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Why We Trust Experts but Don’t Take Their Advice

The public may be warming up to experts, but experts still face a credibility gap.

Words: Sofia Svensson
Pictures: Justin Lewis/Getty Images

The other day I listened to an episode of “Talking Politics,” in which David Runciman talked with Tara Westover about her new book “Educated.” Westover grew up in a survivalist Mormon family where no one attended school or went to the hospital, but she ended up with a PhD from Cambridge University. Her story made me think about what education, and more importantly, “expertise,” actually means, and how much our trust in a certain level of expertise might depend upon our interpretation. Certainly, Cambridge might have rejected Westover based on her upbringing. Instead, her experience has become her strength. According to an interesting new report from We are Flint, experts across-the-board face a similar, but disappointingly opposite, conundrum. It seems that while the public sees experts as credible, it still doesn’t care much for their advice.

As a society today, we seek advice from our peers rather than authorities. We use crowdsourced advice to choose restaurants, healthcare, and holidays. Perhaps, then, to expect us to listen to “official” experts when it comes to policy and politics might seem strange. In 2007, the Edelman Trust Barometer found that Americans trusted their peers (a “person like yourself”) the most, and over time, trust in our peers has increased globally. In 2017, ten years later, a “person like yourself” was seen as just as credible a source of information as a company or a technical or academic expert (60 percent), and far more credible than a CEO (37 percent) or government official (29 percent).

But this year, trust in CEOs is up and our trust in a “person like yourself” has dipped to an all-time low in the study’s history. At the same time, experts’ credibility has grown to over 60 percent. So, why are we still not taking their advice? In a study published in 2015, psychological scientist Friederike Hendriks and her colleagues at the University of Muenster in Germany coined the term “epistemic trustworthiness.” Which, basically, measures how we perceive a person’s expertise, but the term itself might help explain our dismissal of experts. On first look, the term “epistemic” might as well have been the name of an exotic frog.

Take the way Trump speaks; anyone can understand “Highest stock market EVER.” Admittedly, Trump can also be very vague, but using words and phrases that most people don’t understand from everyday conversation can be seen as an elitist attempt to assert intellectual dominance. This might be why, regardless of political engagement, a majority of people asked seem to believe that think tanks — where many large, expert communities reside — only have the interests of the elite in mind.

Think tanks can often use tricky language, concepts and models in their reports, and the theory of trustworthiness may explain why we won’t take their advice. For an expert to be high on the scale of epistemic trustworthiness, they need three characteristics: expertise, integrity and benevolence. In other words, knowing stuff isn’t enough. For us to rate a person as a trustworthy expert they must be knowledgeable, honest, and good-hearted.

It can be easier for a doctor to seem caring, which may be why we often seem to take our medical experts’ advice more seriously than, say, a scientist on climate change. So it might well be that We are Flint’s conclusion is correct: think tanks are failing to engage in a meaningful way with the public. Experts might know a bunch of stuff – and that stuff might be important — but unless those facts and figures are perceived as honest and benevolent, they’ll fail to break free from the bubble they’re in.

Sofia Svensson is studying an MA in Russia and Post-Soviet Politics at University College London, after having received a BA in International Relations from King’s College London. Follow her on Twitter: @sofiajsvensson

Sofia Svensson

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