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Leave it to the experts?

10 min

The under-reported role of ideological bias, and how to push back against it.

August has been a tough month here in Greece. As if deadly heatwaves and devastating wildfires weren't enough, COVID cases are now breaking new records. As of writing, half the population is vaccinated, with a third of Greeks hesitant to take the shot. And our right-wing government is pushing people to get vaccinated by implementing draconian restrictions against those who are holding out.

The wildfires seen from Evia, Greece (August 8, 2021). Taken by Kostas Kallergis, a good friend and a bloody good journalist.

A young student friend here in Chania, who is sceptical of the vaccines, is one of these people. The Greek government has now banned her from bars, cafes, cinemas and restaurants. And in order to attend her university, she is now required to do tests at a government office twice a week, that she must pay for herself.

A beachside discussion

It’s silly that I need to state this, but in the current environment I feel I do:

I am fortunate to be vaccinated against COVID, and I think everyone who can get the vaccine, ought to do so.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about a discussion I had with two friends, a few weeks ago on a pebble beach near Corinth. One was a marketer and the other ran trials for pharmaceutical firms in Germany.

We talked about vaccine uptake flagging in the EU. And wondered why, with more and more countries adopting punitive policies against the unvaccinated in the race for herd immunity, these governments don’t try a new approach.

Covid surge ‘deeply worrying’ in Europe as vaccinations dip - WHO
Europe could see another 236,000 deaths by December as vaccinations slow, a WHO official predicts.

‘These institutions surely have consultants who can show them what they're doing isn’t working, and advise them’, the marketer guy said. ‘I don’t get it!’

This started me thinking about trust in experts. And so here we begin.

The 'death of expertise'

Earlier this month, a Russian-American comedian published a Twitter thread that went mega-viral. It attempted to explain why normally moderate people are struggling to trust our institutions today.

The thread is US-focused, and I don’t agree with all of it. (And obviously I value the input of any expert as a data point.) But it articulates well a familiar theme from the 2010s: experts, institutions, people in power — from governments to journalists to the WHO — keep getting things wrong, and sometime disastrously so. And they never seem to admit it.

In fact, they don’t even think they’re wrong. And worse: they chastise people who call them out on it. From the Afghanistan war to the 2008 financial crash to the latest WHO screw-up.

Why does this keep happening? A multitude of political and historical reasons, and Trump’s term in office in particular.

But there's another factor involved here, vastly under-explored, lurking beneath our discourse: the Establishment's ideological bias.

The idea that humans are hardwired to cling to their beliefs like a religion. Even if those beliefs are proven to be wrong.

Humans suck at reasoning

Here’s author Seth Godin on this:

Narrative and feelings
Which comes first? The feelings, the facts, or the story we tell ourselves that leads to the feelings? It’s surprising that I ended up at the college I went to. Back in 1978, there were two w…
We like to think we make complicated decisions based on rational analysis, but most of the time, we actually make an emotional decision and then invent a rational analysis to justify it.

Author James Clear, talks about the role of social affiliation in the views we subscribe to:

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds
Why don’t facts change our minds? This article explains the logic of false beliefs and proposes a better system for constructive conversation.
We don’t always believe things because they are correct. Sometimes we believe things because they make us look good to the people we care about.

Digest all that for a bit. These are the biases at play when a journalist looks for sources to support an existing narrative. Or when a politician decides to sell a policy to the public, then asks their advisers to find proof points to help them do it.

It’s back to front, isn’t it?

Or when people passionately defend a view not because they’re convinced of it to their core, but because they want to signal to their tribe that they’re a loyal member.

Experts aren’t superhuman

Wait! you say. Maybe all that applies to the rest of us. But experts can keep an eye out for this stuff. They know what they’re doing; they can keep their own biases in check.

You’d be wrong, and here’s a scientific paper that shows why. Emphasis mine:

Cognitive and Human Factors in Expert Decision Making: Six Fallacies and the Eight Sources of Bias
Fallacies about the nature of biases have shadowed a proper cognitive understanding of biases and their sources, which in turn lead to ways that minimize their impact. Six such fallacies are presented: it is an ethical issue, only applies to “bad apples”, experts are impartial and immune, technology…
There is a widely incorrect belief that experts are impartial and immune to biases. However, no-one is immune to bias, not even experts. In fact, in many ways, experts are more susceptible to certain biases. The very making of expertise creates and underpins many of the biases.

No-one is immune. [Update 19/02/23: Gurwinder Bhogal has a great piece that explores this point in more detail.]

Here’s another data point: a study of 2400 economics experts from 19 countries found that “ideological bias strongly influences the ideas and judgements of economists.”

And here’s political scientist Brendan Nyhan, on politics specifically:

The people who know the most about politics are the most polarised. [..] The social allegiances we have, the values we have, those often matter a lot more [than the facts].

Could humans really be so shallow, so petty, as to allow their beliefs to be dictated by their hunger for status? Apparently yes, and according to The New Yorker there’s even an evolutionary explanation for it:

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds
New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.
Reason evolved to [..] prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

Knowledge and openness: diminishing returns

In summary, the more people know about a subject:

Ideological bias is the the enemy of clear thinking.

What can we do?

I’m not saying we can’t trust anyone. And I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t bother to inform ourselves either. Quite the opposite. There are things we can do to combat this.

First, we can push for experts to be different. I had ideas on this in my last post, but there’s great advice for experts in this piece:

The downfall (and possible salvation) of expertise
Can experts win back the public’s trust?
‘It is important to be humble up front. [..] We need to be clear that we are still learning about the situation and that our ideas may change. To maintain confidence, we should avoid the most speculative predictions and earn people’s confidence through honesty and making clear the limits of our expertise. We know some things but not everything. We often forget that policy decisions must consider more than our expertise. Most importantly, we should view what we provide as input not as answers. We often say that people who disagree with us “are not listening,” but they may be listening and just disagree.’ Experts make mistakes, and to say or imply otherwise undermines their credibility.

But how about the rest of us? Well, we probably can’t change the system, but we can change how we relate to it. To constantly be aware of our own biases, and at least strive to keep them in check.

You might not think this applies to you. You probably think you are open to having your views challenged. But here's a test: have a look at who you follow on social media. List the news sources that you consume.

Do these inputs largely challenge your views, or confirm them?

Thought so ;).

Some tips, then:

Back to the beach

So let’s return to my beach debate, and the marketer’s question. If the Establishment’s approach isn’t working, and vaccine uptake is slowing… why don’t these people change direction?

Well, I imagine their beliefs on the vaccine rollout go something like:

We are lucky to have safe, effective vaccines to fight COVID. People that hesitate to take them in this pandemic are irresponsible, dangerous, selfish and stupid.

And taking account of what we’ve discussed above, the Establishment clings to this belief. Yes, like a religion. While considering the public as infants who should shut up and get schooled.

These people look for proof points that advance their argument, such as that youth are largely responsible for outbreaks, and disregard those that don’t fit. They tar anyone who is hesitant to get the vaccine with labels like religious fanatics, conspiracy theorists, or neo-nazis.

And they will try to drive vaccine uptake not through discourse, not through education, not through listening and addressing the concerns of the unvaccinated… but by using a big stick: mandates, removal of privileges, and fear or shame as a motivator.

Even if the data shows they're wrong, they will stick to their beliefs. Because they know best.

A fail

Yes, we’re in a public health emergency. I'm as aware of this as anyone. But it's easy to see that the Establishment's strict-father actions to get people to take COVID vaccines aren't the right way to build trust.

Instead, they will likely foster resentment. People who were nervous about the vaccine, who already didn’t trust institutions, might give in because they feel they have no choice.

But they will go along with the next slick-tongued disruptor who offers them a ‘fuck you’ button. They did it on Brexit, they did it with Trump… and they’ll do it again.

And my student friend is the proof. I asked her how she felt now that the Greek government is putting the squeeze on her to get vaccinated. She said she was even less likely to take the shot.

And how did she feel about the people in charge? She raised her middle finger.

That’s an Establishment failure if I ever saw one.


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