Much of the rhetoric that has been pervasive over the past year, and especially with the election of President Trump, is related to how much value society places on qualifications when it comes to hiring and listening to people to help run the government.
Much has been made of President Trump’s cabinet picks, as well as his administration’s choices about what information they use when making decisions about policy, and thus it is important to understand how qualifications have changed over time and how that has affected decision-making at all levels of society. When I consider qualifications in society, I believe that there has been inflation. More people are named (by themselves or institutions) as experts in some field, and this has caused valid qualifications to become less valuable than they would be otherwise. I believe that the main factors that have led to this are independent certifications, a lack of effective communication between experts and the public, the prevalence of information available on the internet coupled with a lack of education on how to handle this information, and belief in a political dichotomy.
Perhaps the most mild of effects, yet what comes to mind immediately I first begin thinking about qualifications, is the existence of independent certifications. I chose the phrase to be intentionally broad, as it can encompass independent organizations (particularly online) that provide some rudimentary courses, where upon payment one can receive certification of some accomplishment. People have used such methods to be able to testify in court, be present on news organizations and create a following for themselves that generally results in misinformation for many. I also wish to include employers that provide job titles or internal training that certifies someone for a certain task, or people who certify themselves as knowledgable or capable after a brief stint on *YouTube* and *Wikipedia*. There is a significant amount of damage that someone can bring when they have the appearance of a qualification, yet do not provide a means to check it.
There are two main ways that independent certifications have affected how society values qualifications: undercutting the value of legitimate qualifications, and cluttering the information available to people. The first issue is related to the inflation mentioned above. As more people obtain qualifications to speak on a certain subject, it becomes harder to check who is *reasonably* qualified, and thus likely to provide better insight. Once those who have qualifications disagree, it then becomes easy to pick sides and reduce the influence any one person can have. Many times I see people speaking on a subject that they know about solely from rudimentary internet searches, and then news organizations and other media present these people equally against someone with an exceptional amount of education and first-hand experience researching the topic. This is most clearly shown on climate change debates, where a single person who denies climate change is put against a single person who believes in it. This is not representative of the facts of the situation, where a majority of scientists agree on climate change, and the few studies that do not agree often have significant conflicts of interest. Yet the qualifications asserted by these people are taken at face value, and reduce the value other qualifications hold. So we move into the issue of having too much information coming from these independently certified people. Media organizations use these people’s poorly formulated opinions on an objective topic and report them as facts, or worse, allow these people to take objective facts and measurements and turn them into debatable opinions. Once we devolve into this realm, qualifications become almost meaningless. Anyone who deems themselves qualified can chime in, further cluttering the information and making it nearly impossible for anyone to figure out what is true and worth considering.
In this way the process of determining what is debatable, what is truth, and who to listen to for these things becomes difficult. Due to the amount of information available and the ease with which someone can call themselves qualified, listening to experts in a field no longer seems reasonable as there is generally an easier, more appealing way of looking at an issue, thought it likely may be incorrect. Hence we begin to think about communication, and why the link between the scientific community and the public has been broken to such an extent that for many people, quack science has come to the forefront as even moderately believable, and studies funded by partisan organizations, research done by those with a strong conflict of interest, is taken seriously when deciding on policy. What happened to the communication, and how has it affected qualifications?
I do not believe the way that scientists communicate with the public has fundamentally changed in recent history. They still publish in journals that are not widely accessible, while a few wonderful individuals reach out to the public through lectures, documentaries and books. What has changed is how the public reacts to science, and their perception of what science is.
In recent years people have become critical of scientists, particularly when it comes to their influence in developing policy. From my perspective, many people have the sense that scientists are dictating terms from “on high”, talking down to the public. Naturally this does not settle well, and I understand that this is problematic. As I stated, I do not believe scientists have changed their form of communication, but this is where the issue is. The world has changed significantly, and with new people bringing information in the need for effective communication has increased. Others summarize (often incorrectly) studies that are put out, and with the increasing use of these intermediaries, communication readily breaks down.
What this has led to is a misunderstanding of what science is for and how it operates, which discredits the qualifications of scientists, putting them closer to the level of those who interpret their work or comment on the validity of the claims put forth in research. There are a few levels to this misunderstanding, including funding, methods and purpose for research. Funding is obviously a hot topic when it comes to political issues, especially when it concerns research in fields that lawmakers do not universally agree provides any utility, or in fact may be harmful to society. These lawmakers are for some reason seen as reasonable people to dissect and evaluate arguments related to funding for complex scientific research, despite many hearings showing their lack of humility, without any willingness to either learn about the topics or concede to those with far more experience. There seems to be an inherent distrust today as people weave narratives about scientists perpetuating hoaxes through irresponsible research for the sole reason of obtaining funding and keeping their job. Of course the irony in the situation is that these politicians are simply projecting their own experiences and faults onto scientists.
