People often struggle to distinguish between the advice of a charlatan and an expert, meaning that academic input into public discussions of important issues such as COVID-19 is vital, writes Aris Boukouras
The developments of the past decade (the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the 2016 presidential elections in US, the Brexit referendum, and now Covid-19), have made clear that research-based expertise is needed more than ever before in public discourse. And yet its conclusions are constantly challenged, while scrupulous or blatantly irresponsible proposals gain substantial support.
The current pandemic lends itself as an illustration of the point. The direct health implications of the virus have been carefully measured by clinicians for months (although the study of the long-term ones is just starting). Yet, in a recent Gallup International poll, 49% of the respondents said that they believe that the seriousness of the Covid-19 is exaggerated. Keep in mind that this is an international pool of people from 28 countries, many of them western: in UK 26% agreed with this statement, in Japan 34%, in US 55%, in Germany 58%!
Why does such large fractions of the population show distrust to the findings and the recommendations of experts? And why do the sirens of populism sound so charming to so many? Are the foundations of our democracy in danger? These questions are hotly debated in and out of academic circles. Although social scientists have only started unpacking them, here is one of the pieces of the greater puzzle: laypeople cannot successfully distinguish between experts and populists when it comes to complicated policy questions that require in-depth understanding of a topic. In fact, if they are left only to their “gut-instinct”, they are far more likely to heed the advice of a charlatan than that of an expert!
In my latest working paper, my collaborators and I report the findings of two experiments across two UK universities (York and Southampton). We exposed students from various subject matters and disciplines to a questionnaire on economic policy questions on issues ranging from market price reactions to VAT spikes to rent control policies in overcrowded cities. After each question they answered, they were shown the recommended answers by two advisers without their identities revealed: (a) an ‘expert’, who has 85% accuracy in answering these questions, and (b) a ‘charlatan’, who gives the most popular answer to each question based on the findings of a prior pilot study. On the basis of this answering ‘strategy’, the charlatan is 55% accurate in these questions.
In Experiment One, students were told the accuracies of the two advisers and were given no other information. In Experiment Two they were also given the exact method of how the charlatan picks answers to questions. This was our way of hinting to students that if one of the two advisers made very similar recommendations to their own answers, then he/she is very likely to be the charlatan, thus tilting the experimental scales in the expert’s favour.
After students answered all questions, a review table of their answers and the recommendations of the two advisers was shown to them, and then they selected the person who they deemed as the true expert. Correct answers both in the questionnaire and in the expert selection decision were awarded score points convertible to real cash at the end of the experiment.
Our results are telling if not startling. The vast majority of students (roughly three quarters) selected the charlatan over the expert at the end of the questionnaire. For Experiment 1, this fraction was 85%! But Experiment Two, (the one rigged in favour of the expert) did not perform substantially better either, with roughly 70% of the students selecting the charlatan. Subject matter or other characteristics played little, if any role at all, in the quality of the decisions. The students’ selection of the charlatan was consistent across disciplines and degrees of study, across genders and races, across parental income groups or any other characteristic usually collected in studies of this sort. The message is clear: when people receive unsolicited advice, they are inclined to follow the person closer to their own beliefs even if this is likely to result in material loss.
The important question is how to respond to the finding. The temptation here is to jump to the conclusion that policy decisions are too important to be left at the hands of laypeople (“the Brexit referendum was a mistake”). Academics are particularly prone to this reasoning, but I think that it misses the greater picture and it ignores valuable lessons from history. Over the past few centuries, western civilisation has become increasingly complex at the same time as policy control has become more diffused. The strengthening of political accountability and democratic rights have gone hand-in-hand with an intricate globalized economy and institutional sophistication. Is this mere chance or has the success of the western model been achieved in spite of democracy?
I think not. On the contrary, the two effects are complimentary. What is often ignored in the argument is the role of education and the involvement of the experts with the greater public. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the levels of education available to most citizens have gradually increased. First the primary education became compulsory, then the secondary, and now the majority pursues further studies. Even before this waive of education expansion, the Enlightenment Period between the 18th and the 19th centuries saw philosophers and scientists coming out of their study rooms and spreading the word of reason to the masses. This was not a fortuitous coincidence but a necessary requirement: it paved the way for the homogenisation of beliefs with regards to how the world works and allowed the industrial revolution to happen.
This brings us to now. As our civilization expands in all directions its complexity and sophistication, the responsibility of academics only grows. As both educators and creators of basic knowledge, we play a crucial role in the cohesion of the belief systems that allow societies to function smoothly. Abdicate this duty and we open wide the doors to all sorts of populists who are eager to bash in anyway.
Dr. Aris Boukouras is lecturer in Economics in the Department of Economics, Accounting and Finance at the University of Leicester School of Business
- The Expert And the Charlatan: an Experimental Study in Economic Advise, with Thedore Alysandratos, Sotiris Georganas, and Zacharias Maniadis, Available at: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxhcmJvdWtvdXJhc3xneDo1YTE1ZGY5OGE2NDA0ZjQ1
Suggested and related readings:
- Jerrim, J., P. Parker, and D. Shure (2019): “ Who Are They and What Do We Know about Their Lives?” IZA Discussion Paper.
- Leiser, D. and Z. Krill (2017): “How Laypeople Understand the Economy,” Economic Psychology, 139-154.
- Zingales, L. (2020): “The Political Limits of Economics,” Paper Presented at the 2020 American Economic Association Meetings.