In public debate tug of war, being right isn’t enough

30 June 2017

What expert facts reveal about our society isn’t always shared by public perception, according to Will Moy, Director of Full Fact.

In the first event in the Academy and Campaign’s 2017 Summer Programme, The Return of the Experts? Facts and Expertise in the Digital Age last week, Moy investigated the role of fact checkers, expertise and digital media in public debates in light of last year’s EU referendum and the General Election earlier this month.

Moy raised questions about the supply of expertise, namely is it good enough and is it communicated effectively, and the impact this has on the use of expertise in shaping our understanding of the world we live in.

Simply “waving around a PhD” is insufficient to gain the public’s trust. Nor can we rely on the idea of “trickle down expertise” whereby as long as “somebody knows everything about something then everybody will end up knowing something about it and therefore the world will become a better place.”

Rather, receptiveness to an expert depends on how much he or she is “identifiable” and “clearly knows what they are talking about”, criteria that all but a handful of academics struggle to fulfil in the eyes of the general public. However, it is the last category of being “on your side” that poses the greatest challenge.

“When you are an academic contributing to public debate, you can go down one of two paths”, Moy explained. “You can either decide that you’re going to be a player and that you have a case to make and you’re going to make that case. Or you can decide that you’re going to be a guide and a commentator. It’s hard to play both of those games at once, and a lot of academics are not so strong at recognising the distinction between the two.”

This demonstrates the fallacy in “thinking that trusted expertise is a question of status and qualifications as opposed to behaviour that is tested over time”. And yet, an expert can be “completely right and completely unrecognisable at the same time” said Moy. This is seen most prominently in debates around immigration, where research revealing the overall impact to be a slight net economic gain does not necessarily resonate with people’s lived experiences.

“You can have a majority of your audience having a life experience that contradicts what your correct average figures about the whole country tell you. You can be painting a true picture of a country which most of the country doesn’t recognise.”

For Moy, it is the limitations on data that have created an over-dependence on aggregates and averages, to the point where “experts saying true and valid things can be right and distrusted by the people listening to them.” At the same time, the language experts use to communicate sends strong signals about whether or not they’re “on the side” of their audiences.

There are also questions to be answered on the demand side: Are the public interested? Are we willing to listen? And are we willing to change our minds? Here Moy highlighted the paradox between the public’s “insatiable appetite” for trustworthy information and resignation to its non-existence, drawing on the example of last June’s EU referendum.

While “most people don’t care very much about whether we stay or leave the EU”, a question that would have widespread national and international consequences was posed to an electorate that was by and large underinformed to make such a decision.

This comes down to collusion between insufficient time to build up trust and an impoverished research base. “If you really want research supplied in advance that answers questions, rather than trying to fire research into the middle of an already impassioned and already well-funded set of campaigns, you’ve got to start earlier”, Moy said. This feeds into the lack of standing capacity for experts to “provide proper expertise in a trusted way on topics when they are not controversial.”

Moy emphasised that the illusion that we can “turn on and off” our base of publicly accepted expertise not only undermined the quality of informed debate around the EU, but also other pressing social issues such as housing and healthcare.

The problem, according to Moy, is that “demand is apathetic. It’s there when people are suddenly confronted with the need for information or want information they can trust, but persuading people the information is trustworthy is extremely hard. People work on practical heuristics, we don’t have the time and we’re not equipped to judge complex research, we all have a lot else to do with our lives.”

As the internet becomes the dominant means of communication, the proliferation of information sources such as social media will only lead to less common information and greater competition for people’s attention. The job of experts becomes distilling complex information as best and as efficiently as possible – usually in three minutes or less – and to meet people “where demand is.”

“That’s the reality of public debate; things need to be done quickly”, Moy added.

Moy also addressed claims that too many psychological barriers exist to taking in information and changing opinions. While there is some evidence of a backfire effect – the idea that established beliefs get stronger when faced with evidence against those beliefs – there is also evidence to the contrary. This only reinforces the need not only for a better research base into how information is absorbed and made useful, but also for new models as to the role of expert knowledge in public debates and how it is communicated.

He explained that “if we want a well-founded expert-based public debate, we want it when we’re not paying attention”, and fed into all the time. This starts with “lots of boring legwork, and trying to have conversations when people aren’t listening.”

Moy stressed the influence of the media on public debate and perceptions of expertise and facts. “The media are capable of being some of the most powerful drivers of well-informed public debate”, he said. “And they are capable of being the opposite.”

The job of fact checkers is to make it easier for the media to be able to provide good information and harder for them to provide bad information. This requires working with expert organisations and academics to provide reliable information in quick, digestible form that journalists who are non-specialists working to tight deadlines can realistically be expected to absorb and pass on to the public. At the same time, journalists have to be challenged to take pride in “getting things right in the first place and frankly feel more shame about getting things wrong.”

“It is possible to scrutinise the media, and to push back on the misuse of information, and the easiest way to do that is to recognise that most factual claims in public debate are repetitive, politicians can only do what they do by repeating themselves. That is how information gets into people’s heads, which gives us a huge advantage because you can fact check something once and correct it if necessary consistently.”

Moy also spoke about how Full Fact is taking on future challenges by building software that can automatically monitor what is being said in the media to instantly reveal if false claims are being knowingly repeated. In this the digital revolution is both an obstacle and an asset. On the one hand it complicates how audiences choose information and how to get people’s attention. This makes it more difficult to build trust and name recognition. On the other, it expands the playing field, allowing fact checkers to be everywhere.

Contrary to debates about meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, the spread of information and disinformation online is less state sponsored or fake news, but shifting more towards partisan misrepresentation of solid information. This, according to Moy, is the next frontier.

Fact-checkers ultimately “reinsert shades of grey” in a world increasingly presented as black and white.” It is their job to make things as “simple as possible, but no simpler.” In this way public debate should be about the common ground of understanding that can be created “before the shouting starts, not just how well you can shout into the noise.”