The main cause for these misunderstandings, and the true reason for the coomplete disregard of scientific qualification, is that the general public, as well as politicians, have little experience with science and do not understand how it works. Because of this, people feel qualified to discuss scientific research without fully understanding it, and as we know there are few things more dangerous than having just enough knowledge to not realize you have no real knowledge at all. People are under the impression that scientists work in absolutes, and that their results are unchanging and immediate. This is the most damaging belief held by the public, as it leads them to believe in headlines (see Chocolate and Cancer) without understanding that a single study proves nothing, and does not give a substantial basis for further action other than more research. A famous example is the senator who brought a snowball into a Senate meeting for the purpose of “disproving” climate change. This event, along with many more, show how little regard scientific qualifications are given as a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of science.
While I could easily splinter off and rant about science for a while, I would like to stay on track and begin discussing how the internet has also damaged the worth of qualifications today. Naturally I make great use of the internet and think that it has done a lot of good for people. The amount of information available is by all accounts a good thing. My issue is that people do not know how to properly parse the information they find on the internet. When it is so easy to find information supporting any opinion someone holds, the desire to check the information for accuracy is beat out by the desire to have some confirmation of a belief. Further than that, it gives people the feeling that their information has equal weight, importance and validity as the information produced and distributed by scientists.
As with many issues that crop up in a society, a significant obstacle in the way of adjusting how people interact with information on the internet is that not everyone admits that it is an issue, nor are they committed to fixing the issue as it stands. From an anecdotal standpoint — which I try my best to avoid as it is dangerous to cite personal experience as grounds for a large scale policy — this is made all the more frustrating as I grew up while people were trying to figure out how to use the rapidly increasing amount of information available to us. Every year we had lessons about proper research techniques, making sure a website was reputable and useful to us, and properly citing our information while also spending time analyzing why one source may not be useful in certain cases. And today I cannot figure out if people have not learned this lessons, of if they have gone too far into the depths of bias and convenient skepticism.
In some cases, it is clear that people have not learned how to deal with information on the internet. Social media posts are all about shock value and intriguing headlines, similar to popular science writing that I mentioned above. Due to this, few people seek out the sources of the information or check whether the people involved in presenting the information had a compelling reason for their efforts. Were they trying to push a particular view? Were they engaging in click-bait to increase page views, despite the content being subpar? Or were they genuinely interested in being a reasonable source of information? Based on what I see in the media, whether it be social, the news or other outlets, there seems to be little value placed on where information comes from. If this is true, it clearly explains why people do not care about qualifications. When all information is regarded equally, ideas that have grown throughout a long and rigorous process become jumbled with the musings of someone like me (yes I acknowledge I’m feeding the fire), and people have no reason to consider qualifications. What do they know that I cannot find immediately on the internet?
But perhaps people have gone too far in the other direction. What if instead of disregarding the issues that poor information management presents, they are being hypercritical of what they believe to be opinions, and thus feel justified in taking note of the “bias” that they believe exists? In some ways this is the more dangerous situation, since people are applying what they think they have learned, but are doing so in a way that is detrimental to themselves and those around them. If they believe that information that is presented by professionals is biased in some way, it ultimately reduces the meaning of their qualifications and lessens the impact their opinions can have in society.
There is much that can be said about the information available on the internet, but one outstanding issue that has developed in the most recent presidential campaign is that of a political dichotomy. People are put into either the conservative or liberal camps, and once placed there are expected to believe everything the other side thinks they stand for. If you are a liberal, you automatically wish to ban firearms, destroy business, leave the country undefended and wreck the foundations that the country was founded on. If you are conservative you are rich or uneducated, you don’t agree with the utility of science, you hate the idea of preserving the globe and are against minority rights.
There is surely much that can be said about the various causes of this issue in society, but right now we are concerned only with the effects. When the population becomes split like this, it becomes unbelievable that people could not be on a side or could straddle many sides of an argument. Thus groups (see: non-partisan research labs) are unfairly cast into the debates, and what they bring to the table is suddenly disregarded by the side that has now become “opposite” to them. Both sides are guilty of this, and ultimately it is society as a whole that loses. When we become blinded by political fights, and our representatives fail to represent us anymore, we lose the ability to use the best information available to us. We are reduced to what each side accuses the other of becoming: blind to the world, incapable of thought or reasoning through things. When we think of each other as that, when we do not allow the ability to talk outside of our circles, nobody wins.
As this year progresses, I am afraid that qualifications have no meaning right now. But we must remember this is not the fault of the institution of the government, but the fault of society, of everyone who does not leave room within themselves to learn about someone else, to look outside what immediately affects them. We need to care about the information we have and how we obtain it. It matters. The healthy skepticism that is taught in school is important, and is why the scientific process is so robust. We need to trust in it again and move forward together, so that there is meaning to what people say and do. Without that, we might all as well be quiet anyway.