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Restoring Trust in Expertise

LONDON – “Why did nobody notice it?” Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II famously asked the faculty at the London School of Economics in November 2008, just after the financial crisis erupted. Almost a decade later, the same question is being asked of “experts” following the extraordinary and unforeseen events of the past 12 months – from the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum to Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States.

Experts in general, not just pollsters and economists, have been the target of much criticism of late. The eurozone crisis that began in 2010 was perceived by some as an elite creation that had painful consequences for the public at large. This was compounded by a crisis of conduct, as scandals broke out over the misselling of financial products, global currency manipulation, and the rigging of the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor, the benchmark interest rate that some banks charge one another for short-term loans).

All of this strengthened the public’s suspicion that the system is fixed in favor of the rich and powerful, who are never held to account. Skepticism about the credibility of elites loomed large in the Brexit referendum and the US election.

Amid such perceived failings, public confidence in experts is at a crossroads. With news becoming more narrowly targeted to individual interests and preferences, and with people increasingly choosing whom to trust and follow, the traditional channels for sharing expertise are being disrupted. Who needs experts when you have Facebook, Google, Mumsnet, and Twitter?