Experts Vs. the Public

by Tanya Zwahlen

My friend Jason recently tweeted a link to this article from 2013, entitled “The Death of Expertise” by Tom Nichols. Nichols argues that given the new social media environment we live in, people no longer acknowledge that anyone with expertise should influence our thoughts or change the way we live. But they should.

​As I read, I found myself thinking about how public engagement contributes to or detracts from democracy. I think the only way you can damage democracy is to lessen the messy and annoying process of public decision making. I think we could stand to speed it up or make it easier to reach people. But I take issue with what Nichols calls a “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers.” I love the term ‘blog-sodden’ and have snickered about it several times since reading the article. It reminds me of soggy Cheerios. And while it is fair to complain about the laymen, I also can critique the professionals.

Baseline of Competence

Nichols writes that “critics might dismiss all this by saying that everyone has a right to participate in the public sphere. That’s true. But every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House.”

I wonder if it is competence or access to information. I think it’s access to information. And it’s the role of elected officials, municipal staff and consultant experts to share their understanding, the constraints, potential options, a review of the analysis of alternatives, and the proposed recommendation. If we are just showing up to the conversation, we have a right to know how we got here. Especially if we are talking about spending public dollars, or impacting my property value, or changing the character of my city. If you don’t share the background, how can we expect people to get on board? Yes, it will take extra time and money (Nichols complains about the extra effort being “simply exhausting”), but… toooooo baddddddd. Too bad.

Steer Clear of the Comments Section 

Nicolas laments that “now, anyone can bum rush the comments section of any major publication. Sometimes, that results in a free-for-all that spurs better thinking. Most of the time, however, it means that anyone can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong.”

The comments section is for trolls. Can’t argue there. But I don’t think that’s really the problem. I think the real problem is that thoughtful people aren’t engaged in government today. Why not? Because we are too busy for public meetings. I love public engagement, have built a career around it, but I surely do not have time for public meetings. I have two kids, a business, and a serious dedication to kickboxing. So we need to find ways to go to people. We call them go-to-them strategies: surveys, tabling events, web sites with interactive maps, etc.

Ethics, Trust, and Next Time

Like it or not, we have a responsibility to educate the public about decisions about how to spend tax dollars. It is inconvenient sometimes, but it’s our obligation. Experts are either hired by the public sector, or work for the public sector. They have a responsibility not only to gather information and assess options, but to listen to the public.

So how can we make this process less onerous?

  1. Setting people’s expectations for how their input will be used in a process helps to avoid misunderstanding.
  2. Asking questions to which the public can respond helps to give them a sense of what type of input needed, and how they can be useful.
  3. I also think summarizing previous input helps people get caught up if they are just tuning in.

As planners, we have an ethical obligation to listen and to let people share their thoughts. To make it easy for people to access information, become informed, and weigh in. Especially if they disagree with you. Not everyone is a troll. If we make the effort to engage more people, the comments will be more balanced and the outcome will be better.

Trust me. I’m an expert.

Related Posts