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10 October 2017updated 06 Aug 2021 5:19pm

It is sad that we can no longer trust experts – but then, too many lie expertly

We have learned that a decade of higher study does not buy integrity.

By John Burnside

I was thinking about something that I thought was completely different, when an article in the Times caught my eye. Apparently, killer diseases are returning to the developed world because “Whole Foods mums” are refusing to give their children the MMR vaccine. (These womenfolk are also referred to as “organic mothers”, cementing the assumption that organic food and a suspicion of vaccines are part of an overall lifestyle choice.)

According to the Vaccine Alliance’s Dr Seth Berkley, this hippy-dippy decision is based on a mix of complacency, “anti-science sentiments” and celebrity meddling from, among others, Robert De Niro and the “former nude model Jenny McCarthy”. Dr Berkley added: “Experts don’t have the same credibility… We’re really in trouble when a Playboy bunny has the same authority as the American Academy of Paediatrics.”

Setting aside the sexism of reducing McCarthy to a “Playboy bunny” (she has since built a successful career as an actress, TV personality and author) and the patronising tone reserved for mothers who dare to make their own decisions about the family diet, it is difficult not to sympathise with Dr Berkley. He is, after all, an expert, and experts are supposed to be listened to.

Back in the good old days, experts spoke and the woman whose brain, uterus or lifestyle they were manipulating did as she was told.

Then something changed. I remember an encounter with a “chief scientist” sent by the Central Electricity Generating Board to talk to a little band of folk protesting about the increasing problem of acid rain some time during the 1980s. This expert swanned in, patronised our group, produced a few statistics to show that acid rain was a figment of our poor, untutored imaginations, and was about to swan out again when one of our number asked one last question. This led to a long dialogue, during which others in the group (a statistician, a systems designer and someone with a PhD in botany) politely demolished the half-baked scientific model that this chief scientist had thrown together earlier that day.

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We don’t trust politicians and we can’t trust banks, but we cannot trust our “experts”, either. We have learned that a decade of higher study does not buy integrity. Experts work for tobacco and drug companies, agribusiness and government – to name only a few systematic liars – and unless they are prepared to lose their jobs, they have to put a scientific spin on whatever the boss says.

Like attack dogs, they have to pile in mercilessly if someone steps out of line, whether it’s a “Playboy bunny” or an advocate of more open-minded research into autism. This brings me to the other thing I was thinking about, which turned out not to be so different after all.

It was the US conservationist and author Rachel Carson who wrote, at a time when she was being vilified daily by paid experts on all sides, that ours is “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged”. She knew the danger posed by paid experts who, in cutting their cloth to suit their corporate masters, not only promulgated downright lies, but also undermined the very fabric of science.

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It’s sad that the good experts are being lumped in with the bad but, having been lied to so expertly for so long, the public can hardly be expected to discern truth from falsehood.

This article appears in the 04 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer