There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the “war on science” or the so-called “death of expertise.” However, according to the General Social Survey, there has been no radical decrease with respect to public trust in the scientific community per se.
In fact, contemporary Americans have more trust in the scientific community than any other social institution besides the military. While medicine and education have seen declines in public confidence over the last several decades (more on the latter soon) – they are still more trusted than any branch of the government, not to mention organized religion, corporations, and the media.
There has been no decrease in public perceptions about the value of scientific research. Instead, confidence in the benefits of science is up slightly as compared to the late 80s through 90s.
Relative to other countries, the National Science Foundation (NSF) notes:
“Most survey respondents in other countries also generally report strong belief in the value of science, although these beliefs appear to be somewhat higher in the United States” (emphasis mine).
That is, Americans tend to have more faith in science than most others worldwide. Yet we also see dramatic polarization around issues like climate change, GMOs, vaccines, the interrelationships between biology and various human characteristics or behaviors, etc. We see frequent disparagement of experts. On the left, when researchers strike inconvenient conclusions, they are often accused of being corrupted by material interests of those funding the work, or of being under the sway of moral pathologies (racism, sexism, transphobia, etc.). On the right, the accusation is that the researchers are elitists and ideologues trying to advance a particular social and political agenda. That is, there seems to be high, bipartisan faith in science and the scientific community in general, and simultaneously, widespread concern about experts’ socio-political and ideological alignments, and how these may color their interpretations of scientific findings on particular issues.
An excellent new book by Columbia sociologist Gil Eyal sheds light on what is going on here:
The need for expertise has probably never been higher. Our social systems and institutions are more complex and interconnected than they have ever been. They operate at unprecedented scales. Consequently, epistemological gaps or mistakes in planning and execution can often have calamitous results from the local level all the way to the global. In order to manage these risks, scientific research and expert testimony have come to play an ever-expanding role in regulatory and legal decisions, policymaking, and beyond. This is precisely the issue: as science becomes ever more central to political decision-making, and as scientific determinations and discoveries have ever-larger social, political, and economic implications, politics encroaches ever more into science itself. As Eyal describes it:
“The ‘scientization’ of politics (namely the dependence of liberal democracies on expert knowledge for most tasks of governance) leads to the politicization of science, and the two processes constantly feed off and amplify one another.”
The crisis of expertise, then, is not about distrust of science or experts per se. It is a set of struggles over questions like:
- Who counts as an expert and in virtue of what?
- What is the proper relationship between experts, the state, corporations, and the public?
- How do policymakers, journalists, activists, corporations, and non-profits attempt to spin or utilize scientific findings?
- What are the anticipated or actual consequences of particular interpretations and applications of scientific findings with respect to controversial issues?
- Who bears responsibility in the event of negative externalities resultant from expert judgment?
As Eyal points out, given the complexity of these issues, the high stakes in many scientific discussions, and the large social distance between many experts and publics–not to mention the rather frequent and costly instances of experts getting things wrong–skepticism towards expert claims is often a natural and appropriate response; it is something that should be expected.
Yet many in the professional-managerial class react incredulously to resistance. Whole lines of research have cropped up to explain it, most working from the premise that skepticism arises out of some kind of deficit (ignorance, lack of cognitive sophistication, irrationality) or pathology. Others focus on corporations and wealthy individuals who are held to be manipulating the “common folk” into acting against their own interests (which entails an assumption that these researchers understand the ‘real’ interest of others better than they understand themselves).
Eyal, on the other hand, does not view it as desirable that the public should uncritically accept the claims of experts. Yes, the pushback can be inconvenient or unpleasant; in many instances ignoring expert advice is even dangerous. Yet some degree of back-and-forth is healthy, indeed necessary. Scientific understandings of many phenomena have been totally transformed as a result of pushback from advocacy groups, the public, etc. (see, for instance, Eyal’s work on autism).
More broadly, he argues, it might be more productive and interesting to invert the typical line of questioning: rather than asking why people doubt expertise, a better puzzle might be why so many defer to experts so frequently in highly-consequential matters. After all, despite their specialized knowledge and skills, experts are often wrong. Notwithstanding often sincere aspirations towards objectivity and promoting the good of all, experts tend to have backgrounds, identity commitments, ideological commitments, and material interests that diverge systematically from those of the general public. These can and sometimes do create bad asymmetries, where experts’ taken-for-granted aspirations are at odds with those of the publics they are ostensibly serving, where important local knowledge is disastrously ignored, and where the people who are designing and implementing various interventions aren’t the ones who pay the costs if things go wrong. Nonetheless, the public has overwhelming faith in science and expertise; they generally comply with expert advice, guidelines, etc. Understanding why this is, how this trust is built, maintained, and repaired (as needed), under what circumstances people comply or diverge from expert advice – Eyal argues that these are likely much better research questions than the current paradigms around skepticism.
