In an age emphasising the freedom of the individual, from all the available information people select what supports their own prejudices. In the science community, this phenomenon is called cherry-picking. Picture: Unsplash.

Sure, my neighbour Joe knows best 

Feature. An increasingly vocal section of Europeans believe in themselves or their neighbour more than they do researchers. Why does talking from experience outdo scientific knowledge?

24.10.2019

First the good news: in Europe the faith of citizens in the scientist continues to be very good. We perhaps doubt politicians but not scientists. 

Now the bad news: an increasingly vocal section of population throughout Europe believes more in their own experience or that of their neighbour than in experts or researched knowledge. 

In discussing science, a split into different camps is evident. There are climate sceptics and vaccine critics. Creationists question the theory of evolution. Smear campaigns are being targeted at scientists, the aim of which is to eat into their credibility. 

Stridency and confrontation reflect the current culture of discussion. 

The rules of persuasion and assertion have changed

In his classic work, Rhetoric, Aristotle named three factors that form the foundation of all speech and persuasion. They are ethos, logos andpathos, in other words the credibility, reasoning and emotions of the speaker. 

How and why the culture of debate has changed can very well be dissected into an understandable form using Aristotle’s concepts, thinks Erkki Karvonen, Professor of Information and Communication Studies at the University of Oulu, Finland. He has been studying political and scientific communications and following the field of Finnish non-fiction for years as a member of the Finnish Committee for Public Information. 

According to Karvonen, experts like scientists have traditionally been at the forefront of credibility or ethos. Nowadays, a new kind of ethos prevails which, instead of trusting in authority, asks whether the speaker is one of us. 

This change in ethos is being fed by the rise in populism throughout the world. The populist logic  goes something like this: the elite, including the mainstream media, are corrupt and driving their own interests. Only the people are uncorrupted and pure. 

From the perspective of the ethos of science, it is problematic that scientists are part of the elite. 

“Why listen to them when I can turn to my neighbour Joe? You can trust our Joe. Joe ate baking soda and recovered,” illustrates Karvonen. 

“Even if 99% of climate researchers are of the opinion that mankind is influencing climate change, there remains that 1% on which you can always rely and claim that ‘science too is of this opinion’.” 

The credibility of science is also being eaten away by the fact that logos, or the use of reasoning, is being bedevilled by the selectivity of today. The scientific community calls this cherry-picking whereby, from all the available information, people select what supports their own prejudices. Such selection is done consciously or subconsciously. 

“Even if 99% of climate researchers are of the opinion that mankind is influencing climate change, there remains that 1% on which you can always rely and claim that ‘science too is of this opinion’.” 

Traditional media has played a role in this: the two sides of some controversy might be presented as equal, even though it would be more honest to emphasise the hierarchy. 

A situation of so-called false balance would be created if, for example, someone believing in a low-carbohydrate diet were invited into a TV studio to debate with the famous Professor Mikael Fogelholm from the University of Helsinki Department of Food and Nutrition, who was there in his official capacity. 

“On one side is an amateur who has looked at a few websites.  On the other side is an expert who has spent 30 years studying the subject as his job. Such a situation is difficult for the researcher when the other person is clearly a layman, but the latter thinks he knows better,” explains Karvonen. 

According to Aristotle, a skilled orator can also adjust his/her emotions or pathos as necessary, just like turning a knob. 

In Finland, the cultural ideal has previously been to be neutral and to show little emotion in dealing with issues. Nowadays, we increasingly see people appealing to strong emotions: hate, rancour and dramatisation. It is as if Aristotle’s pathos has been “turned up to eleven”. 

Who turned the knob? 

According to Karvonen, the media is partly responsible but the guilty can chiefly be found in social media. That means us. 

Did social media cause the disintegration of cohesive culture?

As far back as 1995, long before Facebook and other social media, American computer scientist Nicholas Negroponte presented the idea that in the future it would be possible to order media called the ‘Daily Me’. 

This future media would tell each person about the very things he/she was interested in, just as he/she wanted to hear about them. 

This dystopic future has become the present, as the vision has largely been realised in social media, says Karvonen. 

“Facebook’s and Google’s algorithms quickly learn what you are like and offer you content according to that.”  

Nowadays the algorithms ensure that we will not see any unpleasant information, even by accident. 

Even before social media, people of course had the tendency to surround themselves with like-minded people. Nowadays, however, the algorithms ensure that we will not see any unpleasant information, even by accident. 

Taking this phenomenon to its logical conclusion, it follows that, rather than the opinions of the researcher and the neighbour Joe differing on the same question, they might live in completely different realities in which they do not even talk about the same topics. 

The social media age therefore also causes polarisation, which is already being seen, particularly in the United States. 

“The truths of different extreme groups about the world are quite different. Instead of examining the facts, it has become increasingly important just to trumpet one’s own opinion. Starting with the US president. It has even become an ideal,” says Karvonen. 

Arguments critical of science spreading through the global village

In order to prevent polarisation, society sorely needs institutions like science and journalism, which filter and select information and give the facts honestly and unapologetically. 

A ship will run aground if the depth readings from its echo sounder are based solely on what it wants to hear. 

“Science, for example, seeks out the most justifiable information. The facts are carefully examined and special attention is focused on everything that could be dubious.” 

Unfortunately during the social media age, amateurs increasingly debate in public. 

Amateurs have no professional ethics. 

“On the one hand, this is fine and democratic. On the other, amateurs have no professional ethics. 

Social media is also influencing the crisis in the credibility of science in a surprising way. 

Social media has torn down national borders and enabled a digital reality created by the international global village, but the other side of this development is that national borders have become blurred in the minds of people. 

So, when it comes to the operating methods of the authorities or science, the information of different countries might not be at all comparable. Nonetheless, criticism of it spreads on social media across national borders. Precisely the same arguments, fears and criticisms appear, for example, in Europe and the USA. 

“The entire debating culture about whether the authorities can be trusted in matters of vaccination or whether nutritional recommendations can be trusted has come to Finland from the USA and the UK,” says Ulla Järvi, Ph.D., Secretary General of the Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists, journalist and non-fiction writer. 

In her research work, Järvi has specialised in health-related news.  She therefore closely follows public debate on health and nutrition. 

Although the university world and health care in the USA and UK operate on completely different principles to Finland, arguments are borrowed directly for domestic discussion that is critical of science. 

Järvi give some examples. 

“In Finland there have been claims that doctors might be getting money from pharmaceutical companies whose drugs they prescribe. But in Finland, not a single pharmaceutical company can see who writes prescriptions for their drugs. Furthermore, there is no problem in Finnish health care with citizens being over-prescribed with studies and medicines. Here the problem is actually getting medical treatment in public healthcare. 

The individual chooses for him/herself

Erkki Karvonen and Ulla Järvi list more reasons for the rejection of science, and they too have to do with the culture of our time. 

Firstly, we live in the golden age of individual liberty and individualism. 

“Traditionally in liberalism, any intervention by the state in the life of the individual is always bad. It is viewed as restrictive and characteristic of a nanny state,” explains Karvonen. 

He mentions an American study in which people opposed to vaccinations were mostly educated women who thought that they had freedom of choice in the market and therefore the opportunity to choose to live a medicine-free and natural existence. 

Ulla Järvi would also bring the same conclusions to Finland. 

“The idea is being forced on the minds of educated Finns that contempt for authority is the highest form of thought. You decide for yourself what you want to think about vaccinations or nutrition or climate change. You decide.” 

The simplicity of belief-based knowledge also appeals. Where science often only offers reservations and uncertainty, it is easier to promise a concrete solution based on beliefs and experiences. 

The smoking Marlboro Man was an extreme symbol of freedom. In the end, he dies of lung cancer but before that he is free.

“One diet will take care of everything. Hmm. That’s a relief. I don’t need to choose as this will take care of every ailment,” says Järvi. 

The success of knowledge based on experience and beliefs can be explained by excellent marketing, which can appeal to the need of the individual to believe in something, so that they still think that they are deciding for themselves in the spirit of freedom of choice. 

Even tobacco was once sold using this method. 

“The smoking Marlboro Man was an extreme symbol of freedom. In the end, he dies of lung cancer but before that he is free,” says Järvi. 

Bringing scientists down from their ivory tower

When science critics entice followers with skilled marketing appealing to populism and individualism, what are the scientists and experts doing at the same time? 

Debating their subject at conferences and in journals with the worst possible jargon, says Erkki Karvonen. 

