Experts or the Crowd: Who should we listen to?

As CRS professionals we can be overwhelmed with advice from experts and the crowd. We manage complex and often emotive issues, ranging from climate change to human rights violations. How can we make sound decisions when stakeholder opinions might be widely different? Recently the ICRS Annual Debate asked the question 'experts vs. the crowd: whose voice should responsible organisations prioritise?'

Experts or the Crowd: Who should we listen to?

We tend to think of experts as people who base their advice on research and can provide empirical evidence to support their assertions. They seem in our society to hold credence and credibility. But as Michael Gove stated perhaps the public has had enough of experts.

The crowd may base their opinions on expertise, experience and background, or have their views shaped by the media. And social media means that the crowd is now able to share their views with a larger audience and have more influence than ever before.

Most recently the crowd helped us get fast action on plastic pollution. But fast action isn’t always the answer, it can lead to unintended consequences and knee jerk reactions from business and regulators. That’s where expert advice is needed.

Recent evidence from Ipsos Mori suggests that trust in experts is rising. Public trust in professors rose sharply last year. If you take a critical issue like healthcare we’re probably better off seeking advice from a cardiologist than the Internet. Though many of us may turn to the web for self-diagnosis in the first instance. We trust healthcare professionals because they have training and experience.  And we are more likely to listen to those we trust. 

Ben Page (Ipsos MORI) reminded us that there is often a great disparity between reality and perception. Perception is often driven by the media, because shocking, vivid headlines are far more common than good news stories. This can distort the views of the public, generate prejudices and fears.

Some so-called experts might not be experts at all and yet they hold great power over public opinion. There is a distinction between ‘practitioner experts’ and so-called ‘media experts’ who command large audiences and opine on a whole range of issues. 

David Goodhart talked about the new tribes shaping British politics.  His analysis highlights a concern that in today’s society, ‘smart people’ have too much power.  These ‘smart’ people could be classed as experts. He cautions that if we allow ourselves to be swayed only by the presentation of facts we could be losing knowledge generated through experience. And we could be in danger of losing wider society values in our decision making.  

If we make decisions based only on the facts and don’t appeal to heads and hearts, we can’t expect the crowd to support our strategies.

Diversity of thought within both the crowd and the expert is important.  How do we engage young people in our decision making?  How do we ensure that the voice of those in poverty is heard along with the expert opinion? 

What does all this mean for us as CRS professionals?

Clearly, we need to listen to both experts and the crowd. However, we must understand the motivations of both groups.

When it comes to experts, it is important to understand their credentials and their context; who’s paying them and why? Experts can be prone to subjectivity and their voice may be given priority by virtue of their status.

The crowd can provide an alternative view to challenge the expert. But it’s important we don’t just listen to those that shout the loudest, doing our best to avoid knee jerk reactions to public views. As we know, knee jerk reactions don’t always result in optimum outcomes.

We should actively generate diversity of opinion and be aware of our own prejudices. After all, we are just as likely as anyone else to be influenced by those who we most trust or who share our personal views.

And we need to recognise that there’s often a difference between perception and reality and that personal experience is key to engendering trust. Word of mouth and personal interactions can be as powerful as an expensive advertising campaign. Employees can be our best ambassadors and great sources of information.

Finding the right solutions against this backdrop is not easy but it will make our decisions as CRS professionals better.

The summary of the Annual Debate is available on the ICRS website (write-up).

ICRS is a lead partner of edie’s new 30 Under 30 initiative – an all-new networking programme created by edie for the next generation of business leaders to share ideas and further their careers. The edie 30 Under 30 is welcoming nominations from young, talented sustainability and energy professionals – aged under 30 – who have already achieved great things or are showing fantastic promise. Entries deadline closes THIS FRIDAY.


Anita Longley is chair of the ICRS 

Comments (2)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    I find this article rather worrying. I am a retired research scientist, having spent the last 35 years of my professional career at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in Oxfordshire. Since retirement I have continued to take a keen interest in all energy matters, and have a wide circle of very experienced contacts in all aspects of the industry. I have thus acquired a wide knowledge of the spectrum of energy matters from nuclear generation to renewables. I became, by examination, an Associate of the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1954, and was elected a Fellow in 1971.

    The question of "sustainability" is highly complex, involving not only my own area of the physical sciences, but the biological and botanical ones, and what are generally regarded as the social sciences. It is therefore a new area of study and, like "climate science", will suffer from the intrusion of an undesirable element of smart fast talkers, who, to those who are not deeply immersed in the discipline, will be taken at their own evaluation.

    The understanding of both our climate, and how we should better manage our impact upon our environment, are new studies, and have a long road to travel. Those in senior positions have a heavy responsibility to identify, and eliminate (by pure reason) those who seek to "make a quick buck" and move on.

    The climate science scandals of a few years ago should make us alive to such matters. Indeed, in climate science, I can find no analysis of the molecular mechanism by which CO2 has an influence so much beyond its concentration.

    Determining the fundamental truths underlying both sustainability and climate science are absolutely vital, but exceedingly difficult.

    REAL experts are needed. But the title "expert" is not a nice one, has anybody got a better????

    As King Alfred is said to have remarked "The saddest thing about any man is that he is ignorant, and the most exciting thing is that he knows"

    And the again, Marie Curie “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is to be understood”.

    Richard Phillips

  2. Keiron Shatwell says:

    Richard and I are in agreement again 🙂

    With 21 years experience in the offshore oil and gas industry as a degree qualified Geologist I find it worrying that expertise is a bad word today. If experts are not being listened to and respected what is the point in going to University? Or doing research if it is to be shouted down by the "crowd of sheeples"?

    Take decommissioning of oil platforms for instance. Current expert advice is to "dead head" the steel jackets down to a safe depth below sea surface and leave them in place. Why? In the 40 years many have been standing in the North Sea they have become thriving ecosystems based around an artificial reef. The abundance of sea life on and around these structures is phenomenal (I’ve seen it for myself thanks to ROV footage). Some of the biggest fish you are ever likely to see and amazing sea lilies, cold water corals and other invertebrates. Leave the steel jackets to slowly rust away and we create one of the largest submarine ecosystems on the planet in the middle of the North Sea.

    However the "greens" are demanding total removal of all subsea structures and returning the seabed to the state it was 40 years ago. In other words a trawled and destroyed wasteland devoid of all sea life.

    Who do you believe? The sheep on their bandwagons or the experts who have spent years researching and observing the environment? Personally I’ll trust the experts on this one.

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