Text A: Who are the real experts?
This passage explores the idea of expertise.
Last week, I needed to book lunch in a city that I didn’t know well, and began searching for a
suitable restaurant. Years ago, I’d have done that by turning to a restaurant guide or travel book.
In the world I grew up in, it was normal to seek advice from the ‘experts’. Nowadays, it wouldn’t
occur to me to do that. Instead, I typed what I needed into my phone, scrolled through long lists
of online restaurant recommendations from people who said they’d eaten in them – and picked
one. Risky, yes: estimates suggest 20 per cent of comments posted on review websites are fake,
but there were enough voices for me to feel able to trust the wisdom of the cyber crowds. Lunch
was nothing special.
This is a trivial example of a bigger change underway. Citizens of the cyber world no longer
have faith in anything that real experts say. People have had enough of experts. We increasingly
rely on crowd-sourced advice rather than properly qualified experts to choose our restaurants,
holidays and health care. We take advice from our peer group, our online ‘friends’ – people like
us, and people we like. In some senses, this is good news, but the problem of this new world is
that people can fall prey to social fads or groupthink. If I only listen to opinions from ‘a person like
me’, I’m less likely to accept new facts or arguments from anyone else.
We’re also far too interested in what celebrities have to say. This is more serious. Celebrities are
too often given a platform to air their views. Celebrities are better-looking and more entertaining
than real experts with their solemn speeches and statistics, but just because someone’s good at
acting or sport, should we trust their opinions on child-rearing, diet or global warming?
Of course, celebrities say they’re just getting ‘the message’ out to the public. Actually, they’re
helping to devalue real expertise and reduce intelligent public discussion. We’re racing headlong
towards some dumbed-down future. Let’s face it, if you’re listening to celebrities on global affairs,
you’re not really asking the hard questions, are you?
Text B: Trust me, I’m an expert
This passage explores the relationship between trust and expertise.
Why do people trust some experts but reject others? Why do people seek medical experts for
medical issues, but distrust economic experts for economic issues? What makes us decide
to place trust in, and listen to, an expert when we need to solve a problem that’s beyond our
Luckily, there’s scientific research on the issue – if you trust that sort of thing.
Studies argue that to gain our trust an expert needs three characteristics: expertise, integrity and
benevolence. In other words, knowing stuff isn’t enough. For us to rate someone as a trustworthy
expert they need to seem honest and good-hearted.
This can be problematic in a world where the idea persists that experts are remote geniuses full
of their own importance, or ambitious entrepreneurs blinding us with science. But where does
this idea come from? From my own experience with experts, and being one myself, I think that
one reason we seem so untrustworthy and self-centred is because of how we speak.
To many people expertise is a foreign language. When experts talk, they often use complicated
words and acronyms. Experts seem to want non-experts to rise to their level of sophistication,
rather than approaching non-experts with appropriate language.
As an expert on memory, I’m sometimes guilty of this. I really like uncommon words, despite
knowing they can scare people away. Even in my new book, The Memory Illusion, where I waffle
on about the importance of explaining things in plain English, on the very first page I use the
word ‘parsimony’.
In my university lectures and books I consider using precise, elegant words part of the educational
experience. However, using words and phrases that most people don’t understand in everyday
conversation and the media is just showing off. Experts should stop blaming the public for not
listening to them and give themselves a stern talking to.
Experts need to demonstrate that they’re good, honest people with the public’s best interest
at heart. That’s easier for some; it’s simple to see how medical experts help others, but much
harder with climate scientists who we may only be able to properly thank when our cities aren’t
underwater in 50 years’ time.
But maybe there’s hope yet. A recent online poll found that ‘in times like these’, people trust
academics and experts considerably more than their boss, family, or friends.

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