There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether the public still trust experts. Whether it’s individual politicians saying that people have had enough of experts, or a rejection, in some circles, of the scientific consensus on issues such as climate change, vaccination, or evidence-based decision-making as a whole – not to mention the question of how so-called expert opinion and analysis can be presented and misrepresented – this does seem to be an issue of wide debate and concern at the minute.
At Wellcome, we are worried that this could have an impact on the wider environment for scientific research. But we don’t really know how big a problem this question of trust is right now, or what the specific issues might be. So we thought we’d ask, so that we could help to define these issues better and see what, if anything, we might be able to do to help.
We’ve been holding a debate on social media exploring the role of expertise in research, policy making and wider society. We’ve been asking a range of questions each day, with each conversation determining the next, trying to dig deeper into the issues that come up. We want to hear what researchers agree and disagree with – with all viewpoints welcome.
We’re thrilled that so many people are getting involved and sharing their views. In the first week we heard that:
1. Yes, many researchers feel there is real scepticism about 'experts' and a perceived lack of public trust. But thankfully not many feel this has affected them personally.
2. The meaning and use of the term ‘expert’ is relative, and the determining of who is an expert, and how, is vague and confusing.
3. Lots of people think the problems can stem from inaccurate or irresponsible headlines and journalism, but also social media that can allow anyone to proclaim themselves an expert.
4. Or politicians choosing and elevating experts to fit whatever position they want to support.
5. But many also feel it’s a long-standing problem of language and culture clash between science and the wider world.
In Week 2 we delved a bit deeper into these issues, concentrating on whether problems around experts and expertise stem from four sources: the media, government and politicians, the public and scientists. In Week 3 we looked at what might need to be done across these groups to overcome these issues and this week we’re looking at what, if anything Wellcome and others could or should do to help.