Our democracy is built on trusting people who know more than we do

Why do some people actively distrust experts?

“Americans have reached a point where ignorance—at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy—is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong” (Tom Nichols, “How America Lost Faith in Expertise: And Why That’s a Giant Problem,” March/April 2017 Foreign Affairs).

That distrust of experts in regard to public policy can lead to the destruction of our democracy. In that scenario, the electorate will choose to listen to whomever promises them the most. Long-term consequences be dammed.

No one can be an expert on every topic. People specialize in medicine, law, education, theology, or science. We go to these experts because they have studied these fields extensively. They know what we don’t. That’s how society should be structured. As our culture has developed into higher and higher levels of complexity, technology and knowledge, we need the experts more and more to function. But these intellectuals are now “resented because [they are] needed too much,” according to Nichols.

One example of this distrust of experts is demonstrated among highly-educated parents who have refused to get their children vaccinated. They believe they know enough to challenge medical science. This was true in our state, so much so that the Legislature in May of this year passed a law removing the personal and philosophical exceptions requiring children to get the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccinations in order to be legally enrolled in public school and childcare facilities. So many children had exemptions that an measles epidemic broke out.

While experts in their fields may sometimes be wrong, they know more than the average person about what they studied extensively. Professional standards may prevent competition in certain fields, but those standards also protect the public from charlatans and amateurs. You can tell a true expert from a fraud if he/she can admit they may be wrong. No one knows everything there is to know about any field, but some people revel in searching out the experts’ errors to disregard what they dislike so they can believe what they want.

There is a phenomena of human nature called the “Dunning-Kruger effect” discovered by research psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. This is where the least informed person in the room lectures the rest with “a cascade of banalities and misinformation. The less skilled or competent you are, the more confident you are that you are very good at what you do.” Their ignorance and arrogance rob them of the ability to recognize the error in their thinking. If they are in doubt, they make things up. It’s very difficult educate and to inform such people.

The way to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect comes from self-awareness of your own limitations. The more you know, the more you realize you know very little, no matter how expert you may be.

In all human endeavors, we humans search out information that agrees with what we already believe. This is called confirmation bias. The only way we can avoid this tendency is to search out people who can poke holes in our thinking. We have difficulty doing this because no one likes to be wrong. That’s why scientists and researchers subject their thinking to peer-review. These reviews by colleagues in a field are usually invisible to laypeople because they are done before a product is produced or a paper is published.

Conspiracy theories abound because some people have a hard time making sense of a complicated world. They are looking for simple answers to complex explanations. Terrible things happen to innocent people all the time. Accepting that these occurrences are the result of chance or random cruelty is too hard to comprehend or bear for many. Any expert who tries to explain them becomes part of the conspiracy.

Because of the rise of the Internet, people can avoid experts and come up with information that seems to answer their questions with a limitless supply of facts—or supposed facts. Many people don’t possess the training or the knowledge to discern reliable sources from propaganda.

In a democracy, an expert’s advice is part of the social contract between the people and the government. The relationship between experts and citizens rests on a foundation of trust. When that trust is destroyed, democracy itself is threatened. That is the state of our nation at this time. Learning how to discern fact from fantasy can help preserve our democracy.