Wheeling out the experts won't work

Talking to clients of a PR firm at a seminar last week, I made the comment that in public policy debates – in newspapers or in the campaigns that follow some accident or scandal – the public seem to have much less respect for the opinions of scientists and academic experts than they once did.

As a result it is far harder to combat emotional press campaigns – on, for example, GM goods or MMR – by wheeling out an expert to explain the facts, bring reason and knowledge to the debate and put fears into context. No one seemed to disagree with this, but it did raise the question of why it should have happened. One reason certainly is the diminished respect for any form of authority. The monarchy, the police, or in this case academics, are no longer deferred to by those who do not have their experience, knowledge or qualifications. It is not  assumed that what they say is correct.

This is the result of changed social attitudes,  caused in part by affluence, education and the diet of TV soaps which have stripped away the mystique of police, lawyers et al, and legitimised challenge and confrontation. But also, I blame the Government. As an example, last week some of the figures and assumptions in the pensions white paper were challenged by an outside think-tank, which pointed out that in a change from previous efforts at pensions reform, there was in last week's paper no independent assessment of the Government's numbers.

The comment that really struck home came from government actuary Chris Daykin, who said his staff who had recently transferred to the Department for Work and Pensions had found their role changed to one of serving ministers, rather than working for a department with no axe to grind. It implies that analysis is produced
to support the case being put forward, not to provide an independent assessment.

The cumulative use of the edited views of scientists to support a contentious political case has devalued the credibility of those experts. This is a huge problem. The tone of media comment is already skewed in the direction of ‘How do you feel?' rather than ‘What do you think?' Setting little store by experts can only make this worse.

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