Is coffee good for you, or bad? How about wine? What is the latest on gluten–does anyone know? Warm-up exercises are either essential or a waste of time, and homeopathic remedies are either closer to nature or criminally dangerous. It seems as though we have been fed a steady diet of junk science along with our junk food, and most of us don’t know whom we can trust for useful information.
This is true not only of the science surrounding our daily diets but also of political science and economics. We have had too much conflicting information and we can’t figure out good from bad any more.
The recent stunning outcome of the Brexit vote has revealed all sorts of things that had been rumbling under the surface of British society; underemployment, overpopulation, difficulties in integrating immigrants, resentment of refugees, anger at the “banksters” who never went to jail, frustration with politicians, misleading information in the media, and on and on.
Many of those things have to do with fear, and the fears are not confined to the shores of the UK. North Americans are showing that they, too, are fearful and frustrated. This is evident in the rhetoric surrounding Donald Trump and his supporters, but it is equally so in the campaign of Bernie Sanders at the other end of the political scale.
They each provide us with many hours of speeches and interviews, as well as references to studies of various types, and the media then reduces it all to headlines and hype, which we swallow whole.
One consequence of this has been a sort of bafflement which, in turn, has led to a rejection of any kind of researched evidence. In a stunning display of willful ignorance, a British politician, Michael Gove, has swept all research aside by saying that the people have “had enough of experts.” The vote to leave the European Union indicates that more than half the British public agreed with him.
Some of the blame for this state of affairs must lie with the media, with click-bait online news articles, and with our rapidly diminishing attention spans. Even those of us who read a lot now prefer not to get our information in long complex and compound sentences. Just give us the bottom line, please and thank you.
The academic and scientific communities also have a cross to bear. The systems for professionals to keep their jobs through publication of articles in ever-increasing numbers of journals has led to lots of superficial and/or unsubstantiated papers. The reviewing of research by peers is fine when the system works well, but when the system fails, the general public has no way of knowing which reports are reliable. We only get a journalist’s summary of a topic that seems intriguing or controversial.
Michael Gove was only half right. The public has not had enough of experts, exactly. We have had enough of the media’s confusing exploitation of research by quasi-experts. When we get multiple conflicting analyses of any topic, we tune out. If I can find at least one expert to agree with me for every one that agrees with you, then it’s a draw. No-one is clearly right or wrong when we have experts on both sides, and the media has made an industry out of ensuring that this is how most debates are presented.
In the absence of clear evidence and advice, we have to go with our gut instincts, even if those instincts tell us that the world is flat, the sun revolves around the earth, and our nation will be stronger if we isolate ourselves.
Now you’ll have to excuse me while I go outside and do a rain dance. I want to do everything I can to help put out those wildfires.