Date posted: 21/05/2018 4 min read

Giving advice in a post-truth world

Most professionals aim to use evidence and reason to work out the best advice for their clients. But that ideal is under threat, due to eroding public trust in the counsel of experts.

In Brief

  • The status of professionals who use evidence and fact is under threat as those with power, such as Donald Trump, make truth optional.
  • Two recent books present polar opposite arguments in the post-truth debate between experts and persuaders.
  • Confirmation bias prevents clients considering advice from professionals that goes against their hopes or preconceptions.

By Nick Enfield.

As professionals, how are we to advise others? As clients, how are we to evaluate the advice we get, and which decision to make? The problem is exacerbated by the “post-truth” trend in public discourse, which eroding public trust in the counsel of experts, and creating a dwindling respect for evidence and facts.

Numerous recent books address the post-truth problem and its impact on the status of professional expertise. Two of these books – The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by nuclear policy specialist Tom Nichols, and Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World where Facts Don’t Matter by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams – represent polar opposites in the debate. Nichols laments the post-truth trend and its worrying potential to damage society and do us all harm, while Adams celebrates pure persuasion for its own sake, embracing the idea that “facts don’t matter”, and advocating US President Donald Trump’s methods, which evidently helped get him elected in late 2016. 

The professional ethic

Nichols asks: How can democratic society best work to solve problems for everybody’s benefit? His message is that we need to respect expertise while also being well enough informed so that as citizens we can evaluate the advice we get from experts, and in turn make sound decisions for ourselves. For Nichols, the expert’s job is to provide counsel, in a context of mutual trust. Our modern societies could not be sustained without the existence of professions, from solar physics to weaving, from architecture to accounting.

Nichols explains, “The technological and economic progress that ensures the well-being of a population requires the division of labour, which in turn leads to the creation of professions. Professionalism encourages experts to do their best in serving their clients, to respect their own boundaries, and to demand their boundaries be respected by others, as part of an overall service to the ultimate client: society itself.”

The key concepts that Nichols invokes here include service, respect, boundaries, and society. His spirited defence of experts is grounded in a commitment to the greater social good, and to a rational concern with solving the many problems people face today. He not only wants citizens to appreciate that experts have an indispensable function. He wants experts to uphold their part of the bargain and act towards their clients with integrity, balance, and objectivity. 

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Experts can lay out facts, likelihoods, educated guesses, and can evaluate the probabilities of various scenarios. They cannot force clients to make particular decisions. Indeed, Nichols emphasises that experts must let people make up their own minds.

This can only work well if clients are well-informed and level-headed, as Nichols advocates. But the truth is that people are anything but level-headed in their evaluation of advice. We are prone to a host of psychological biases that take considerable effort to overcome, and that are readily exploited by the skilled manipulator.

For example, our thinking suffers from confirmation bias: when we ask a question, we already have a sense of what we think the answer will be, or worse, what we would like the answer to be. We look for reasons to believe that we are right, and we ignore reasons to believe otherwise. This is bad from the client’s point of view, because it prevents us from considering advice that happens to go against our hopes or preconceptions, even when that advice is sound. But from the point of view of the selfish advice-giver, cognitive bugs such as the confirmation bias can be viewed as features, because they open the client up to exploitation.

When persuasion is the goal

Adams takes this approach. His nihilistic view – that persuasion is the goal, independent from the content or soundness of any arguments, or their consequences – is the disease Nichols warns us against. Adams says Donald Trump is a “master persuader”, and that we should learn from, and adopt, the techniques Trump used in the 2016 US presidential election. Trump, Adams says, “is so persuasive that policies didn’t matter”. Adams wants us to treat clients the way that Trump treated his constituents, as devices that can be controlled just so long as you understand how the interface works. Win Bigly is a how-not-to guide for professionals who are in the business of serving clients for their interests, and in turn for the interests of all.

(Donald Trump Photograph: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Adams focuses on what he calls persuasion, but he is really talking about bullshitting, in the technical sense of that word. As the philosopher Harry Frankfurt defines it, bullshit is a mode of discourse in which the speaker has no interest in the truth or falsity of what they are saying. It is distinct from lying – where the speaker knows that what they are saying is false, and intends to deceive – and it is driven by a desire to make an impression. If Trump is anything, he is a master bullshitter. Nichols is a conservative and his particular disdain for Trump targets this knowing disinterest in facts: “rather than be shamed by his lack of knowledge, he exulted in it”, says Nichols of Trump’s 2016 campaign performance. 

Adams praises Trump for using persuasion to get elected. But getting elected isn’t solving a problem. You can persuade people to vote a certain way but you can’t persuade cancer to abate, traffic to flow more smoothly, or wages to go up. Nor can you persuade the Moon to wait until the sky clears before passing between the Earth and the Sun. To solve real problems, facts do matter. As Nichols states, “the celebration of ignorance cannot launch communications satellites or provide for effective medications”. When Adams says that: “compared with the average citizen, trained persuaders are less impressed by experts”, it is again clear that when he says persuaders, he means bullshitters. Nichols despairs that nothing “can overcome the toxic confluence of arrogance, narcissism, and cynicism that Americans now wear like full suit of armour against the efforts of experts and professionals”. Adams’ book embodies in almost crystalline fashion that very confluence of toxic traits.

Whose advice?

There could be no starker contrast in models of professional discourse. Suppose that we want to know when, where, and why a solar eclipse will occur. Nichols is the solar physicist, using evidence and reason to infer the best advice. Adams is the cartoon mythologist, making up a story, any story, so long as it appeals to people. Without knowledge of the facts of our solar system, cultures everywhere have invented interpretations that suit human sensibilities, usually imagined interactions between supernatural entities. But these naïve interpretations can neither explain nor predict the phenomenon. Whose advice would you rather take?

Related: The trust crisis

Recent high-profile corporate scandals have seen trust in business take a further dive. How can this fragile commodity be restored?

Nick Enfield is professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney, director of the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre and head of a Research Excellence Initiative on The Crisis of Post-Truth Discourse. 

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