There is a spark of light in the current darkness. The magnitude and multifaceted effects of the Coronavirus pandemic have drawn attention to the need for evidence-based policy responses. Even some of the most reluctant political leaders are returning to experts and established knowledge to aid their decision making in this time of crisis. If experts are indeed back in from the cold and this not just a temporary anomaly, this is good news for democracy.
‘Britain has had enough of experts,’ British MP Michael Gove famously stated during the 2016 Brexit campaign. Distrust in experts was part of a growing global trend across policy areas from education and health to foreign policy and defence, amplified by the election of US President Donald Trump – a particularly visible critic of bringing in experts.
Trust had shifted from “authorities to peers” by 2005 and “a person like me” emerged as a credible spokesperson by 2006, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. In the years to follow, experts continued to lose credibility, failing to predict the 2008 financial crisis or the virulence of the political fallout that followed. In addition, experts seemed unable to communicate effectively with policy makers or ordinary citizens in an era of sound bites and viral visuals.
The dominance of social media further deepened the divide. Instead of creating a new knowledge era, academics lament the rise of “narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism”, stifling evidence-based policy debates. Citizens, bombarded with (dis)information from self-proclaimed experts, fake facts and false truths, have become ill-informed, cynical (at best) and angry (at worst) who reject “undemocratic elitism” but happily consume conspiracy theories.
Yet, it is scientific enquiry and the values upon which science rests that also happen to sustain democratic systems. Democracy prospers only when it encourages vigorous debate based on “reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty”. It is no coincidence that it is the most populist, often authoritarian, leaders who think they can do without expert input, relying, instead, purely on emotional appeal. But there is hope. Faced with an unprecedented global pandemic, even fact-resistant leaders are returning to experts. Both Britain and the US adopted much more stringent measures to stem the pandemic after a study by scholars from Imperial College, London, predicted 250,000 deaths in Britain, and more than 1 million deaths in the US, in the absence of decisive action. Policymakers around the globe quickly create forces of scientists, academics, and legal scholars tasked to come up with national policy options to address the crisis. After being discredited or dismissed as superfluous, epidemiologic expertshave become leading faces in the fight against the pandemic. The key question is whether experts are here to stay and if they will be brought into other policy discussions. This will depend on the general perception of the effectiveness of their policy advice. This is a daunting test at a time where the enormous social and economic consequences of the Coronavirus will undoubtedly need critical, evidence-based examination and innovative approaches to kick-start national economies and restore trust in our interdependent global system,
Adina Trunk is special adviser, International IdeDigital surveillance: Privacy, data ecosystem and effectiveness, and Bunse is adjunct faculty, Georgetown University, Washington DC, US). First published in the HINDUSTAN TIMES