“Then Balak said to Balaam, ‘What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!’” (Numbers 23: 11)
The Torah contains a story of a Gentile prophet, Balaam, who was instructed by his king to curse the Israelites. However, because he was only willing to speak the words that God provided, he ended up blessing them instead. Eyal argues that this story helpfully illustrates interesting dynamics within the crisis of expertise.
Many criticisms of science, experts, and expertise ultimately underscore the value, necessity, and legitimacy of experts, or the jurisdiction of science over the issue in question. Take, for instance, claims that “we need more evidence” or “better measurements” before acting on climate change. Such a plea concedes that empirical evidence and science are important; it recognizes the authority of science and scientists in determining “the fact” of the matter; it contains an implicit support for more and better research (often prompting actual investment in better data and models); it contains an implicit concession that more and better research might obligate one towards particular courses of sociopolitical action (we’re just not there ‘yet’). That is, it concedes virtually everything to the scientists. The controversy itself attaches more attention and significance to climate science, and it locates the fight on the scientists’ own turf. This is not, therefore, an “attack on science.” In many respects, it is an affirmation of science (indeed, climate change deniers tend to be, on average, a bit more literate on climate science than those who accept the scientific consensus position). In fact, precisely what many get frustrated by is that these kinds of maneuvers keep the focus on the science itself, preventing the ability to move forward with trans-scientific work.
More on that soon. But first, it must be noted that the inverse dynamic of Balaam’s Blessing also holds: many tactics intended to ameliorate the crisis of expertise can perpetuate or exacerbate it. For instance, in order to alleviate concerns about arbitrariness or bias, many experts have moved towards standardized evaluation and decision processes. Yet rather than eliminating concerns of bias or arbitrariness, those unhappy with subsequent outcomes simply argue that the standard itself is arbitrary. In the event that systematic variance emerges or persists, they argue that the standard itself is biased (consider the current debate over standardized tests, for instance) or that the standard is being enforced in a biased way. Hence, the perceived illegitimacy of the judgements persists – and on the same grounds (perceived arbitrariness and bias). Meanwhile, the scope of expert judgment is reduced — after all, the point of these standards is to leave less room for individual discernment. This can create other negative unintended consequences, as decision-makers are left with less flexibility to respond to novel or mitigating circumstances, leading to further distrust of experts and expertise.
On and on. Apparent challenges to experts often serve to strengthen their position in the end. Meanwhile, many measures taken to mitigate the crisis of expertise instead exacerbate it.
Going back at least to Weber it has been an ideal that science should be separate from politics: scientists can help answer questions about means, while the political process answers questions about ends. Eyal argues that ends and means are not so separable in practice.
Questions like “what shall we do?” or “how shall we live?” are ultimately values questions, not scientific questions. However, scientific findings have a number of implications for how such questions are answered. ‘Acceptable risk,’ for instance, is intrinsically value-laden. What is the appropriate balance between promoting profit/ prosperity and physical safety/ well-being – especially given that it is often different groups of people who are making most of the profits v. incurring most of the risks? “Science” cannot provide a just distribution, nor answer whether any proposed distribution is morally right or wrong. These are fundamentally ethical and political questions. Yet experts are regularly called upon to gauge “acceptable risk” levels – that is, scientists are called upon to provide answers to trans-scientific questions.
Experts are also regularly called upon to provide estimates for things they could not possibly know – to speak beyond the (current) capacities of “science.” Take, for instance, the risk of a chemical causing cancer. One cannot answer this simply by looking at effects on animals in a lab: often mice and other animals react differently to various compounds than humans. Yet it is not possible to test possible carcinogens on humans. Moreover, austere laboratory conditions are nothing like real life. Lab experiments cannot meaningfully speak to interaction effects with the various other things people are exposed to in “real world” environments and in their daily lives, nor the cumulative effects of these over time. It often takes years for such outcomes to become clear, if at all. Put simply, then, scientists don’t really know what the “real world” effects will be for many compounds that they are called upon to evaluate – nor could they, prior to people beginning actually to use them en masse. Yet experts are routinely called upon to declare things “safe” or “unsafe.”
This is the norm, not the exception. Typically we don’t have the necessary data to answer questions put to experts — nor can we wait for perfect or complete data. Decisions must be made. Expertise, Eyal says, is our name for this realm of trans-science — where questions are asked that should be asked, which must be wrestled with, which are put in scientific terms but cannot be answered by science (yet, if at all). The function of experts, according to Eyal, is to impose some kind of discipline and order into public debates on these questions – allowing discussions to reach provisional and partial conclusions such that decisions can be made and actions can be taken. They help instill confidence and build consensus; they foster a sense of legitimacy around evaluations (and any subsequent interventions) and the processes through which they were reached.
