In Experts We Trust? Finance & Development, September 2017, Vol. 54, No. 3
As access to information burgeons, experts are more crucial than ever
“Why did nobody notice it?” Queen Elizabeth II famously asked the faculty at the London School of Economics in November 2008, just after the financial crisis erupted.
Almost a decade later, people are asking experts the same question following the unforeseen events of 2016—including the UK vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. Confidence in economists, pollsters, and experts in general has been shaken.
Not only are experts seen as having gotten it wrong, their monopoly on opinion has been weakened by technology. Social media and the Internet make information widely available without experts’ input, news is targeted to individual interests and preferences, and people increasingly choose whom to follow and trust.
What have they done for us?Recall Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which a group called the People’s Front of Judea organizes a rebellion against the Roman Empire. The rebels work themselves into a frenzy culminating in a shout from their leader, Reg: “What have they [the Romans] ever given us?” After a pause, one of the rank and file gingerly points out that the local aqueduct has been useful. Then others one by one mention additional helpful Roman innovations until finally Reg must restate his question: “Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?!”
We all need experts. They have helped tackle disease, reduce poverty, and improve human welfare. People live about 20 years longer than they did in 1950 thanks to cleaner water and better sanitation and health care. Average world incomes are more than 20 times higher thanks to better economic policies, particularly in developing economies. To build on this progress, we need reliable experts who command public confidence.
But experts today don’t have their old monopoly on authority. Technology gives people access to more information, changes how they get it, and affects how they form opinions. According to a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, half of people with access to the Internet get their news from social media—double the number since 2013 in the United States.
The digitization of knowledge and...