It doesn’t feel like a great time to be an expert. Experts rely on facts, evidence and careful analysis to make assessments of the past, present, and future. All those categories—expertise, evidence and logical analysis—seem under attack. Equally importantly, public trust in the institutions that house experts has ebbed at an alarming rate over the last 40 years.
How can institutions and experts respond to the broader attack on evidence-based decision-making? A multi-pronged approach tackling representation and reality is the best response.
First, we must recognise the importance of metaphors and consider carefully about the metaphors that we use to frame the facts. The world is so complex that human beings reach to metaphors for understanding. Much of our language is metaphorical even when we do not realise it. Experts, intellectuals, and thought leaders play a vital role in providing the range of possible metaphors for the public to use. These metaphors, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out, can create political realities because they provide an ordering framework to our perceptions. This framework then spurs particular actions to fit that metaphor.
Calling Brexit a divorce, for example, implies that the EU and the UK can negotiate a clean split and then will have a tetchy, but stable and regulated relationship with each other. The metaphor of divorce conceals many realities of the protracted and contested process of exiting the EU. To mention just a few: Brexit will take far longer than a divorce; it involves many more parties (because the EU is composed of 27 member states and cannot be equated to one spouse); Brexit means renegotiating all trading relationships for the UK, not just one like the metaphor of divorce implies. Another frame for Brexit than divorce can educate the general public about how complicated negotiations will be. For instance, Olivier Campenon, who heads the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce, speaking on French radio recently, preferred to describe Brexit not as a divorce but as setting new legal terms for the marriage, since the UK and EU will in fact still be together, just differently. Facts matter. But so does the framing of facts.
Second, we should recognise the problems of predicting the future. Economists and pollsters in particular have come under fire for producing numerical forecasts that often prove incorrect. The precision of the prediction means that the public has become increasingly sceptical of expertise when those experts are proven wrong by the real numbers. Similarly, judgments about politics seem less convincing to the public over time because pundits’ confident predictions of outcomes like the US presidential election have proven so spectacularly flawed.
One thing we can learn from history is that our predictions of the future almost never come true. But that does not mean we should give up on forecasting. Rather, we should reconsider how we forecast and how we present those forecasts. Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania has long advocated for a more evidence-based approach to forecasting. We need to learn from our mistakes and evaluate why predictions in the past were incorrect. Surprisingly few experts conduct forensic post-mortems of why they were wrong. And yet, our forecasts continue to inform policy. More dangerously, any inaccuracies stoke scepticism among a subset of the public that feels vindicated when a prediction does not come to pass.
To produce better forecasts, Tetlock suggests for example that we should also provide confidence estimates for our predictions. The US intelligence community now adopts this approach. It makes forecasts seem less certain and thus less eye-catching in headlines; it means experts must be humbler in their predictions. But it can help to restore some trust in experts themselves. It isn’t surprising that the public loses faith in experts when their predictions so often do not come to pass. We might also consider producing less specific numerical predictions about the future that may not materialise, as these reduce trust.
Finally, we should recognise and dig deeper into the problem of how to rebuild trust in institutions. Some institutions are trusted more than others. We might reflect more systematically on why in a Gallup poll 68% of Americans expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in small business in 2016, while only 18% feel the same about big business. We will not solve the problems of our contemporary world just by changing how we present economic, political and social realities. We need to change the realities themselves.
Tetlock, Philip and Dan Gardner (2013), Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Broadway Books, New York
“On n’arrête pas l’eco”, Weekly Economics Programme, France Inter (Radio France), 6 May 2017 (interview with Olivier Campenon starts at 33 minutes, marriage analogy at about 40 minutes), www.franceinter.fr/emissions/on-n-arrete-pas-l-eco/on-n-arrete-pas-l-eco-08-avril-2017
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