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Experts play an increasingly pivotal role in policy decisions

Professor Maria Baghramian ponders the notion of decisions and how we all make them in our daily lives. In her work at UCD School of Philosophy, she works as a full Professor of American Philosophy and a co-director of the UCD Post Graduate Programme in Cognitive Science.

She was responsible for establishing the first Irish interdisciplinary cognitive science programme as well as the highly active UCD Centre for Ethics in Public Life and Newman Centre for the Study of Religions. Professor Baghramian’s research and publications are primarily driven by a ‘preoccupation’ with the ancient conundrum of how to retain our hold on truth and objectivity in the face of irreconcilable disagreements.

Much of her work has focused on the question of the relativist and pluralist responses to the problem of intractable disagreement.

An exciting EU-funded project PERITIA, Policy, Expertise and Trust in Action, which is investigating public trust in expertise is being led by Professor Baghramian. The project uses the case of trust in climate science to test its theoretical and empirical findings.

PERITIA brings together philosophers, social and natural scientists, policy experts, ethicists, psychologists, media specialists and civil society organisations from eight countries and eleven institutions, to conduct a comprehensive multidisciplinary investigation of trust in and the trustworthiness of policy related expert opinion.

The key hypothesis explored conceptually and tested empirically is that affective and normative factors play a central role in decisions to trust, even in cases where judgements of trustworthiness may seem to be grounded in epistemic considerations, such as professional reputation, reliability, and objectivity.

Speaking to UCD Today, she explains how the project is being carried out in three phases, the first two – theoretical followed by empirical – aim to clarify the nature and conditions of trust, distrust, and trustworthiness of expert opinion.

“These first two phases of the project have led to the publication of a very large number of scholarly articles and research reports, aimed at researchers and policymakers. The final stage, beginning in November 2023 – what we call the ‘ameliorative phase’, specifically aims to improve the relationship of trust between experts, policymakers and the public.

“We aim to achieve this through so-called deliberative mini-publics – face to face discussions between experts, policymakers and representative groups of the public.

The idea is that structured but open discussions between these stakeholders will enhance mutual understanding and create optimal conditions for warranted judgements concerning the trustworthiness of expert advice.

“At the end of this phase, we will be producing a simple trustworthiness toolkit, suitable for use by the public as well as those involved in policy decisions. The project has also organised several conferences, workshops, and public lectures, mostly online. The final major event of the project will take place in UCD in March where we will be bringing together panels of speakers involved in similar research projects in Europe and beyond.”

Effective governance, particularly in democratic systems, is not possible in the absence of at least some level of trust from the public and their acceptance of policy measures. One of the key goals of PERITIA is to throw light on the conditions where the public deems experts and the policies resulting from their advice trustworthy.

Professor Baghramian hopes that the project will shed light on the complexities and tensions inherent in these central features of public life.  She notes the rise of populist politics with its anti-elitist mantra which has brought the trustworthiness of experts and their areas of expertise into question.

“Reliable information is the currency that makes the wheels of policymaking turn smoothly and experts are the source of such information. And this is where the question of trust both in experts and the media that disseminate their view come in. Experts are not univocal, nor do they come with a seal of reliability tattooed on their forehead.

“Climate change is undoubtedly the most pressing issue facing humankind. A great deal of research has already been carried out on the question of the interface between climate science and policymakers but much of its focus has been on the highly vocal climate denialists in the US.”

The COVID-19 pandemic threw chaos into the world but ultimately, helped to show the importance of experts and real information. “As the pandemic demonstrated so clearly, experts play an increasingly pivotal role in policy decisions. Experts and our reliance on them are inescapable features of modern life,” says Professor Baghramian.

“Industrially advanced societies face ever-increasing levels of specialisation and finer gradations of division of cognitive labour. Even the most basic activities of our daily lives require reliance on technologies and skills which are beyond our personal sphere of competence.

“We lead a life that is dependent on expert knowledge, and we seldom show any hesitation to rely on, and indeed to put trust in their superior knowledge. What goes for our personal lives is even more pronounced in the public sphere. To do their job well, policymakers, in both the public and the private sector must rely on specialised knowledge, good data and well-informed projections.

“The UCD EU Research Office was involved in the development of PERITIA from the outset. Dipti Pandya was central in encouraging me to act as the coordinator for the application and assured me that UCD would be an ideal host as the lead institute for such an ambitious project. Without the UCD Research support neither the application nor the activation of the project would have been possible.

“One strength of the project is that many of us, including the advisory board members, had already collaborated on very similar projects for several years. Furthermore, we all share the sense that we are addressing important questions in a moment for the future of democracy.

“I began thinking about expertise more than five years ago. The world has changed greatly since then but the changes, sadly, have given greater urgency to these topics. Two points have crystallised for me. First, at a social level, I think we need to be more sensitive to the connections between the grievances that give rise to populist politics and the rejection of expertise. Second, I think we should aim for a better understanding of the barriers to genuine knowledge and try to go beyond platitudes in discussing ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ etc.

“I think we should also take a closer and more critical look at our assumptions about the boundaries separating the rational from the irrational, for instance by examining how discredited scientific views as well as conspiracy theories about science take hold,” she smiles.

Professor Maria Baghramian in conversation with Seán Dunne, Senior TV Producer, The Tonight Show, Virgin Media Ireland.

Featured Researcher:

Professor Maria Baghramian

Main research areas are Philosophy of Language, Contemporary American Philosophy, Relativism, Topics in Cognitive Science