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Scientific and technocratic communication really is shockingly bad
More humility from the credentialed expert class could possibly save us a lot of bother
Mistrust of 'experts' and institutions is old news now.
Mistrust is a vibe and - like most vibes - it needs a better vibe, rather than evidence that it's 'wrong', to dislodge it.
Establishing this better vibe is the job of those tainted by the bad vibe.
If you've lost someone's trust, say as a partner, friend, employer, colleague etc, the intervention of anyone else is usually unlikely to help much in restoring it. It's your responsibility to do that.
It takes a combination of qualities to make this happen. Things like:
Empathy. If you can't see why someone sees you in the negative way they do, any efforts to rebuild reputation are going to start on a foundation of sand
Honesty. If you know what you did to torch your reputation, start by owning up to it.
Intelligence. If you keep justifying yourself and pushing back all the time on criticism, you're basically too stupid to handle the situation. You have to know what doing things differently would look like and then figure out how to try that instead.
Humility. No one and no institution can be perfect or all-knowing. So don't pretend otherwise and just acknowledge that.
Good faith. Actually wanting to be different.
Since I've had a career involving a lot of message creation and communication I tend to have strong opinions on what works and what doesn't, so this area of public life tends to drive me nuts.
This is because the supposedly cleverest people among us are basically either stupid or so cock sure of their inviolable right to lord it over the rest of us that they are actually merely contemptible. Either way, they are annoying - like anyone who is stupid, bad or both - and I'm often amazed by their refusal or inability to address the issue.
This isn't some esoteric happy-clappy wouldn't it be lovely if we were all in harmony utopian ideal. It matters, because a majority of people tell pollsters that a lack of trust makes problem-solving harder. And who wouldn't prefer it if problem-solving were easier?
For a while it was quite easy to dismiss a lot of contumacy (the reflexive visceral mistrust of any credentialed authority figure or policy) as the result of stupid people being manipulated by bad actors. But, refreshingly, even some of the actual members of this credentialed class of 'experts', technocrats and commentators are now despairing of this flaw in their own world.
You don't get more establishment than 'never-Trumper' journalist Bret Stephens and yet even he can see how terrible the supposedly clever people in US public health policy are at communicating.
In this discussion with Sam Harris he lists some of the failings that inspire detractors - and send a significant minority of people into the absurd abyss of totalising Covid or climate change denialism.
"Too many experts refuse to acknowledge that they have failed...the distrust that is pervasive is well-founded ... not only did experts insist on solutions that turned out to be inadequate but they did so with consummate arrogance and they have not helped their case.
"This is not just in public health, it's in one institution after another where the expert point of view fell short."
Stephens makes an interesting observation that helps to articulate an intuition that I have around the essential naivety of 'Team Science' (an actual identity, at this point) and its failure to recognise the difference between facts and what you should do about them.
His comment is again about the pandemic, but it applies across the whole field of big problems.
"We conflated the interests of public health with the public interest. That is to say that public health is part of the public interest but it's not the sole part of the public interest. To take another example, we could save tens of thousands of lives a year if we had a national speed limit of 30 mph. Overnight. We would be doing something for public health but it would not be in the public interest."
[I edited the quotes for simplicity of reproduction - listen to the interview for more nuance].
Since first becoming aware of a curious kind of defensive dogma of 'scientism' - or as I now think of it 'factism' - as the pandemic erupted in a weirdly political and cultural way in 2020 - I've come to think of it as a somewhat unsophisticated lens through which to see complex things.
And I've become aware that it (scientism, not science as a method) is an identity rather than a position necessarily arrived at by deep reflection.
This, I think, is a significant driver of the mistrust lamented by many of us, who would surely rather have highly knowledgeable and skilled people they feel they can trust to build evidence bases on which policy-makers can act.
Because it has become an identity - a team - this class of credentialed expert has even been circling the wagons and expelling many detractors from its own camp, in order to preserve its status.
In short, they have feelings when we would ordinarily expect them to be dispassionate. Their feelings seem to include a strong desire for affirmation and a hunger for influence.
Now that feelings are in play, rather than the dignified and essential work in the background to push the frontiers of understanding, many in this class are straying outside their own lane and commenting as generalised 'intellectuals' on matters they frankly either don't understand or have no intellectual authority on.
Perhaps the most blatant example was when American public health officials and doctors encouraged as many people as possible to break a pandemic lockdown and join Black Lives Matter protests, because something something racism being something something a more serious public health crisis than Covid.
The point here isn't to argue about whether racism is a public health issue. The point is that this was a stupid pronouncement, which was guaranteed to undermine confidence in an already controversial pandemic response.
Then we get one of the oddest phenomena I've noticed in recent times, with the fashionable assertion that sex is a spectrum, because something something sciencey facts that actually don't undermine the distinction between types of mammal that either have small mobile gametes or large fixed ones for reproductive purposes. Or - as anyone who bothers to read around this issue can quickly understand - simply confusing concepts of gender and sexuality with biological sex categories. Like when esteemed astrophysicist and 'science communicator' Neil deGrasse Tyson strayed wildly out of his lane to opine on the topic.
Why would he do this?
Because there is a vibe. And the vibe is that it is the responsibility of 'intellectuals' to guide the ignorant masses toward the currently fashionable idea of what might constitute a liberal utopia, rather than, say stick to what these clever people really do know a lot about.
