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Last modified: 28 September 2017

Experts got it wrong.

Climate change, Brexit, Trump, fake news, anti-vaccine campaigns — it can feel like people are turning away from experts everywhere in the English-speaking world. And as the new reality settles in, the experts are fighting back. They’re writing books, giving talks, and doing interviews as quickly as they can.

Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, writes James Ball. Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, by Matthew d’Ancona. A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World, says Julian Baggini. Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It, writes Evan Davis.

You can do your own search for post-truth on Amazon for more books, on iTunes podcast for more podcast, or on YouTube for more talks. If you’re in London you could probably attend one seminar or debate on the subject every week. Or you could just switch on the TV or the radio, and you’ll get more.

I wouldn’t recommend it. All of what I’ve managed to consume has been very similar. The TLDR is that the experts were right, but their solutions were complex. New media made simple lies easier to spread, and people preferred that. To solve it all, the experts need to invent new controls on quality and combine that with telling their stories better. It’s all a communications problem.

I agree with a lot of this, I loved Tim Harford’s similar summary of the situation, it’s the best thing I’ve watched trying to understand this. But I think that these experts are missing something huge. There’s another angle to the rejection of experts that’s even more important. We can’t fix this problem if we can’t see it.

The experts got lazy.

Experts and the institutions that they had inherited weren’t ready for a new era of transparency that came with the world-wide web being available to everyone at every moment. When that transparency came, the mistakes that they’d been accumulating for decades became obvious. For many people, there were very good reasons for rejecting experts. The experts had long been irrelevant to their lives, unaware of their problems, and uninterested in informing them.

I have lots more examples, but the core of the argument is always the same. It has long been hard for the people of England to feel any attachment to our experts. They live in London and share their expertise with the rest of us, unaware of how poorly it relates to our lives, and largely uninterested in our responses. There is no better example than BBC’s Question Time which every week sends politicians and personalities from London to the provinces to speak to the people, without ever placing the people’s local representatives on the panel to discuss national issues.

The exception to this rule is in Scotland. Instead of rejecting experts, Scotland has developed its own experts and retained its own expert institutions. Scotland has long demanded that those experts are given time in the UK's media and in the UK's public debates, including Question Time. It is no coincidence that Scotland has proven itself more immune to this wave of "post-truth". It voted with the majority of experts in remaining part of the UK. It voted with the majority of experts in remaining part of the EU.

Many in Scotland are still convinced by simple lies, people always have been. But protected by the presence of relevant experts, the number remains lower than in most of England.

What to do.

I do not want to blame individuals too much. Within the system they are acting rationally. We should hate the game and not the players. But at some point, especially for those in senior roles, the game becomes their responsibility.

There are experts who have bucked the trend. Often at considerable personal cost, they have pushed to make their expertise and their fields more relevant to the whole country. I respect them enormously for that, even if I do not agree with them. But they are too few, and too weakly rewarded for their efforts.

The bulk of experts have hidden away in their institutions in London, detached from their nation. As they write their books and record their podcasts on how communication is the reason why post-truth has reared its head, I think that they are missing the bigger picture.

This divide in our nation cannot be fixed from a distance. This nation cannot be united by letter and edict. That hard work will have to be done on the ground, by talented and motivated experts. They cannot all be in London. Resign or move.

 

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