October 25, 2017

The Problem of Inconvenient Expertise I. Facts, Truth, and Populism



Consensus perceptions of truth rely on trust—in expertise and in the institutions that create knowledge (such as universities). But these forms of trust are diminishing. So are the perceived realities that we share.  

Donald Trump did not create the problem of polarized fact perceptions, which preceded his campaign and no doubt will be with us long after he is gone. But he made the problem worse by speeding up the decline in trust and the fracturing of consensus over facts. A populism that rejects expertise as elitist and distrusts conventional sources of authority can reject inconvenient expertise across the board.

Paradoxically, though, the problem of inconvenient expertise—the testimony of experts, scientists, or professors whom we would like to dismiss—is even more of a problem for anti-populists than for Trump supporters. In principle, anti-populists could embrace all epistemic authorities uncritically, and that’s a nightmare fully the equal of the populist’s blanket rejection of expertise.

Between these two poles are most of us, who walk through the cafeteria of expertise and select only what is appealing. The desire to uphold authoritative knowledge some but not all of the time, picking and choosing in the contemporary way, poses the challenge of dealing with the corrosive interconnections of truth, trust, and Trump.

“Truth” vs. “Fact”

We often use these two words interchangeably, but they’re dramatically distinct.

Truth refers to what really exists, the actual state of things. We’d all like to know the truth, but philosophy and science both start from the recognition that misperception and error are rampant. Philosophers and scientists use logic and evidence to try to correct illusions, but the task is never ending.

In the meantime we have facts: fallible, socially determined approximations of truth. Facts are usually accepted as such because of their endorsement by institutions that are seen as authoritative: governments, universities, scientific societies, professional associations, respected media outlets. Sometimes those institutions are in accord and sometimes—as is often the case in our polarized polity—they endorse competing facts.

Facts are as close as we can get to the truth, but they may not be that close. Accepted “facts” may be somewhat incomplete or fully wrong. They may some day be shown to be false and replaced by other facts. So no reasonable person believes that all of the “known facts” of the current moment are truths and that none will be withdrawn (like the “fact” that eggs are bad for you).

Trusting the Experts

One can pretend that this difficult problem is easily solved: just trust the experts. As Jimmy Kimmel said to Sean Spicer in disbelief: “Can we though disagree with the facts?” By which he might have meant, Can we dispute the truth? The answer is that we can if we aren’t sure what the truth is.

I believe that Kimmel was really asking, “Can we dispute the experts?” The answer of course is Yes, if we don’t trust those experts. Trust is the foundation of our confidence in what we know. (Ironically, Kimmel has recently become a vehicle for “facts” about health-care proposals, although he is in no sense an expert on them.)

In a fascinating book on the origins of contemporary claims to expertise (A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England), Steven Shapin argues that trust is at the heart of science. The goal of the book is “to draw attention to how much of our empirical knowledge is held solely on the basis of what trustworthy sources tell us” (21). “What we know of comets, icebergs, and neutrinos irreducibly contains what we know of those people who speak for and about these things” (xxvi). Our search for “a world-known-in-common” (36) reduces, in effect, to the search for “a reliable spokesman for reality” (xxvii).  

Who can be trusted to tell the truth about reality? Children (as in the Emperor’s New Clothes)? Political leaders (of our party)? Religious leaders? Shapin’s argument is that in the early modern period, the answer was the gentleman, who was thought to be so independent, both financially and morally, that he had no incentive to lie. His statements—absent proof that the public could understand—would be believed. This made gentlemen the perfect scientists. Eventually trust was transferred to scientists in general, who are the modern-day gentlemen who do not lie.

However, the era of trust seems to be coming to an end.

The question of the tree falling in a lonely forest applies here, but in reverse. The usual framing of the question assumes that we know a tree has fallen. But if I don’t know one way or the other, and someone tells me she heard it fall while another insists that the noise was caused by something else entirely, whom do I believe? Should I believe a tree fell if the ear-witnesses in favor outnumber those opposed by a small margin? What if there is an overwhelming consensus, but a seemingly trustworthy dissenter? What if the dissenter is a friend of mine? 

Consider the infamous journalism scandal revolving around George W. Bush’s National Guard service, which ended Dan Rather’s long career in journalism. The truth of the situation—whether Bush did or did not use family influence to gain a National Guard spot to keep him out of Vietnam; and whether he did or did not complete his flight training—will always be the same. While the truth is stable, however, the “known facts” have changed. Until 60 Minutes aired the accusations, the known facts were that Bush served honorably, if not in combat. But then a trusted institution, CBS News, reported a different set of known facts. Soon after, CBS retracted the accusations and fired several influential reporters and editors, changing the known facts again.

