Expertise as Attribution – Towards a Solution to the Post-Fact World

The following is the text of a talk I gave at a symposium entitled The Politics of Expertise in Media and Cultural Research at Birmingham City University on the 30th November 2016. The references I used in constructing this text are available on request – reach me on Twitter @timsquirrell.

Expertise as Attribution

Tim Squirrell

PhD Candidate in Department of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies

University of Edinburgh

“I think people in this country have had enough of experts” – Michael Gove MP

“Experts, soothsayers, astrologers, are all in much the same category” – Jacob Rees Mogg MP

“Well, you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?” – Stewart Lee

A truly tremendous quantity of ink has been spilled over the past year over the problem of expertise. “Post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. The consensus seems to be that publics in Western liberal democracies have lost their trust in experts and expertise. The questions of when, why, and how this happened, and how the expert class can possibly hope to redeem itself are perpetually mooted in hand-wringing think-pieces in The Guardian and The Spectator alike.

In this talk, I’m going to do three things. First, I’ll problematise the existing, hidden consensus that experts just exist, and that it is our choice whether to listen to them or not. Second, I’ll propose an alternative view that conceptualises expertise as something which doesn’t exist a priori, but is attributed by particular audiences to particular individuals, groups and institutions in order to solve particular problems. Third, I’ll show why, far from being a simple redefinition which makes no practical difference, there are some specific advantages of taking this viewpoint, centring around (i) the way we ask those who would claim expert status to present themselves, and (ii) our ability to dismiss specific actors, rather than the concept of expertise as a whole.

The question that nobody seems to be asking is “What do we mean by ‘experts’?”. It’s taken as a given that when we say the word ‘expert’, we know of whom we speak: late middle-aged white men in suits and glasses, staring out at us from a television screen, speaking on behalf of a university, or an organisation with some acronym nobody can remember. IFS, IEA, ECB, CPS: they might as well all work for the same company, for all the scrutiny we give their credentials. We can identify who counts as an expert a priori: they speak for established institutions, they have qualifications and credentials and letters after their names, and they have experience to back up their authoritative-sounding words.

There are a couple of major issues with this. First, it allows individuals (and whole communities) to dismiss the entirety of what has come to be known as the “expert class”, without having to engage with their statements or arguments. When these experts make predictions about the economy, or elections, or the climate, they inherently stake (to some degree) their reputation on the veracity of their predictions. The problem is, if we link all experts together, when someone (or a group of people – say, psephologists) gets something wrong, then they harm not just their own reputation but the reputation of everyone linked to them through the label ‘expert’. When we bind people together with a particular label, we allow other people to use that label to have blanket beliefs about that whole group (experts) rather than making decisions about smaller, more appropriate, sub-divisions (psephologists, or Nate Silver, or the Huffington Post pollsters).

Second, it facilitates the complacency of the aforementioned expert class. If they speak, and nobody listens, they can throw up their hands and say, “Well, we gave them the facts and they refused to accept them. We can’t help it if the public are stupid and mistrustful.” There’s nothing they could have done to foresee this, and now that the epistemic gates are open and the horse of trust has bolted, there’s very little they can do to steer that horse back into the stable and regain the confidence of the public. Clearly, the solution is simply to end democracy and delegate all authority to the expert class, because the people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions when presented with the objective facts.

These problems alone should probably give us serious pause: is this view productive? Is it something we want to keep with us in this brave new post-fact world? When combined with some of the more conceptual issues I’m going to outline as we go on, I’m convinced we should wholeheartedly reject the view of expertise which says “these are the experts, believe them or not”.

“But what, pray, is the alternative?” I hear you cry, “We can’t allow just anyone to call themselves an expert. That way charlatanism lies!” Well, little strawman that I just made up, you’re halfway there. The alternative is as follows.

We could, if we so chose, decide to carve up the word conceptually and acquire knowledge purely through the mediation of our own senses. But our senses are unreliable, and there’s not enough time or money to allow us to imbibe the knowledge of every discipline under the sun. So for most of us, most of the time, we delegate our epistemic authority to others: we allow them to tell us what’s true, and we decide how to act upon it. As children we listen to parents and teachers; as adults we read news publications and books, listen to particular individuals we find compelling or inspiring, heed the advice of our doctors regarding our health, and broadly take for granted that we aren’t being lied to or misled.

