‘Trusting Politicians, Trusting Experts’ by Baroness Onora O’Neill MAE

‘Trusting Politicians, Trusting Experts’ by Baroness Onora O’Neill MAE

There is a high level of trust in scientists and a low level of trust in politicians. How is working together likely to impact on levels of trust in scientists and politicians and the relationship between scientists and politicians? 

By Onora O’Neill

It is often said that the public no longer trusts politicians, and some worry that this mistrust will spread to scientists who have to work with politicians in addressing the pandemic. 

However, the evidence for this contamination of public trust in scientists is pretty limited. Levels of public trust in politicians have been low for decades (if not centuries), yet past occasions in which politicians and scientists collaborated have not undermined trust in science. Reported levels of public trust in scientists have been high and generally rising in the UK, and in some other countries, and most people remain keen to find the right experts whenever they need something complex done. And even if claims about declining trust in politicians had been true, they focus on the wrong issues.  What matters is to place and refuse trust intelligently, placing it in trustworthy people and institutions, and to assess who will reliably bring honesty and competence to their claims and their tasks. What matters to us even more is that we do not place trust in untrustworthy institutions or people.

As we battle with what (we hope) may be the later stages of the pandemic, and gear up for the economic struggles that lie ahead, it matters to take an intelligent approach to questions about trust and expertise. We need to focus not on trust but on trustworthiness, and on evidence for trustworthiness. It would be a fantasy —a damaging fantasy— to imagine that we can find out about trustworthiness by looking at the sorts of claims about levels of trust that so interest pollsters and parts of the media.

Indeed, it is worth wondering why a preoccupation with levels of trust, rather than of trustworthiness, has gained so much attention. I think it has mainly happened because discussions of trust matter intensely to campaigning organisations—be they businesses, advertisers or political parties seeking (re)election. In the digital age,  simple and cheap polling methods can be used to find out whom the public trust, and how much they trust them. This has proved lucrative for those who organise and market polling, who are commissioned by campaigning organisations. The information obtained by polling enables campaigning organisations to assess their prospects, to ‘refine’ their messages, to avoid unpalatable truths and to target the most promising demographics. However, campaigning organisations can ignore the more difficult (and more important) matter of finding or assessing evidence of trustworthiness. A focus on trust is cheap and marketable, but  ignores what matters most.

Of course, there are more and less reputable ways of campaigning.  Reputable ways of campaigning offer the public reasonably accurate and assessable information that helps people to judge trustworthiness. Disreputable ways of campaigning do not. They may spread misleading or false information, and ignore (even suppress) accurate and available information. Some campaigning organisations are economical with the truth; some evade important questions; at their worst some of them misinform, lie and orchestrate disinformation campaigning. Digital technologies have magnified the repertoires of those who seek to persuade, and added to the techniques that can be used to ignore or downplay evidence, to misrepresent, and to undermine others’ abilities to judge who is trustworthy and who untrustworthy in which respects.

So, does the collaboration between politicians and experts, which a proper response to the pandemic requires, inevitably lead to problems?

I think the answer is that such collaborations can create problems, but that these problems can be avoided, since the action needed to address the pandemic are not immediately connected to questions about reputations or about levels of public trust.

Examples of failed and problematic collaboration between politicians and experts, including scientists, have indeed arisen during the pandemic. In a number of countries politicians have peddled pseudo-scientific claims, ignored evidence provided to them, made false claims about the pandemic’s origins and spread, and even peddled quack remedies. However, in many countries, politicians have been less callous and less casual.

In the nature of the case, politicians crave unequivocal answers that point to remedial action, and preferably to affordable and popular action. Equally, in the nature of the case, the evidence for the characteristics of a newly identified virus that is causing a pandemic remains incomplete. Scientific experts cannot yet say whether or how soon those who have been infected become immune, nor how robust and lasting that immunity may be. They have not been able to predict the spread of a virus that is transmissible before it is symptomatic with any precision, or to provide ways to contain it other than by lock-downs that are unpopular and economically damaging at the stage at which they can be effective, and pointless once they can no longer be effective. These uncertainties and gaps in available knowledge pose problems for politicians. Politicians want unequivocal answers, and face the daily reality of voters who are losing their jobs, their incomes and their businesses, and with the difficulty of persuading members of the public to take the restrictions and hardships that lock-downs impose seriously.  Inevitably, scientists and politicians will have a different focus.

Yet it is hardly surprising that societies in which they have worked together reasonably effectively have been less damaged by the pandemic than have societies where experts are regularly ignored or and their advice is set aside by those in power who will not (or dare not) use that power to create and enforce measures that could limit the spread of disease. It is not in the public interest to ignore the reality that scientific advice alone cannot produce results, so needs the backing of politicians and wider public acceptance (however grudging). And it is not in the public interest to ignore the stark evidence that political measures that ignore and flout scientific advice cost lives as well as livelihoods.

About Baroness Onora O’Neill MAE

Onora O’Neill is a distinguished academic philosopher and politician. Her arguments have been instrumental in shaping science policy in the fields of genetics, medicine, and bioethics. In 1999 she was elected crossbench member of the House of Lords. In this position she was very influential in the use of human tissue and stem cell research in the UK. She has chaired the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. She is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and former President of the British Academy (2005–2009). As highly regarded expert in human rights she was chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2013-2016). She is Fellow of the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences and elected member of Academia Europaea.

More about AE Cardiff’s work in Science Advice

As a member of the consortium of European academies (SAPEA), Academia Europaea coordinated a major evidence review on best practice in science advice.  The report, Making Sense of Science for Policy, is available here.

8th July 2020. For further information please contact AECardiffHub@cardiff.ac.uk

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