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We need to think urgently about how we might restore trust in expertise.
Mistrust of expertise and authority has been a feature of pandemics in the past, but it can also be spurred by divisive politics. We were already talking about the problem years before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In a book based on his “report on knowledge” for a group of universities in the 1970s, Jean-François Lyotard connected interdisciplinarity to “the age of delegitimation and its hurried empiricism,” reducing academic work to short-term outputs.
Once academic work is just outputs, what happens when those outputs are questioned—evidence, expertise, even basic facts? George Orwell argued in various texts in the 1940s that delegitimating knowledge and expertise can be a political strategy: “Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”
Back in the 1990s, if not earlier, observers of online culture invoked the “signal-to-noise ratio” to discuss the growing anger and falsehoods online. The Age of Delegitimation is now the Age of Noise. In today’s jargon, we don’t discuss ideas—we amplify or mute them. Instead of listening, we shout louder.
Lyotard’s translators use the word “noise” to refer to the difficulty of understanding another discipline. We can counter the Age of Noise the same way we develop interdisciplinarity as practice rather than output—by being better listeners. In 1960, in another era known for polarization, disinformation and mistrust of academics, biologist Ludwik Fleck wrote an essay on the “Crisis in Science” calling for a “closer” “relation between science and the humanities” and “a critical resistance to propaganda.”
Individual acts of listening can help us bridge the gulfs that seem to divide our disciplines and get us over the walls that would exclude knowledge systems, such as those of Indigenous peoples around the world. Quiet acts of legitimation, recognizing knowledge even if we don’t understand it, are needed against the cacophony of delegitimating noise. If we are to rebuild trust in expertise, we must work on trusting expertise ourselves.
When unfounded, cries of “Big Pharma” against medical expertise are delegitimating noise. Representations of critical thinking and historical context as indoctrination are delegitimating noise. Using journal impact factors and other coarse metrics to assess the worth of research can also be delegitimating noise. A research claim can be popular and influential but wrong, as we’ve often seen. A research claim that only a few experts know about can be correct.
Peer review and academic consensus are not perfect, but at least they’re run by experts. We delegitimate academic expertise if we allow metrics that are not peer reviewed and have been widely critiqued. Our processes must keep improving, but we must not accede to the claim that expertise is insufficient to assess academic merit. Again, if we are to rebuild trust in expertise, we must work on trusting expertise ourselves.
Open access, knowledge mobilization and science communication seek to show that academic work has practical value, but mistrust has still grown. Perhaps we should be saying more about a different kind of value—the ethical values we follow.
Over the last half century, academics have been formalizing the values that govern what we do every day. This work can seem bureaucratic, but its aim is legitimacy. Research ethics, scholarly integrity, disclosures of competing interests, tenure and promotion regulations—these are some of the policies and practices that enshrine accountability, transparency and rigor, as well as respect, care and responsibility toward those with whom we interact.
In a policy briefing on better ensuring that expert advice reaches the public and that experts are safe when they do it, my colleagues and I argued for the importance of communicating these values. Explain that a peer-reviewed article in a scholarly journal is not “opinion.” Tell people that tenure is not an easy process, and it exists to protect the integrity of academic work. Institutions could also better embody these values by being both more selective about what is ready and useful for wider communication and more supportive of the scholars who do that work.
But academic values must be reassessed and revised to remain relevant in a changing world. As in our disciplines, we must keep learning from our mistakes and omissions, too. We should be evaluating our policies and practices for their effectiveness in the emergency phase of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Were research misconduct and ethics policies good enough, and were concerns dealt with effectively? Have we given enough thought to the conflicts that might arise in research conducted by those with related decision-making responsibilities in public health or health care? Occupational health and safety practices should be re-examined too, as well as gaps in collegial governance during emergency decision-making.
But these discussions must aim at better processes and structures. We must hold people and institutions to meaningful standards for the sake of academic credibility itself, not to find heroes or villains to splash across our screens for a few moments.
Without trusted expertise, there can be no effective evidence-informed check on political discourse, as Orwell feared. Without such a check on political discourse, and without expert analysis of decision-making and consequences, we will see more bad decisions, causing the further erosion of confidence in our public institutions as well as more substantial harms.
Lyotard associated 1970s interdisciplinarity with the “age of delegitimation and its hurried empiricism.” We can draw on a more robust interdisciplinarity that may not yield quick outputs but can help us reflect on our values and rebuild public trust. We need to think broadly and generatively about what is necessary at this historical moment to legitimate knowledge—and what it will mean if we don’t.