Opinion | If you rouse the rabble, you only worsen the babble

The biggest culprit of the growing disrespect for experts is confirmation bias

It seems that with the explosion of social media, the number of debates we engage in has similarly exploded. For the past few weeks, the topic of many a discussion was India’s response to the terrorist attack in Pulwama. Most of these are heated discussions where participants tend to have strong points of view. Any point of view contrary to one’s own is trashed and discarded with disdain, even if it comes from experts with decades of experience. There is a growing tendency to believe that one’s own point of view is as good or better than even that of experts. This does not bode well for any society.

With the emergence of new modes of communication—be it the press, radio, television or digital—information dissemination has become increasingly democratized. But the biggest difference between the older media and the digital media is the nature of ownership. In the case of earlier mediums, owners had high levels of control over the discussions. Traditional mediums had inherent mechanisms to protect the positions of experts. But in the digital media, everyone has almost total freedom to express their point of view.

This free-for-all nature of the digital media has definitely accentuated the decline in respect for experts. But the real reason for this growing disrespect for experts can be attributed to some fundamental facets of human behaviour. The book The Death Of Expertise by Tom Nichols deals with many of those behavioural traits.

The biggest culprit of the growing disrespect for experts is confirmation bias: our tendency to look for information that conforms to our belief system. Criticism is an immediate outcome of confirmation bias. Criticism is also today seen as a badge of superior knowledge. Those critiquing something are considered to have superior knowledge about it. Appreciation or agreement is less welcome in this context.

Most discussions in the digital media and on television channels are about finding loopholes in another’s arguments, and not about agreeing with them. This lack of respect for the opposition’s point of view turns most of these discussions into full-fledged boxing matches with no referees and with spectators joining in too. Differences based on religion, gender and nationality are played up to add strength to one’s arguments. Tim Nichols notes that, “Not only is the internet making many of us dumber, it’s making us meaner: alone behind their keyboards, people argue rather than discuss, and insult rather than listen."

According to a 2014 study, people will go to great lengths to give others a fair hearing and weigh opinions, even when everyone involved in the conversation knows that there are substantial differences between them. This “equality bias" is based on a human need to be accepted as part of a group. However, in the anonymous world of the digital space, there is less social pressure to come to an amicable settlement with those having differences of opinions.

Many who have a strong point of view are not basing that on a position of superior knowledge. In 2014, The Washington Post conducted a poll asking if the US should engage in military intervention in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What was most interesting about the poll was that the most enthusiastic about the military intervention were those who had the least knowledge about Ukraine. They couldn’t even spot Ukraine on the world map.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger, research psychologists at Cornell University, have identified another human trait that prevents a person from acquiring new knowledge from experts. This phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect—the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb. According to their study, we all overestimate our capabilities but the less competent among us do it more than the rest of us.

The feeling of ignorance is at the core of all learning. As the less competent become less and less accepting of their ignorance, they will be less inclined to seek more knowledge from experts. Experts are, as the famous physicist Werner Heisenberg said, “someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and how to avoid them". The growing tendency not to respect the knowledge of experts will only make us repeat many of the mistakes we have made in the past.

One other reason for the loss of respect for experts and their knowledge is, surprisingly, democracy. In a democracy, elected representatives hold the highest position because they have been elected to the post by the people and have the power to take decisions on their behalf. However, that does not automatically bestow on them the expertise to take those decisions—say, choosing the right technology for war planes or the right price strategy for farmers’ crops. What we have today is a conflict between those having the power to take decisions and those who have the expertise to take that decision.

There was a time everyone did everything. Everyone built their own homes. They were just huts. It is when specialization of labour started that one started availing the knowledge of experts to build one’s home. Those houses, no doubt, were more durable and beautiful. Similarly, a society where experts’ views are not given due credit will end up having “intellectual huts" all around. However, those societies where the views of experts are respected and sought after will end up building “intellectual mansions".

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.