One of the manifestations of the new political and social world we are living in is the so-called “death of expertise“. This refers not to the loss of actual expertise, but rather the loss of a baseline of public respect for the concept of expertise and for experts themselves. A recent Nature survey highlights a disturbing marker of this trend – experts (in this case mostly doctors) facing threats of physical harm for expressing their opinions about COVID-19 in public. This is completely predictable, for anyone paying attention, but it’s worth reviewing how we got here.
It’s easy, even fashionable, to blame all such trends on social media. While social media certainly greatly facilitated our “post truth” world, the trends all started long before the internet. In the US in particular, there has long been a cultural undercurrent of anti-intellectualism, rooted in a distrust of authority and an attraction towards conspiracy theories. But this occurred alongside a general respect for excellence and ability. Scientists, especially medical scientists, rank among the most respected professions, at levels in the 80s, and stable over decades of surveys.
These apparently contradictory attitudes can exist at the same time because people generally can compartmentalize their beliefs, but something else is going on as well. In the abstract many people still respect experts and scientists, but now they can choose which experts and scientists to believe. This is the new reality – it’s not the absence of facts, but the existence of “alternative facts”. The problem is not as much ignorance as the false illusion of knowledge.
This is where social media comes in. Ready access to information on demand creates a powerful illusion of knowledge, and even the sense that we all can “do our own research” and come to a reliable conclusion, even about complex technical topics we do not really understand. You don’t have to look beyond the comments section of SBM to witness non-experts arguing over technical details in the scientific literature in areas where they lack any formal background. Even for those not trying to substitute their own opinions for those of experts, they can easily fall prey to believing the “wrong experts”. Who are the “wrong experts” and how does that happen?
People generally grossly underestimate a few things: First they underestimate how much information is out there, and specifically that you can find facts and opinions to support pretty much any belief you want. They further underestimate (or are simply unaware of) the power of confirmation bias. It is a well-established psychological phenomenon that we tend to seek out, notice, accept and remember information that supports what we believe or want to believe, while simultaneously ignoring, forgetting, or explaining away information that contradicts our beliefs. When you combine these two factors, it can create the powerful illusion that the facts support our beliefs, whether they do or not.
Further still, social media often uses algorithms that automate the process of confirmation bias. Therefore, confirmation bias is no longer just a passive process, but an active one – we are being fed information that supports what we already believe. Social media platforms do this to maximize clicks, and don’t seem to care about the beliefs themselves. This process also causes the existence of networks of people with similar beliefs in so-called “echochambers” that further reinforce the beliefs and add an element of community identity to them.
But many people and organizations using social media do care what those beliefs are. This creates another factor, perhaps the most insidious – other people are curating information for you designed to manufacture specific illusions of knowledge. Both these factors (a media just wanting to maximize engagement for profits and ideologues selling specific beliefs) play off each other, as the media is all-too-happy to give oxygen to radical beliefs because it’s good for their bottom line.
Finally, the information we are being fed is not in isolated facts, but is woven together into a compelling narrative. Those narratives then take on a life of their own, as they organize our knowledge and beliefs and serve as filters for the further acquisition of curated “facts”. Our place in society is now largely determined by which narratives we identity with, and these narratives are largely isolated from each other, without any common ground to resolve differences.
This is where “alternative experts” comes in. Social media also makes it easy to select and elevate those voices in the noise that support our narrative. It also makes it easy to create the illusion of an established institution, of journalism, experts, or even scientists. People who previously would have faded to the fringe because their ideas were fatally flawed or unconvincing, can now be brought back to the center of the conversation because they support a particular narrative.
With this view of our current situation, it is not at all surprising that attacks on public experts have been increasing. Nature surveyed more than 300 scientists who made media appearances to talk about some aspect of COVID-19. Of those surveyed 70% reported that as a result they had experienced some kind of threats or attacks – 59% attacks on their credibility, 30% reputational damage, 22% threats of sexual assault, and 15% received death threats.
It should now be easy to understand how this can happen. An expert appearing in the mainstream media simply to talk about the results of a research study, or synthesize the evidence for or against some treatment, is (whether they know it or not) either supporting or refuting some narrative. If they are refuting a narrative that you have been led to believe through the above processes, you might think the experts are therefore lying, and part of some vast conspiracy. You are not just disagreeing with their facts, you are defending civilization. This is what radicalization looks like.
Scientists are largely not prepared for this new reality. Just as climate scientists, previously working in anonymity without much media attention, were suddenly thrust into the middle of a political cage match, health experts are experiencing the same thing with respect to COVID.