Earlier this week, I spoke at the inaugural Huxley Conference, run by the British Science Association, which brought together leaders from business and the arts, to discuss leadership in science and its impact on society. It was the day before Trump’s victory.
This is what I said:
Michael Gove was right.
You heard me.
Michael Gove was right when he said, “people in this country have had enough of experts”.
Let’s face it, the evidence to support Gove’s assertion is now overwhelming.
The experts tell us Brexit would be an economic catastrophe for us – yet more than 17 million of us voted for it.
The media was wallpapered with stories about Donald Trump’s attitude to women, Muslims, Mexicans, people with disabilities, yet he is on the brink of becoming the 45th President of the United States.
Eminent industry experts tell us that shale gas extraction is environmentally safe, reliable and a rather important factor in securing our energy future – but large numbers of the public have their doubts.
Andrew Wakefield’s disgraceful and fraudulent work claiming a connection between autism and the MMR vaccination, means that… 20 years on, some parents still shun the jab.
Climate change, the economic contribution of immigration, the merits of higher education, drinking alcohol… good for you, bad for you, how much…
I could go on. Experts fail to convince or are denounced by laymen as fanatics. Even judges today become “enemies of the people” for upholding the delicate balance between executive, legislature and judiciary that has protected our polity for almost four centuries.
Michael Gove may have been right on experts, but he was also unbelievably cynical in his ultimately successful attempt to exploit this phenomenon, saying: “I’m not asking [them] to trust me. I am asking them to trust themselves.”
Think about that for a moment. ‘I am asking them to trust themselves.’ He’s saying – Don’t listen to people like the head of the IMF, the Governor of the Bank of England, the President of the United States. It’s more important to listen to yourself, and what you believe.
So what has happened?
The answer is complex.
But a combination of factors has flipped traditional structures of authority and hierarchy.
The internet with its extraordinary advances in consumer technology has also lured us into lives where it’s simple to exist inside one’s own self-reinforcing echo chamber.
In this world, it’s much easier to dismiss arguments that you don’t like.
You don’t have to tune them out, you just don’t go to the places where you might run into them. Through social media, algorithms do the weeding out for you.
Or you can avoid pesky views that counter your own simply by consuming partisan traditional media – and I don’t just mean Fox News!
The truth is that impartial, balanced news reporting is under enormous threat. You could count on one hand the number of news organisations that truly report even-handedly.
The biggest canary in the coalmine of impending chaos – the future of fact-based professional journalism itself. The number of full time journalists in America has halved since 2000. This is a threat to democracy because it leaves space to fill with those posing as journalists.
At the same time, the uneven distribution of the benefits of globalisation, and the human impact of the 2008 economic crisis, have led to dissatisfaction with politics, politicians and policy making.
Is it any wonder that populism – stoked by fears over immigration – predominates? And for populism to flourish, trust must perish.
At Edelman we have studied trust for almost two decades through our annual global Trust Barometer survey.
The biggest story of the past decade is what I have been describing – the demise of traditional authority.
Let me give you the scary news.
“A person like me” is now as credible as an academic expert and nearly twice as credible as a CEO or a government official.
In other words, the general public trust information from people who most resemble them.
Let me give you the scarier news. This isn’t a phase. This is the new reality.
The public’s starting position is one of scepticism around motives. Scandals like MPs expenses, corruption in sport, the malfeasance that prompted the financial crisis, sexual abuse scandals like Jimmy Savile, have all had a corrosive and profound effect on the public consciousness.
These scandals, and a sense that companies are too driven by profit not purpose, forced us to where we are today.
Part of the problem is language; a desire to shun complexity and intellectualism, because it’s easier to deliver simple concepts and soundbites that pander to public pre-conceptions (let’s, take back control!).
And, frankly, we [the opinion formers in London] are the problem. We have lost touch with the public. We have walled ourselves off from the real world. So what can we, do about it?
Well, of course, firstly, I would be repeating the mistake of trying to simplify to give an easy answer. It isn’t simple. But let me put three ideas out there.
1. We need better leaders who have the courage of their convictions and prepared to take on the contrarians. Easier said than done, but we need more people like you to engage, argue, persuade. Not hide. And stop blaming the media – it’s too easy!
2. We need to replace the madness of the mob with the wisdom of the village. It requires people to continue to speak in public and show courage in having what we might call “un-populist” opinions. It is the opposite of those who have populist opinions and show no fear in expressing them. It’s Huxley-ism, or in modern day parlance, the alt-Correct.
3. Longer term (but only a bit longer) we need to focus on education. We need to teach children how to think, how to challenge populism and resist the easy answer. It is in our schools that we will create a new generation who reject the lure of the echo chambers.
And if we don’t do any of these things? We get more Michael Goves, more Andrew Wakefields, we get President Trump. Rational debate is hi-jacked and progress stalls. We really do wake up in the broadband powered dark ages.