate this phenomenon. Here, expert bureaucrats rather than democratically elected representatives constitute the driving force behind relevant decisions on public policy.
This convergence of governance and expertise becomes problematic when the differences between experts and representatives grow hazy. In his book ‘Nervous States’ the political theorist William Davies argues that today, being an expert and claiming to represent the “facts” constitutes one of the main routes into politics. This is accompanied by the trend that elected politicians increasingly refrain from making public moral judgments and draw on the rhetorical power of numbers and statistics to underline their political agendas. Admittedly, the current culture of our public discourse, characterized by anger and hostility from both sides of the political spectrum, has likely contributed to this development. However, when elected representatives avoid sharing their personal views on issues and take cover behind impassive figures, distrust with the political establishment grows. This is particularly the case for those parts of the population whose relative socio-economic situation has deteriorated. Here, statistical figures proclaiming progress and prosperity fail to reflect the challenges they are facing. At a speech prior to the 2016 EU Referendum in the North-East of England, an area that has severely suffered from post-industrial decline, King’s College Professor Anand Menon addressed the likely plunge that Brexit would have on the UK’s GDP. In response, someone from the audience shouted: “That’s your bloody GDP. Not ours.” This remark epitomizes the gap between the personal reality of some parts of the population and the dispassionate numbers experts use to measure reality. Yet, a lack of agreement on the underlying figures restricts society in its ability to determine common objectives.
The Post-Truth Era
Following this divergence, a dangerous trend has emerged throughout the past years. Novel forms of content have given rise to what some commentators refer to as Post-truth politics, with the rise of fake news standing at the center of this process. While initially introduced to describe falsehoods that spread around the internet, the term denotes all kinds of misleading information that is publicly broadcasted. However, it has recently entered the vocabulary of various populist leaders, who use it as a combative term to delegitimize the free press and appeal to those whom traditional forms of knowledge have failed. Elevated by the rise of social media networks (which we discuss in this following article), fake news has significantly altered the public’s approach to engaging with political content. At the end of the 2016 US presidential campaign, the top 20 fake news stories generated more shares, reactions and comments than the highest-ranked stories from all established media outlets combined. In concrete numbers, it took only several months in late 2016 for nearly 9 million people to engage on Facebook with articles subsequently categorized as fake news. This significantly overshadows the scarcely 7.5 million people that engaged with content from mainstream media sources in the same time period. Even worse, a post-election survey found that 75% of those who encountered fake news headlines considered them to be true. This is a catastrophe for societies that pride themselves with being founded upon Enlightenment values.
Once citizens start to source their information from radically opposing media sources and fail to agree on a common reality, there is little room left for broad deliberation and consensus. However, these processes are indispensable to a functioning democracy. In their absence, polarization is fueled by growing tribalism and a lack of shared societal objectives. To counter these trends, there is a need for experts to guide us in forming an understanding of the issues we are confronted with and overcoming our flaws in assessing reality. In a myriad of studies, cognitive psychology has hinted at different biases that distort how humans process information and make decisions. While experts can’t guarantee that they will not succumb to these same shortcomings, they do commit to the basic principles of the scientific process which has been our most reliable source of knowledge for centuries. This process requires adhering to the rules and methods prescribed by the scientific community in an attempt to reduce the chance of making systematic errors. Moreover, by means of debate and contestation, this community provides a competitive arena that enables good ideas to flourish and eventually, the truth to emerge.
Society needs the assistance of this independent authority in maintaining an objective distance to even the most controversial of issues. At the same time, we should ensure that this community does not turn into an exclusive club of cultured elites, driven by political ambition and failing to understand the emotional dimensions of the issues that some parts of the population are confronted with. Otherwise, it risks falling prey to its very own set of systematic errors. The death of expertise has been accompanied by another driver of recent polarization: the transformation of the media landscape. This marks the subject of the next article in this series.
- William Davies – Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World
- Mark Blyth & Eric Lonergan – Angrynomics
- Tom Nichols – The Death of Expertise