The former Education Secretary Michael Gove raised some serious questions (and eyebrows) after he said that “people in this country have had enough of experts” telling them what to do. Despite Gove’s expressed dislike of experts, it turns out we do actually need them, particularly in helping people to understand difficult and complicated topics – just like the EU referendum.
The decision to leave the European Union went against the opinion expressed by the vast majority of “experts” – with most members of parliament, trade unions, industry and academia supporting the remain campaign. In the interest of balance, both “remain” and “leave” camps were represented in the media coverage of the referendum. But whether this was really the right decision, remains under question.
Fact checking and reliance on experts are core principles of good professional journalism. But there is another core principle in journalism, which is balance. A good journalist should provide a wide range of views and give voice to different positions on a contentious issue to allow people to have access to all the necessary information, enabling them to make up their own minds. So if two experts disagree on an issue, following the rule of balance, both positions should be equally represented in the news.
And yet, research on climate change shows the impact and damage giving a voice to a minority viewpoint can really do, and how it can result in “false balance”. While it might not seem that climate change, and the EU referendum have a whole lot in common, the fact of the matter is that both are complicated topics, which required people to make clear political choices, either in support of, or against, action. And in both cases, the vast majority of non experts gained their understanding of each subject through media commentary and analysis.
Much of the media coverage concerning the scientific debate on climate change revolves around whether or not the variations observed in climate were due to human activities, and were man-made. Just as in the EU referendum, the vast majority of scientists fall on one side of the debate – agreeing that climate change is the result of human activities – with only a small minority of scientists disagreeing with this position.
However, research has shown how in the US, a significant proportion of the media coverage on climate change offered a “balanced” view of man-made climate change – which, it could be said, led to a distortion of the existing consensus. In other words, by trying to represent all voices in the debate and trying to be fair, journalists ended up misrepresenting the reality and giving the impression that the consensus in the community is not as strong as it actually is.
Our research also shows how the coverage of climate change in the British press has been at times littered with religious metaphors. Scientists who argued for the need to act on climate change were called high priests, and environmentalists were likened to religious fundamentalists. Meanwhile, the negative consequences of climate change have been identified as the “apocalypse”. All of which undermines the scientific basis of climate change, and instead presents it as a religion, rather than an objective phenomenon. This leads to the feeling that people are free to “believe in it or not”.
This emotionally charged language also characterised the EU referendum campaign coverage, with Boris Johnson calling the Remain campaign “project fear” and the Remain campaigners accusing Leave of racism and scaremongering against immigrants.
The future of experts
As readers, we are bombarded by contrasting “expert” opinions all the time, and we don’t always have the tools to evaluate such evidence. The internet provides us with an arsenal of “studies” we can use to confirm our preexisting attitudes and beliefs, and it is easy for us completely to ignore evidence we do not agree with once we see science as a matter of belief rather than a process in pursuit of knowledge.
This is not to say that scientific knowledge represents the “truth”, but there are different “rules of engagement” in scientific and political arguments. While politics is about winning a debate or showing one is right, best practice in science strives for the opposite. We start from the assumption that we are wrong. We try to debunk our own theories and positions, and we embrace criticism.
In the current environment, scientists and academics are faced with a difficult choice: on the one hand, there is an increasing pressure, and a genuine desire from many, to put their knowledge at the service of wider society and engage with the media. On the other hand, there are fundamental tensions between political, media and scientific norms of communication.
As academics, it becomes important to be aware of such tensions when engaging in dialogue with journalists – a lot of whom would benefit from some basic training in the issues connected with the representation of science. This is because while scientists have an important contribution to the general debate on social and political issues, we are not here to necessarily propose solutions. Instead we aim to challenge the claims being made. This, of course, sometimes means challenging our own beliefs and learning to deal with doubt and uncertainty on a daily basis.
The media and politicians often require us to provide quick yes or no answers, which are often unrealistic. Instead, I believe scientists’ unique contribution could be to actually lead the way in reconstructing how issues are talked about and debated, and raise the key, uncomfortable questions that no one else will ask.