Because there are teams. And one of them is Team Clever and they are against Team Stupid, which is basically all the rest of us who don't automatically buy into what is more often than not just the logical fallacy of the appeal to authority.
Neil wants everyone to know which team he is on and, in doing so, undermines not just his own credibility but that of his field. For the first time ever I saw him as dimmer than me, at least on this topic. This isn't how I think, but I can easily imagine people simply deciding not to trust anything he says on this basis. Just as many people decided not to trust the doctors who announced that social gatherings were dangerous unless they were against racism.
The stupidity of this - displayed by really clever people - is dismaying.
I suspect that I'm not the only ordinary, non-rabid, non-automatically contrarian, totally ordinary but enquiring person who is tired of really clever people who think that they miraculously have the gift of insight into every issue - no matter the complexity or social implications - in addition to their very specific area of expertise.
As if there’s a generic kind of cleverness that just opens the door to every answer.
Although most of the criticism for this lamentable uselessness among people annoyingly labeled now as 'elites' is directed at broadly 'liberal' institutions aiming to genuinely improve the world, these flaws seem to appear everywhere where there is any influence or power. Elon Musk is perhaps one of the most dazzling examples of a man with remarkable personal gifts, outstanding achievements and woeful flaws. But Musk isn't going to make you do anything while institutional experts very likely are, so their flaws matter much more.
Someone was complaining on my LinkedIn the other day about how people just won't see the benefits of London's newly expanded Ultra Low Emission Zone.
In my simplistic way, I think that ULEZs are really good for improving local air quality. With my latent leftist class consciousness I also celebrate that they disproportionately improve the air for the kind of economically disadvantaged people (bonus - it’s disproportionately racial minorities too!) who live around severely heavy urban traffic.
But no. They were banging on about Net Zero and the 'climate emergency' - maybe the worst example of supposedly expert communication I can name.
They are so bad at grasping that there is a significant and growing minority who no longer automatically defer to their brilliance that I'm sometimes vaguely embarrassed to be publicly on the side of 'Team Science' on climate change being something we ought to be doing our best to mitigate.
I guess I must be the black sheeple of the family.
Going back to the bullet list above, the problem is that cleverish people (often labeled 'midwits', including by this writer) seem to lack empathy. They seem unable to grasp that anyone wouldn't be swayed by their sheer credentialed classiness. So they look down on those who don't automatically defer to them as inferior. To be talked over, rather than to.
A probably small but most influential rump of people in our institutions - and, sadly, in the scientific world - are straight up too arrogant to countenance admitting any fault, ever, even when they were badly wrong. They lack the kind of humility when this has happened that would be essential in bringing sceptics back to the fold.
And they are hopeless when it comes to communication.
I really dislike the phrase 'tone deaf' because it evokes the kind of mimetic forces that make us prefer to be more like each other than ourselves, but in this case it is appropriate. These clever people have no idea that there is a gap between thinking you know best and communicating what you think in a way that won't instantly provide the increasingly dull (also) Team Do-Your-Own-Research-Because-No-Expert-Ever-Tells-You-The-TRUTH-AND-FACTS with shiny new conspiracy materials.
Of course, the credentialed expert class really is up against some very neurotic and fearful people, who dread enslavement and love cars more than anything and label obviously desirable ideas, like the urban planning concept of '15-minute cities', as really measures for implementing 'climate lockdowns'.
It's not my job to advise the technocrats (although I'm available if their gargantuan brains could squeeze in a tiny bit of basic communications advice) but a good start for anyone on Team Expert would be to climb out from up their arse and read the piece we’ll be signing off with.
Because my money is on them never thinking past facts = gud and if computer says x, do x and instead looking at the cultural structure of these fascinating times that we're in. More on all this - especially 'naive factism' - from me, soon.
How about upgrading to a paid subscription. I could go on about how much I enjoy writing this, how I don’t do it for the money, then add a guilt-inducing line about opportunity cost or something. But, really, it just makes my day when someone upgrades.
Half an idea.
Sometimes a comment I made on someone else's Substack goes down quite well. So here are a few recent ones. The point is that I'm inclined to develop some of them into longer pieces.
If you'd like to see that, let me know in the Chat which non-paying subscribers can use to make comments.
Of course, you can always contact me directly.
The comments …
The American leftish seems to be the centre right's best recruitment funnel. That's where they drove me and I'm not even American.
On Aporia magazine's article on the false idea that all demographic outcome disparities are caused by society being mean to some people.
I doubt that many 'equalitarians' really do believe in the dogma. Instead, they are reacting to ordinary incentives to get along in a culture which now sees the dogma as a high status position to hold. There's a reason your papers don't get published and that's your incentive to toe the line. It takes balls not to respond to that incentive, which is real and pervasive.
I'm watching friends adopt some of these beliefs and it's glaringly obvious why.
And finally, Gurwinder's brilliant piece on how we all tend to act like computer game 'Non-Player Characters' in political contexts. It's one of the best things I've read recently, to which I reacted with gratitude ...
This illuminating piece defines my personal struggle against swinging like a pendulum between thesis & antithesis, from one tribe to another and more. It requires constant self-vigilance. But the strange thing is that 3 years of this practice (and writing a Substack about it) has made me happier and less neurotic.
Join me in the Chat, if you fancy it (all readers) - or leave a comment below (paying subscribers only).