There are certain ways in which we try to tell the difference between those experts we ought to trust and those who are incompetent, misleading or just plain wrong. We can examine how they argue: how well do they present their arguments, are they quick to produce defeaters or counter-defeaters for the arguments of others? We can look at their track record of making good predictions, we can try to examine any potential biases or vested interests they might have, we can scrutinise their credentials, or we can look at how many other putative experts agree with them.

There are numerous problems with each of these metrics which render it very difficult to tell between ‘good’ experts and ‘bad’ experts. Often those who know the most aren’t necessarily the best at arguing their side of a debate (a problem I will attempt to solve with my view later on). Moreover, it is almost impossible for us to assess the claims of experts on a technical basis, because the very reason we are listening to them is that the knowledge they are articulating is esoteric and epistemically inaccessible. Similarly, what makes a “good prediction” is up for debate, so track records are difficult to assess. Most individuals in a given industry or field likely have some biasing factors behind the things they are saying, because nobody is objective and anyone who says otherwise is lying or deluded. Finally, if we’re relying on the agreement of other potential experts, then we just defer the problem of identifying “good experts” one step down the line.

Most of our actions, then, rely upon trust in others. When we decide to believe what someone says, we don’t usually do so based on pure logical reasoning. Instead, we listen to them based on a function of whether we trust them (qua friend, or parent, or expert, or politician) and whether what they are saying sounds intuitively plausible. Crucially, intuitive plausibility itself is contingent on our prior beliefs. If what someone is telling us conflicts with a deeply-held belief – they’re telling me the Earth is flat when I’ve been informed my entire life that it is round, for instance – then it’s unlikely I’m going to abandon my prior belief in favour of what they’re now telling me. That’s important, because it provides further fuel to the pyre of the realist view of expertise: if I have a prior disposition not to believe people we call ‘experts’, because I perceive them to have been mistaken before, then it’s unlikely that their telling me something is going to have a large positive impact upon my propensity to believe it.

Delegating our epistemic authority – our ability to carve up the world conceptually – is incredibly common. When we give that authority to a particular person, group, or institution, and we do so for the purpose of solving a particular problem or class of problems, I call those actors ‘experts’. We delegate our authority on matters astrophysical to astrophysicists; we listen to oncologists about cancer; we heed the words of the weather forecaster on meteorological matters. They are our experts on those things. Crucially, this means that they do not already have expert status, putting the burden upon individuals and communities to decide whether or not to validate that status. Rather, we grant them that status when they are able to provide information that is useful for the resolution of particular kinds of problems. Expertise doesn’t exist independent of an audience to grant the status of expert.

What are the implications of this? The little straw-man from earlier might say that now anyone can be an expert, and that this will only speed our civilisation’s inevitable decline into chaos. On the contrary, tiny straw-man. The realist view means that those we designate as experts are never required to learn how to communicate effectively: they’re told that all they have to do is say the facts, and the public will listen – and if they don’t, more fool them. When we switch to an attributionalist view, we are able to place the onus upon those who wish to be considered experts to step up their dialectical game. It’s no longer enough just to sit back on a throne made of credentials and qualifications. Charlatans, hustlers and liars will always be able to peddle nonsense smoothly. We have to trust that those who know what they are talking about will be able to engage with them and show why they are incorrect. We have to trust that, when presented with equal rhetorical skill, truth will be vivified by its collision with error.

Further, and I think potentially even more importantly, when we refuse to engage in a system which identifies and protects a particular “expert class”, we afford ourselves the ability to avoid future situations like the one in which we find ourselves today. By recognising that expertise is a status rather than a trait, we head off at the pass any attempts to tar all ‘experts’ with the same brush. Instead of fetishizing credentials as the sole means by which people can enter the expert class, we should allow anyone to call themselves an expert, and then to have that claim tested through argument. Instead of dismissing an entirely disparate group of people who happen to have been lumped together we enable ourselves to dismiss individuals who make bad judgements, or institutions which have a reputation for making bad calls.

This is incredibly freeing. An economist makes a bad forecast? Be hesitant about trusting them in future. All economists fail to predict and prevent some financial catastrophe? Be incredibly wary of them, unless particular individuals or institutions show themselves to be worthy of a second chance. The failures of pollsters shouldn’t be used to render untrustworthy the predictions of political pundits; likewise, the success of one technocratic elite shouldn’t be seen as validation for other, unrelated people who happen to have a few degrees under their belts.

Expertise as a concept has to endure, and for this it has to be flexible enough to allow audiences to attribute it where they see fit. If they choose some charlatan with the “best words” and clever one-liners, we have to be prepared to fight them (discursively, of course) with equal levels of rhetorical polish. But crucially, those who actually do have knowledge, or skill, or predictive or explanatory powers, should be able to win out against those who do not, provided that they too are good at arguing and presenting their ideas clearly and simply to those who are not familiar with their fields.

