PR’s role in the decline in faith in experts

The loss of faith in expertise raises a very interesting question about the extent to which PR people share some of the blame for the situation. Of course this is not just a matter of PRs spruiking corporate and industry messages but also the messaging and tactics of campaigning groups, health organisations and others.

At some stage or other most PR people have employed an expert to opine on something or other. The most popular are economists who can be employed to dream up bizarrely unrealistic employment numbers, as with the Adani mine project, even when the figures differ from the company’s own statements under oath in court. As the blog has remarked before, if every assertion about the multiplier effect made by hired economic experts was correct, the Australian economy would be bigger than Germany’s.

However, one economist the blog once employed was remarkably honest about a conclusion. He pointed out that every person who died young from smoking, drinking and assorted similar causes actually saved the health budget money. The client never used the report but it is significant that these days we talk more about quality life years and other standards rather than just calculating costs from birth to death irregardless.

Once the standard technique with experts was to sign up a male with a doctorate or a professorship – although without the white coats advertising agencies always wanted – but this too became clichéd and the hunt was soon on for credible female experts who were deemed to be more effective.

Meanwhile the ‘good’ guy PRs were always talking about the last vestige of untouched wilderness until indigenous Australians pointed out they had been managing the land for 60,000 years. And the health thought police announced weekly some new threat which would cost us billions (although there are in fact many of them which are legitimately a major problem) and kill thousands while the public became tired and confused by all the claims and largely gave up.

The end result – what Tom Nichols (Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College) has called the death of expertise. His book of that name was published by OUP this year. Outlining his thesis in the March/April 2017 edition of Foreign Affairs he brings out some astounding findings.

First, after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 a poll found Americans had strong views on the subject. Although only one in six could identify Ukraine on a map “the respondents favoured intervention in direct proportion to their ignorance.” Those who thought the Ukraine was located in Australia “were the most enthusiastic about using military force there.”

Second, Public Policy Polling asked whether Americans would support bombing Agrabah. A third of Republicans did while only 13 % opposed; for Democrats 36% opposed and 19% were in favour. For readers not familiar with popular culture – Agrabah doesn’t exist and is actually a country in the Disney film Aladdin.

Conspiracy theories, confirmation bias and subjective views of the world combine so that “what we believe says something about how we see ourselves, making disconfirmation of such beliefs a wrenching process that our minds stubbornly resist,” Nichols says.

The key part of the problem is what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect which describes the problem that some people think they are experts when they’re not. Nichols describes it thus: “the essence of the effect is that the less skilled or competent you are, the more confident you are that you’re actually very good at what you do.” This may soon be known as Dunning-Kruger-Trump effect. Dunning-Kruger describe it as: “Not only do (such people) reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realise it.” Whether this is correlated with a deeply narcissistic personality, as with Trump, is another question.

Normal (whatever that means) people also have problems and tend to rate themselves better than average – the Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon town where all children are above average is an example Nichols cites. It’s worse with the less competent. Dunning and Kruger find people who don’t know much at all “grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety (not that much of a problem in Australia thankfully), debating or financial knowledge.” This last is the reason why neo-liberal governments proclaim the virtues of choice at the urging of banks and financial advisors which have ripped off some many. In this context, the PR industry is always giving awards, perhaps they should give an award for the least convincing argument by a financial institution as to why it has ripped off its customers and has really, deeply truly changed its ways.

There is hope though, Nichols says, in a quality called ‘metacognition’ which is the ability to step back and “see our own cognitive processes in perspective. Good singers know when they hit a sour note, good directors know when a play isn’t working (irrespective of what a luvvie tells them on a backstage visit the blog would add), and intellectually self-aware people know when they’re out of their depth.”

Meanwhile, unfortunately, such people are not making many of the decisions which impact on the rest of us and instead it’s another lot altogether. This reality is also not new as the profoundly wise Mark Twain wrote more than a century ago: “The trouble with folks is not what they don’t know, but what they know that ain’t so.”

The dichotomy between ‘metacognition’ and Twain is also encapsulated in The Economists’ recent discussion (8 April 2017) of the change in China from the Mao days (those heavily supported by Keith Windschuttle) to the days of Deng. Mao, The Economist said “distinguished between ‘reds’ (good Communists) and ‘experts’ (people who knew what they were talking about)…. Mao said he wanted reds. Deng put more faith in experts.” As Trotsky, Castro and others have said: history will judge who was right.