Ultimately, then, the crisis of expertise is not about “science” or opposition thereto. It is about the (in)ability of experts to effectively fulfill their social role – that is, to perform the trans-scientific work of bringing debates to actionable stopping-points, or generating confidence, consensus or a sense of legitimacy around subsequent decisions.
THE CRISIS OF HIGHER ED
Using these concepts, we gain a new understanding of the polarization around colleges and universities. One thing that immediately becomes clear in the NSF data, for instance, is that Americans – to include Republicans – value education. The criticism is that researchers, teachers, and institutions of higher learning are not living up their promise — are not adequately fulfilling their social duties. However, this entails a recognition of the importance of these institutions and the role they are supposed to serve.
In this, too, there is bipartisan agreement: most Americans believe that higher ed is “headed in the wrong direction.” The main source of contention between partisans is in how these institutions are coming up short. Across the board, respondents are concerned about the cost of tuition and the extent to which colleges are adequately preparing students to succeed in the “real world.” Yet Republicans are also deeply concerned about students being “coddled” and “indoctrinated” — so much so that many have come to think colleges are having a net negative effect on “the way things are going in the country.”
Note, again, that the objection on the right is not against higher education per se. Rather, the concern is that colleges and universities may be exacerbating America’s civic and political dysfunction. Of course, this very concern suggests that higher ed institutions could play the opposite role as well. Indeed, up until recently, most on the right believed that colleges and universities were doing exactly that (as the above graph shows).
Higher ed polarization, therefore, is not about a rejection of science, learning, or expertise on the part of the right. It is precisely because experts are recognized as so important that there is such a vehement struggle over the institutions that produce them. The fundamental issues that animate the crisis around colleges and universities include:
- Who is included in these institutions, and who is excluded? (i.e. rural, lower-SES, conservative, religious, black and Hispanic students are all significantly underrepresented – among faculty, staff and students – and these trends have grown increasingly pronounced in recent years)
- On what grounds people are selected to be included or excluded? (In the case of admissions, for instance: to what extent people should be chosen on merit, however defined, relative to alternative priorities such as increasing diversity, building intergenerational communities among alumni and their children, or including wealthier students whose families can pay full tuition and make large donations?)
- How are future experts being trained? Are they given the right skills and knowledge to effectively secure and perform their jobs “in the world?” Are students leaving universities with a deeper understanding and appreciation of different ways of understanding phenomena — or are they being enculturated into a particular worldview at the expense of other ways of seeing the world?
- To what extent are – or should – universities be informed by, and inform, broader social and political trends? In what ways?
In short, the issues that undergird the crisis of higher ed seem to largely mirror those animating the broader crisis of expertise. Indeed, the two are deeply interrelated:
“For the rational authority of experts to be recognized, citizens need to be educated. Yet to be educated, they first have to recognize the authority of the educators. And once they are educated, they no longer accept ‘appeals to authority’ and they criticize the experts” (p. 83).
What is to be done? While pursuing more ideological diversity may be valuable for improving the quality of research and pedagogy, and may be important on democratic grounds (given a large portion of the population is currently more-or-less excluded from higher education and elite decision-making) — Eyal believes this would do little to ameliorate the crisis of expertise. It may even exacerbate it:
“The institutionalization of partisanship can work as a mechanism for producing legitimacy only if the battle is joined before an authority (judge and jury) that is able to ratify the result… With Solomon absent, modeling trans-science upon institutionalized partisanship is a recipe for polarization, discord, and paralysis” (p. 149).
What is most needed at this moment, he argues, is for everyone to better acknowledge and reckon with inconvenient facts. I’ll leave this as the last word:
“I did not write this book to offer a solution to the crisis of expertise. I do not have one… when it comes to public, political debate, the main contribution of such work cannot be to offer solutions, or to tell people what they ought to do, but… to force different sides to recognize inconvenient facts – I mean, facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions… the mission can succeed only if the teaching is applied to the teacher herself. You teach students (or fellow experts, or civil servants, or the lay public) how to recognize inconvenient facts by recognizing them yourself, recognizing and grappling with precisely those facts that are inconvenient for your party opinion. Yet, if one manages to make even a small contribution towards developing in others the faculty of recognizing, acknowledging, even seeking out the inconvenient facts, then it may be reckoned as nothing less than a ‘moral achievement’” (p. 142).
Eyal, Gil (2019). The Crisis of Expertise. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.