A 2015 film about the saga, entitled “Truth,” insists that the 60 Minutes story really was true, even if its sources were false. Rather agrees. His position is that even though the story cannot be documented, and even though the evidence may have been falsified, the story painted an essentially true picture of what happened. So to summarize, CBS initially said that its sources provided facts that delivered a new truth; CBS later said the sources are not facts, so the story cannot be said to be the truth; Rather says the story may not have reported facts, but the story is nonetheless true.

In such cases, which seem to be increasingly common, trust loses its purchase. Rather recently told Variety magazine: “Don’t take my word for what it is; don’t take CBS’s word for what it is; go see it”—that is, “Truth,” the documentary—“and make up your own mind.” How, though, can we do that with any hope of accuracy when the only basis for making up their own minds is the match between what the documentary says and our prior beliefs? At that point we have reached the post-truth era.  

Truth and Populism

Trust in media “expertise” as a means to solve the post-truth dilemma is at a low ebb. Here are data from Gallup:

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Source: “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low”

If the news media are no longer considered trustworthy sources of knowledge, what replaces them?

American populism has always been difficult to define. My own definition, at least of the current manifestation of populism, is epistemological: it’s the view that the beliefs and perceptions of normal citizens tend to be correct. What non-“elite” Americans think is good and true is what is really good and true.

Populism equates the facts perceived by ordinary people with the truth. It disparages as “fake” facts those that are perceived by extraordinary people. Populism, then, blocks the flow of trust from the bottom up. When the top is no longer trusted, the bottom is left to its own epistemic devices.

In electoral terms, the epistemic us-versus-them turns into more recognizable demographic categories. If Republicans have catered in the past to Americans who perceive themselves as wealthy (or aspire to be so), and Democrats to Americans who perceive themselves as downtrodden, populism caters to Americans who perceive themselves as normal people who can no longer trust either party. It’s not money that American populists dislike (Trump’s wealth makes that clear). It’s elitism.

Elitism comes in many flavors. The more familiar variety is perceived snottiness, putting on airs, looking down on the practices of ordinary people. Trump certainly doesn’t do that. He eats fast food often and publicly. But his ingeniously post-modern variant of anti-elitism relates to his presentation of facts as ordinary (popular) perceptions rather than as perceptions vetted by elites.

The Death of Expertise

If the perceptions of normal folk are correct, then those of the hyper-educated are suspect.

Highly credentialed scholars and journalists both claim to be arbiters of the truth. Both strongly believe that normal Americans should respect this authority. Trumpist populism openly disparages it. Do populists distrust epistemic elites because of their leafy academic pedigrees, or have these pedigrees lost their luster because their bearers no longer seem to be speaking the truth?

Trump’s answer comes to us in a Wall Street Journal op-ed under his byline: “On every major issue affecting this country, the people are right and the elites are wrong. The elites are wrong on taxes, on the size of government, on trade, on immigration, on foreign policy. Why should we trust the people who have made every wrong decision?”

In The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols presents what seems, at first glance, to be a protest against the notion that experts deserve the loss of people’s trust. “We live in a society that works because of a division of labor,” he writes, “a system designed to relieve each of us from having to know about everything. Pilots fly airplanes, lawyers file lawsuits, doctors prescribe medication,” and scholars of national security (of which Nichols is one) write books about it. Why, then, are ordinary citizens losing faith in experts?

At first, Nichols seems to be chiding the citizenry for disrespecting the division of epistemic labor, but then he reveals that the true culprits are higher education, the Internet, and journalists. In two out of the three cases, the death of trust in expertise is due to the failings of these experts: those in the universities and those in the media. Bad universities are dumbing down their training and bad journalists are claiming expertise they do not have. Only in the case of the Internet is the cause an outside force (really a replacement for expertise, one that’s embraced because of experts’ failings).  

In the final chapter, Nichols says what he really thinks: that experts have brought this on themselves. He describes some of the prominent cases of failed expertise, such as the consensus misprediction by foreign policy experts of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the consensus misprediction by pollsters of the 2016 election outcome, and the consensus non-prediction of the financial crisis. He also describes some of the recent events that have brought social science into disrepute, including:

  • A falsified study of vaccines and autism, which deeply influenced the anti-vaccination movement after being published in The Lancet.
  •  A falsified study on attitudes toward gay rights, published in the prestigious journal Science and later withdrawn.
  •  A falsified study of gun ownership in the colonial era, awarded the Bancroft Prize in history before being withdrawn.

Yet it doesn’t seem probable that generally low-information populist voters were aware of such missteps. So my next post will discuss a different view of the origins of the decline of faith in experts.

Morgan Marietta is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the author of A Citizen’s Guide to American Ideology: Conservatism and Liberalism in Contemporary PoliticsThe Politics of Sacred Rhetoric: Absolutist Appeals and Political Influence, and A Citizen’s Guide to the Constitution and the Supreme Court: Constitutional Conflict in American Politics. With David Barker, he is currently writing One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy (Oxford University Press), on the causes and consequences of polarized fact perceptions.