Following the Brexit vote and US presidential elections in 2016, it has frequently been argued that the current period is defined by a lack of trust in experts and expertise. But is there any empirical evidence to confirm or deny this assertion? In this post Kate Dommett and Warren Pearce analyse the available data on public perceptions of expertise and argue that ultimately we cannot categorically state how the public perceive experts. However, we can and should analyse the increasingly diverse forms of expertise that exist in contemporary society.
Have people in the UK really had enough of experts? This idea, based on a partial quote from Michael Gove during the EU referendum campaign in 2016, has taken on a life of its own in the years following. The positioning of the Remain campaign as one almost unanimously supported by ‘the experts’ backfired following the victory for Leave, prompting former Royal Society president Paul Nurse to complain that the ‘derision of experts’ is undermining science and a Guardian writer to describe Brexit as a ‘dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism’. Similar worries are visible in Italy, Brazil and the US, where recent election winners have dismissed climate science and associated themselves with the anti-vaccine movement. If politicians can win on such overtly ‘anti-expert’ platforms, then does it not follow that the public have indeed had enough of experts?
In a recent article, we decided to look into these claims further, to unpick what we actually know about public views of experts, and what would we need to know in order to be able to substantiate this claim. We focus on one research method suitable for analysing macro-level trends over time: the survey. Conducting an analysis of the Centre for Comparative European Survey Data Information System (CCESD-IS) database, we looked at some of the largest public opinion surveys conducted in the UK and EU for questions that asked about ‘expert’, ‘expertise’ and ‘trust’. What we found was surprising: that despite the huge amount of surveys carried out in the UK and EU, only a very small number of survey measures address these important issues. In short, there is insufficient evidence to make robust claims about public attitude towards experts. In those survey measures that are relevant, for example in Eurobarometer and UK Public Attitudes to Science, we found broad support for the idea of political institutions being constituted of ‘independent experts, not party politicians’ and that ‘experts and not the public should advise the government about the implications of scientific developments’.
So, if you hear anyone arguing that the public have had enough of experts, exercise scepticism, for we simply have insufficient evidence to support such claims. At this point, it is important to emphasise that we do *not* think that surveys are the only, or even the best, way to measure public attitudes. However, they *do* have the potential to describe (but not explain) macro-level trends within society, when carried out over a number of years. With this caveat in mind, we can still outline the types of questions that may improve our knowledge, informed by existing research on expertise. For example, it is useful to identify the attributes that an expert is expected to possess, and what experts are expected to do. What are the roles of professional qualifications and personal experience in establishing expertise? How important is a personal connection between an expert and their audience? When are experts expected to provide advice, and what kinds of advice should they provide? How do these attributes vary between expertise in different areas of public life? Such questions are complex and the nuances involved can be fully explored only through deep qualitative research on a case-by-case basis.
However, we are also living in a time when the meta-category of ‘expert’ is assuming increased prominence in the media and political debate, and is the subject of broad claims by a range of motivated actors. For example, experts were a key focus of debate during the EU referendum as experts were marshalled (notably by Remain) to support political positions, and experts have become increasingly powerful in key areas of public policy such as climate change and monetary policy. Social media has opened up new ways to challenge expertise, but has given rise not to a ‘post-truth era’, but instead has shifted dynamics and norms in how experts establish and maintain trust. So while agreeing that there is a huge diversity of people classed as ‘experts’ within society, systematic survey research can provide a broad-brush view of how the idea of experts and expertise is faring in public life.
Existing research therefore raises important questions about the degree to which the public have had enough of experts. Contrary to popular belief, there are in fact indications that people can hold positive views. Yet, to foster a more nuanced, informative debate on the role of experts and expertise we need to look beyond such generalising claims. It is not yet clear when or why the public value sources of expertise. Without such knowledge it is difficult to determine when experts are seen to play a valuable role, and when the public are likely to dismiss or reject certain expert claims.
This post is based on the authors co-authored paper What do we know about public attitudes towards experts? Reviewing survey data in the United Kingdom and European Union, published in Public Understanding of Science
About the authors
Katharine Dommett is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on public perceptions, political parties and digital campaigning. She has a particular interest in public desires for governance and has recently published a report What do we want from political parties? They tweet @KateDommett
Warren Pearce is a Senior Lecturer in iHuman and the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield. His research focuses on how expertise is produced and represented across different issues and locations, with a particular interest in the multimodal communication of expertise across different digital platforms. They tweet @WarrenPearce
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