“And then we’re happy that we’ve been able to explain the matter in precise language.” 

However, in order for science to be able to compete even to some degree on the market of attractive choices, scientists should also get involved in popularisation: tell the general public about their science in a comprehensible way. 

What is the crux of the science and what is it based on? For how long has the issue already been researched and with what kind of experiments? 

In popularisation, it is also important to stimulate interest, something that does not always occur to researchers. 

“The researchers think that if they give the facts, that will be enough, even if it’s horribly dry and boring. Part of the professional skill of a journalist is to find a hook for the article in order to get the reader to read it to the end,” says Karvonen by way of comparison. 

In this era of fake news, experts can’t afford to be arrogant towards any branch of the media committed to the guiding principles of journalism.

With regard to the relationship between science and the media, Ulla Järvi has one concern in mind. For this she tells an anecdote. 

In 2015, the Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists awarded the prize for Science Communication of the Year to the TV programme Hyvät ja huonot uutiset (Have I Got News for You). The programme’s host and scriptwriter Henkka Hyppönen then asked in his speech: what is the difference between leading Finnish and American researchers. 

The answer was that American researchers will respond to an interview request from a Finnish TV company. 

In Finland, an increasing number of experts have a negative attitude towards the media. Ulla Järvi says that she has read comments from people up to the level of professor saying ‘a tabloid newspaper called so I’m definitely not going to answer’. 

“It’s a shame, because I think that, in this era of fake news, people can’t afford to be arrogant towards any branch of the media committed to the guiding principles of journalism. What’s more, when it comes to the equality of information, researchers and experts should only intensify cooperation with the organs of media that are free and come into every home. It’s terrible if the gap between different groups of people in Finland continues to grow, causing views on science to be split in two.”  

Does science need its own Marlboro Man?

In conclusion, according to Ulla Järvi one more thing explains the attraction of belief-based knowledge and choices: science lacks charismatic gurus who are not afraid to bask in popular adoration. 

Science lacks Marlboro Men. 

There are plenty such gurus in the field of belief-based knowledge. 

“They are a bit like religious leaders. They never debate with the science community, and they are hardly ever allowed to be criticised,” says Järvi. 

For the purposes of this discussion, Ulla Järvi expressly went to look at the social media pages of Antti Heikkilä, a Finnish doctor and and social media personality, famous for his controversial views on science. Järvi noticed that Heikkilä recommends his supporters to follow him in many different fields of life: ‘Think of food like this’. ‘Think of the leading newspaper like this’. ‘Think of this or that  politician like this’. 

By acting like this, Heikkilä offers his followers a comprehensive feeling of togetherness in a way in which health centres and the National Board for Health and Welfare cannot do. 

Each citizen should stop to ask themselves ‘why should I believe that a neighbour can tell me about the climate or health better than a leading expert can?’

“We are living in a world in which a tremendous amount of information is available, which is also quite frightening. Then there comes someone who tells us how we here should think about such things. When you read people’s comments, the old-fashioned village community, social evenings and societies spring to mind,” says Järvi. 

According to her, people’s need for a safe community with someone telling them what to think is pure biology and social psychology. 

“Nobody wants to deprive individuals of their freedom to choose. But when we are looking for thinkers and gurus anyway, should we get them from the other side of the fence? Therein lies the risk of ‘humbug’,” says Järvi. 

Should scientists follow the example and become more populist? Maybe put themselves on the line and become the Marlboro Men of science? 

Most people would rather let someone who has training and experience fly an aeroplane, rather than Joe the neighbour.

No, if populism means that only the people know and can, says Erkki Karvonen. The people do know one thing or another and they are not stupid. Nonetheless, there are always those who have spent considerably more time learning about something than even the most enlightened citizen. 

Even though scientists and experts might seem dull, each citizen should stop to ask themselves why Joe the neighbour or a guru critical of science would be a better alternative as a role model. Why should I believe that a neighbour can tell me about the climate or health better than a leading expert can? What knowledge and skills does he have in addition to being a good guy? 

“Most people would rather let someone who has training and experience fly an aeroplane, rather than Joe the neighbour,” says Karvonen. 

This article was published in Finnish in Ainamedia in April 2019. Both Elm Magazine and Ainamedia are published by the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation.

Doctoral student Kia Andell was also interviewed for this article. 

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