Values, Voting, and Expertise

By Katherine Hawley (in Psychology Today 2016)

Who cares what experts say?  Almost by definition, an expert is someone who has plenty to offer us: facts, information and insights that can help us find our way through life.  So what’s not to like?

Sometimes we resist what ‘experts’ tell us because it can be difficult to tell whether a so-called expert is the real deal.  In fact, the less we know about some area, the harder it can be to tell the difference between a genuine source of information and a charlatan.  That’s one reason we look for professional accreditations, or testimonials – when all goes well our trust in these helps guide us towards trust or distrust in purported experts.

This process isn’t foolproof – accreditation systems can become corrupted, or over-focused on protecting the interests of a narrow group of professionals, rather than serving the public at large.  And testimonials are useful only insofar as they are honest, and written by people who are really in a position to judge what the ‘expert’ says and does.  I can’t tell great Brazilian food from mediocre mush, so a testimonial from me about Gabriel’s expertise in Brazilian cooking is worthless.  Still, we can often find our way to real experts when we ask widely.

In recent political debates on both sides of the Atlantic, anti-expert voices have risen louder and louder.  This isn’t just a matter of disagreement about whether some so-called expert is genuine.  It sounds like a rejection of even genuine expertise.

For example, voters in Britain have been deciding whether to vote to remain inside the European Union, or whether to exit (aka ‘Brexit’).  There are good and bad arguments – and heartfelt emotions – on both sides of this debate.  But it is striking that many economists and scientists have spoken out against Brexit – 5000 scientists signed an anti-Brexit letter to the London Times, whilst ten Nobel-prize-winning economists wrote a similar letter to the Guardian newspaper.

In response, pro-Brexit campaigners have rejected the very idea that voters should listen to experts when making up their minds.  Not because they’re not really experts, but because this isn’t a matter for expert judgement.  And there is something very appealing about the idea that we all need to make our own choices about how to vote.  But why would we want to ignore expert opinion when making such a far-reaching decision?

To unravel this political conundrum, it helps to think about the limitations of expert advice in our own personal lives, especially where values are at stake. When we are trying to make tricky moral choices – Should I stop eating meat? How much should I give to charity? Should I quit my job to care for my elderly parents? – we may look for factual information online, perhaps seek medical or financial professional advice, and talk things over with friends and family.

But in the end we have to weigh up all that information and decide for ourselves what to do. It’s part of being an adult that we make our own life decisions, trying to implement our own values, rather than blindly following directions from others, no matter how much we trust them.

Likewise, participating in society by going out to vote is part of being an adult in countries where we are privileged to have that freedom.  And it’s true that we shouldn’t just devolve this decision to experts, voting as we are told to vote, no matter how much we trust those experts.  In the British-European referendum, there are no experts who can tell us how to weigh up the competing values of cultural openness, tradition, economic growth, integration, independence, security, opportunity, localism, and global power.  Voters have the right and duty to think this through for themselves.

Despite this, there is a clear place for expert opinion in a democracy – we may all have personal patterns of value, but if we are to understand how those values can be realised in the world, it helps to take on board the views of those who have spent a lifetime investigating these matters.

Listen to the experts carefully, then make up your own mind.  And whatever the issue, whatever you decide, don’t forget to vote!

Find out more: chapter 6 of Trust A Very Short Introduction has more discussion of expertise and trust.