If we do all of this, then maybe those who know what they are talking about have a chance of coming back from this anti-intellectual, anti-expert moment we find ourselves in. But if we don’t, then we’re doomed to repeat the technocratic mistakes of the past. We shouldn’t ever again have to hear that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. I hope that we don’t.

Everything Wrong with the Media’s Reporting of Robin Williams’ Death

Nobody ever went broke by underestimating the depths to which the British tabloid press will sink for a story. They’ve long made a living out of making others miserable. Hounding grieving families, demonising minorities, doggedly pursuing juicy morsels of gossip and exposing celebrities’ innermost secrets through any means available are their bread and butter, and for some reason the public seem to be broadly okay with that.

That’s why it’s unlikely there will be a public outcry over the irresponsible and dangerous way in which Robin Williams’ suicide has been reported in the press. ‘TORTURED’, says the Daily Mirror. ‘HE WAS FACING BANKRUPTCY’, screams the Daily Mail. ‘ROBIN: HIS FINAL HOURS’, bellows The Sun. Sensationalising suicide and revealing minute details, taking all-too-obvious pleasure in laying bare the exact circumstances of his death. All in the public interest.

It’s obviously far too much to expect the media to respect the privacy of Williams’ grieving family and friends. That went out the window when the ABC decided to do aerial shots of his house – as if there were anything to see. In the public interest, you understand.

What we ought to worry about is the effect this kind of reporting will have on people who are already suffering from depression, who may already be considering suicide, who may have gotten close to trying it once or twice. There’s a proven link between reporting of a celebrity’s suicide and an increase in the suicide rate. No matter what the media does, it’s likely we’ll see an uptick in suicides for the next few weeks. Being optimistic, that will hopefully be offset by the huge surge in articles about mental health spurred by Robin Williams’ death. Hopefully. But it does mean that the media have to be incredibly careful to make sure that their coverage is as sensitive as possible, lest they nudge already vulnerable people towards the point where they make an attempt on their own lives.

To that effect, Samaritans have a set of guidelines for media outlets reporting on suicides, available by taking five seconds to google them. Here they are:

1. Think about the impact of the coverage on your audience – this means providing information on how to find help if individuals find the article distressing. I haven’t yet had a chance to read the inside of the papers concerned, but I’m willing to bet that one or more of them haven’t done this.

2. Exercise caution when referring to the methods and context of a suicide – in essence, don’t provide too much detail, particularly if the methods are easy to replicate. Sounds like it should be simple enough.

‘Hanged on bedroom chair, knife and blood by body’, says the Sun. ‘He went to bed alone, slashed wrists then hanged himself’, the front page of the Metro tells us.

3. Avoid over-simplification – don’t talk about simple triggers, like losing a job, or money troubles, as the ‘cause’ of suicide. It’s not that simple. But that’s fine, because the papers surely understand that suicide is a symptom of complex underlying problems.

‘Did money troubles tip comedy genius Robin Williams over the edge?’ asks the Mail, nodding suggestively at the reader. ‘Visit to AA before suicide’, says the Sun, winking.

4. Steer away from melodramatic depictions of suicide or its aftermath – fairly self-explanatory and easy to follow.

‘Haunting details of his final night’ – the Daily Mail.

‘Hanged on bedroom chair, knife and blood by body’ – The Sun.

‘Agony of his final hours revealed’ – the Metro.

5. Aim for sensitive, nonsensationalising coverage – I’m not even going to touch this one.

6. Consider carefully the placement and illustration of reports – make sure they’re not in a place which could unduly influence vulnerable people.

If you’re beginning to get the feeling that the staff of the Daily Mail, the Metro, the Sun and the Mirror have never even glanced at these guidelines, you’re not alone.

There’s no easy way to report on suicide, particularly when the victim is someone so well-known and well-loved. There’s a delicate balance to strike between informing the public and protecting the vulnerable. The problem is that these papers don’t seem to have given vulnerable people a single thought in their publication of stories which will likely lead to further, easily preventable, misery. Instead, they’ve sensationalised a tragedy in the most tasteless way possible. It’s sickening. As a member of the public, it’s certainly not in my interest.

If you’re angry too, and you don’t want this defended on the grounds that it’s in your interest, you can write to the PCC to complain here: http://www.pcc.org.uk/advice/editorials-detail.html?article=NTU4MQ%3D%3D