When an economist who’s life endeavour has been to study and then analyse a sector of the economy says that x will happen if this political change happens or x policy is implemented by government, a sensible person would listen.
This is especially true if the expert is seen as unbiased, say if they work for a university or major international institution or a think tank and not a similar organisation upon which they are making their comment about (e.g. the Bank of England making a prediction about the economic implications of a decision in government may carry less weight as many may see their view as in some way influenced or controlled by the Government).
Thats why it is interesting that the gap between expert analysis and public opinion seems to be widening.
Donald Trump’s leadership ideas couldn’t be more derided by experts. Most see little workable policies in his speeches and many view his ideas as downright dangerous for world peace and world economic progress. Take for instance the economist intelligence unit’s analysis that Mr Trump’s election represents one of the top ten risks to world economics. Does that or the chorus of other negative expert comment on Mr Trump affect his ratings with the public? No he just seems to get more popular.
Another example is the recent Brexit vote. A broad consensus of economic experts warned that a referendum result that took the UK out of Europe would be disastrous for the economy. Did it make much difference? Nope the majority that voted decided to leave anyway.
Climate change is another one. Even though most relevant scientists view it as real and an extistential threat to our environment many members of the public view climate change as a hoax.
So why is it that the public is frequently choosing to ignore credible individuals who provide evidence based on science or economics which have an empirical basis?
Some might say that the general public is stupid. Perhaps the general public dosent have the IQ, education or capacity to understand the arguments very deeply? This conclusion may be tempting for some when their point of view is being ignored but this is not bourne out by the evidence. Most of the public have enough intelligence to weigh up arguments and levels of education in the developed world are higher than they have ever been.
Another thought could be that public trust in experts is on the wane. But this is also not true, the annual Edelman trust barometer shows that academics and industry experts continue to be trusted by 70% of the public in comparison to 43% for CEOs and 38% for government officials.
Biology holds the answer to this conundrum. The way in which the human brain processes information was the focus of The Stupidity Paradox which questions why in a world of increasingly smart people, we so frequently end up making incredibly stupid decisions.
Cognitive bias means that we often make quick decisions (that frequently happen in a matter of milliseconds) based on our past beliefs or chance associations.
After making such quick decisions we then start the long process of proving ourselves right and seek information which justifies the decisions we have already made.
Trumps economic blueprint, Brexit and the effect of carbon on the environment are things which most of us have made our minds up on (very quickly) long ago, we have been looking for information which confirms our split second decisions ever since. Information that is contrary to these beliefs is disregarded as these contradictions might require difficult climb downs, Psychologists believe that we try and avoid cognitive dissonance, effectively when the facts don’t fit our beliefs we tend to try and change the facts rather than our beliefs.
Another reason we ignore experts is that it can cause social discomfort, in order to avoid difficult conversations with others and to avoid such discomfort people prefer to rely on the opinions of their peers instead. Interactions are likely to flow more smoothly and acceptance in a group is more assured. You merely take on the views of the group however rather than remaining objective, which is unhelpful when trying to arrive at a sensible judgement.
Research has shown that economists usually have little bearing on public opinion on Important issues apart from when it is on a technical issue. A symbolic issue such as membership of the EU means that the public will ignore the economic evidence and when voters are exposed to opinion from economists that differs from theirs they become more entrenched in their position seeking evidence that disproves the expert and ignoring evidence that supports it.
In the worst case expert opinion can actually push public opinion to think the opposite. In a no means yes scenario a backlash against experts can mean that the public will choose to believe the opposite of what experts say the more experts are rolled out who agree with each other which is what happened with the MMR vaccine.
Experts can be just as bad, after all they also make up the public and are also human. They are often unwilling to listen to views outside of their professional circles. A recent study found that many economists will only draw on ideas from other economists, contrasting with social scientists who will draw on other disciplines.
So when the experts que up to lambaste Trump’s blueprint or tell us that climate change is real don’t be surprised if public opinion moves further the other way, especially when there are high levels of agreement amongst the experts.
Unfortunately we can be very stubborn in spite of the weight of evidence telling us otherwise.
Makes you think a little about the validity (or not!) of public opinion and even more reason to observe the masses and do the opposite. I can see some great property opportunities coming up one the next few months for those of us who can spot them and see past the short to medium term negativity that is beginning to take hold.
(I must credit INC and Mats Alvesson with the inspiration and content for this article as they crystallised thoughts in my mind that had been churning for some weeks.)