Why we no longer trust the experts

Gillian Tett in the Financial Times: “Last week, I decided to take a gaggle of kids for an end-of-school-year lunch in a New York neighbourhood that I did not know well. I duly began looking for a suitable restaurant. A decade ago, I would have done that by turning to a restaurant guide. In the world I grew up in, it was normal to seek advice from the “experts”.

But in Manhattan last week, it did not occur to me to consult Fodor’s. Instead, I typed what I needed into my cellphone, scrolled through a long list of online restaurant recommendations, including comments from people who had eaten in them — and picked one.

Yes, it was a leap of faith; those restaurant reviews might have been fake. But there were enough voices for me to feel able to trust the wisdom of the cyber crowds — and, as it happened, our lunch choice was very good.

This is a trivial example of a much bigger change that is under way, and one that has some thought-provoking implications in the wake of the Brexit vote. Before the referendum, British citizens were subjected to a blitz of advice about the potential costs of Brexit from “experts”: economists, central bankers, the International Monetary Fund and world leaders, among others. Indeed, the central strategy of the government (and other “Remainers”) appeared to revolve around wheeling out these experts, with their solemn speeches and statistics….

I suspect that it indicates something else: that citizens of the cyber world no longer have much faith in anything that experts say, not just in the political sphere but in numerous others too. At a time when we increasingly rely on crowd-sourced advice rather than official experts to choose a restaurant, healthcare and holidays, it seems strange to expect voters to listen to official experts when it comes to politics.

In our everyday lives, we are moving from a system based around vertical axes of trust, where we trust people who seem to have more authority than we do, to one predicated on horizontal axes of trust: we take advice from our peer group.

You can see this clearly if you look at the surveys conducted by groups such as the Pew Research Center. These show that faith in institutions such as the government, big business and the media has crumbled in recent years; indeed, almost the only institution in the US that has bucked the trend is the military.

What is even more interesting to look at, however, are the areas where trust remains high. In an annual survey conducted by the Edelman public relations firm, people in 20 countries are asked who they trust. They show rising confidence in the “a person like me” category, and surprisingly high trust in digital technology. We live in a world where we increasingly trust our Facebook friends and the Twitter crowd more than we do the IMF or the prime minister.

In some senses, this is good news. Relying on horizontal axes of trust should mean more democracy and empowerment for ordinary citizens. But the problem of this new world is that people can fall prey to social fads and tribalism — or groupthink…..

Either way, nobody is going to put this genie back into the bottle. So we all need to think about what creates the bonds of “trust” in today’s world. And recognise that the 20th-century model of politics, with its reverence for experts and fixed parties, may eventually seem as outdated as restaurant guides. We live in volatile time…(More)”