How we fix the rebellion against knowledge.

Qanon didn't come out of nowhere.

COVID skepticism didn't come out of nowhere.

Facebook groups spreading misinformation, YouTubers "doing their own research," and pseudo-scientific wellness influencers are all part of a growing trend of skepticism and distrust towards experts and authority figures across every domain of knowledge, culture, and society. It's a destructive force that is reshaping and fracturing our discourse and ideas in many ways.

From politics to science to media, folks are increasingly questioning the credibility and motives of those with specialized knowledge or who hold positions of power. The rebellion against expertise has dire and disturbing implications for how we make decisions, shape policies, and navigate the complexities of our relationships with each other as friends, families, neighbors, and even nations.

Polarization and tribalism in our society are growing at a terrifying rate. We live in a highly divided political and social landscape, where people are more likely to align themselves with ideological camps and view those on the other side with suspicion and hostility.

The "us vs. them" mentality extends to experts and institutions, as people outside the perceived "elite" become more inclined to dismiss or discredit those who don't share their beliefs or values. The rise of echo chambers and filter bubbles, fuelled by social media algorithms and selective media consumption, is reinforcing violent divisions and making it more challenging than ever to engage with - or even encounter - diverse perspectives and trust sources outside our tribes.

Whether right or wrong, experts and leaders are seen as part of a privileged class, insulated from the struggles and concerns of the general population. This perception is compounded by instances of hypocrisy or double standards, where those in positions of authority are seen as not practicing what they preach or enjoying benefits and exemptions not available to others.

The 2008 financial crisis, for example, eroded trust in economic experts and institutions, as bankers and politicians prioritized the interests of the wealthy and powerful over the needs of the average Joe - and our tax dollars bailed out the banks that foreclosed on our mortgages.

The certainty and simplicity offered by populist leaders and conspiracy theories are far more appealing than experts' nuanced and tentative conclusions. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this dynamic, as the evolving and sometimes contradictory guidance from health authorities eroded credibility, and people who were understandably terrified and confused turned to "alternative" - read: unreliable and unverified - sources of information.

The uncomfortable truth: there have been far too many instances where experts and authorities have failed or misled the public. From the faulty intelligence leading up to the Iraq War to the opioid epidemic fueled by pharmaceutical companies and complicit medical and government professionals, there are real-world examples of expertise being misused or corrupted by ulterior motives. These failures damage trust in specific individuals and institutions and cast a degree of reasonable doubt on the broader concept of expert and specialized knowledge itself.

And as institutional trust erodes, propaganda takes its place. The internet has given us broad access to information, but it has also made it easier for false or misleading content to spread rapidly and reach vast audiences. Social media platforms, in particular, have either struggled to curb the proliferation of fake news, conspiracy theories, and propaganda, which cause trust faultlines in legitimate sources of information and expertise, or they haven't even bothered to fucking try. The anonymity and lack of accountability in online spaces have made it harder to distinguish credible voices from bad actors seeking to manipulate public opinion.

When folks lose faith in experts and institutions, they become susceptible and vulnerable to misinformation, conspiracy theories, and populist appeals that offer simple solutions to complex problems. We inevitably get poor decision-making at the individual and societal levels, as people rely on incomplete or false information to guide their actions. Support for evidence-based policies is dying out - and we're actively undermining the collective action needed to address pressing challenges from climate change to public health crises to economic inequality.

The rebellion against expertise is chilling the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge itself. When experts face constant mockery, harassment, and even threats for sharing their findings or opinions, they become less willing to engage in public discourse or take on controversial topics, shrinking the public sphere and weakening the role of science, reason, and facts in shaping our understanding of the world.

It's not a lost cause.

Not yet, anyway.

Experts and leaders have to shift their values toward transparency, honesty, and humility in their communications and actions, being upfront about the limitations and uncertainties of their knowledge, acknowledging mistakes and failures when they occur, and being open to feedback and critiques. By showing that they are not infallible or above accountability, experts can help to dispel the perception of elitism and disconnection from the public.

But we need more than that. We need dialogue and engagement between experts and the communities they serve. More than ever, we need experts to be proactive beyond just issuing tweets. We need public forums, citizen science projects, and participatory decision-making processes that give folks a sense of ownership and investment in the production and application of knowledge.

Educational institutions and media organizations have a role in promoting critical thinking, media literacy, and the ability to distinguish credible sources of information from misinformation and propaganda. This role has been dangerously neglected. It involves teaching people how to evaluate evidence, recognize logical fallacies, and verify sources on complex issues without condescension and arrogance. Media outlets and online platforms must be held accountable for the content they amplify and the algorithms they use to shape public discourse.

Rebuilding trust in expertise will need a concerted effort from all sectors of society to prioritize truth, transparency, and the common good over narrow interests and ideological agendas.

Without a willingness to engage in good faith dialogue across differences, to acknowledge the complexity and uncertainty of the challenges we face, and to work together towards solutions that benefit everyone, we are only dooming ourselves.

The rebellion against expertise is a symptom of deeper fractures and distrust in our social fabric.

And if we don't address that symptom, we're all going down a much darker path.

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