Trust in experts

Posted on April 27th, 2017 by Tom Stafford

Crick Centre Associate Fellow Tom Stafford argues that for people to have faith in scholarship, they need faith in our values, not just our expertise

On Monday I attended a British Academy roundtable meeting on ‘Trust in Experts’. We were called together by the Academy and the Government Office for Science to consider the role of expertise in public life, whether we lived in `post-truth’ times, and, how academics could be supported to be effective experts.

The meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule, so I can’t tell you who was there or who said what. As you would expect from highly learned company with an unclear brief, the conversation swirled around, until we were left with the same intractable issues we started with, but with added layers of nuance.

One theme which struck me was the meeting’s insistence that, despite the zeitgeist of fake news and post-fact politics, expertise was, in fact alive and well. Aside from some notable politicised issues, there is a wealth of ‘quiet expertise’ which underpins society and which is deployed effectively and accepted by the majority without a second thought – every time you cross a bridge you assume engineering expertise, and when your tooth hurts, you don’t check the political allegiance of your dentist before trusting yourself to their ministrations.

The statistics bear this out. Whilst one global survey shows a precipitous decline in trust in institutions, including government, NGOs and the media, trust in scientists remains high. In the UK, MORI polls show that scientists (and academics, under the heading ‘professors’) are amongst the most trusted groups, and have been for as long as we have results for.

What’s the problem then? Partly it is the perception that trust in academic experts may be high, it isn’t universally high – and there are certain salient issues, such as the economic consequences of leaving the EU, or the medical risks associated with vaccinations, where enough of the population reject scholarly consensus.

Work I was involved with here in Sheffield sheds some light on the psychology of this. We surveyed people who lived in urban areas on land that was potentially contaminated by previous industrial use. ┬áResidents in these areas had bitter experience of experts from local government, property developers, campaigning groups – and scientists – telling them about the specific risks they might face living in such an area.

Our survey found locally what MORI found nationally. Independent scientists were among the most trusted group we asked about – more trusted that government, the media or residents’ groups (not to mention property developers). But our survey also allowed us to interrogate why scientists were trusted, and – importantly – why they were not trusted, in the case of the minority that didn’t trust them. The biggest predictor of trust, across all groups, was whether people perceive the group in question to have their interests at heart. Those who didn’t trust scientists didn’t doubt their expertise, only their values. This result explains why the second most trusted group we asked about was friends and family. Our surveyed residents recognized that that friends and family had low expertise when it came to the risks of brownfield pollutants, but they knew without doubt that friends and family had their interests at heart, and that is why they were nearly as trusted as scientists on the specific topic of risks from pollutants.

On Saturday thousands of people around the world took part in the ‘March for Science’, protesting cuts to science funding and denigration of scientific research by politicians. If there is a growing distrust of experts which some politicians are tapping into, our research suggests it won’t be overturned by re-emphasizing the skill and knowledge of academic experts. The people who don’t trust the experts don’t doubt their expertise. They don’t doubt the reality or importance of facts. I suspect they do doubt whether academics have their best interests at heart.

Correcting this impression will require more than meeting with each other to discuss the problem of why some people don’t trust us. Despite the beauty of our empirical, analytic or conceptual machinery, we aren’t going to get people to appreciate our work unless we can show that we have, at heart, common values with the society we’re part of.


Tom Stafford is a Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield. His research focussed on learning and decision making, as well as the psychology of argument and persuasion.