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Can Experts be Trusted? A Think Tank’s Response

Can Experts be Trusted? A Think Tank’s Response
 Victor Poirier
Former director of Publications

"It is by writing nonsense that you become a soothsayer. Or an expert, one never knows." This quote, credited to the Quebecer journalist Jean Dion, could sum up the current state of public opinion regarding the role of those who are coined “experts”. But some opinions are way more vocal about it: for former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, of the National Front, “expertise” is a kind of bluff manipulating and misleading citizens… 

More generally - and this isn’t just due to influential extremists’ claims -, experts are indeed struggling. They are being caught between contradictory forces: in times of “fake news”, their opinion has never been this demanded, yet they have also never been so criticised

So what role can think tanks play in this rich yet paradoxical ecosystem? How can they work to recreate a climate of trust between citizens and expertise? 

The French context

Unlike many democracies, France has not yet been able to foster the creation of a large think tank ecosystem promoting the generation of new ideas. 

Various explanations could be put forward: a lack of financial means, a sometimes deficient governance, weak parliamentary reports, attrition of the media, administration’s endogamy, universities retreating into sole academic research, difficulties for private and public actors to work together… The reasons are numerous and intertwined. In a context where populist political forces are emerging and debates are displaced onto social media, the distrust in intermediary organizations is also affecting expertise. Even the scientific discourse, the valorisation of which was placed at the centre of the French Republican culture, is sometimes considered as suspicious.  

The backflow of populism has only been temporary until now - as shown by the 2017 French presidential elections for instance. The forces outside the democratic frame, promoting the worst for the European construction, were hardly countered in the debate of ideas. However, the campaign has shown that giving up cannot bean option. It is the think tanks’ role to work and prove the utility of ideas, to argue point by point, and to rationally deconstruct extreme positions and discourses.

Think tanks in France and abroad 

Despite their difficulties and the current context, think tanks apparently manage to play their cards right. As a reminder, think tanks can be defined as “a group of experts who are brought together to develop ideas and give advice on a particular subject”. Their main added value lies in their ability to step back from the turmoil of news in order to adopt a more long-term perspective on events, a process which is today rarely found among expertise available to citizens. 

Think tanks are increasingly renowned by citizens and public authorities: according to the Institute Think in February 2017, they are among the institutions that French managers and executives trust the most, by 57%. In comparison, NGOs gather 60% of positive opinion, the media only 28% and political parties 12%. 

Such a recognition was not granted: as previously mentioned, the French culture of think tanks was not as developed as elsewhere, especially compared to the United States (for example Brookings Institution), Germany (for example Bertelsmann Stiftung) or British institutions (for example Chatham House), the resources of which are 4 to 25 times superior to most renowned French think tanks (for example, Institut Montaigne had a budget of 4.08 millions euros in 2017, versus 17 millions for Chatham House (2016), 129 millions Bertelsmann Stiftung (2016) and 107 millions for Brookings (2016)).

Unlike think tanks based in the United States, which are mostly financed by companies, the majority of German and French think tanks receive public funds. Only a few, including Institut Montaigne, do not rely on financial aid from the State. 

What role for think tanks in the future?

At times, constructive hindsight and intellectual debates fostered by think tanks can seem disconnected from the media’s immediate imperatives. However, they actually fulfill different objectives: by fixing their own agenda, think tanks free themselves from the pressure of the news and gain the possibility to look further ahead, in more a detailed way, and to engage in a prospective effort benefitting wider society.  

Short-term and long-term experts will always exist. Yet, think tanks’ rather recently acquired credibility should lead the latter to play a more decisive role in the public debate, mainly because of the difficulty of their task:that of enlightening citizens while at the same time informing and advising policy-makers. In order to do so, the transparency of their methods must be flawless, their delivered messages must be innovative, and most of all, their recommendations on the policy issues they address must be bold. Institut Montaigne would add: pragmatic. 

Our work as well as our colleagues’ is the result of a long thought process on the work methods of expertise and the identification of renowned serious and independent actors, at a time when these topics must be addressed. The nonpartisan dimension of think tanks - this is the case of Institut Montaigne - must allow them to offer a strongly documented analysis, far from ideological anathemas, in order to give policy-makers and citizens the basic material to think and make decisions for themselves.

When do we turn think tanks into do tanks? 

Should think tanks be solely confined to the sphere of thought? Arguably  not… Stepping out of the thought laboratory as often as possible to perform crash tests is very important as well. Public actors can of course remain the main instigators of these “reality checks”. We actually expect them to experiment more than they do today, and to draw conclusions from the result of their actions. In some cases however, think tanks can - alone or along with other actors - be a substitute for these public powers. This role would be more of a way to complement, rather than compete, with what already exists. 

Citizens rightly expect that these “structures of expertise” will not limit themselves to the sharing of commentaries and insights. Given the constraints public action is confronted with (multifaceted threats, budget constraints, democratic disenchantment, etc.), they are required to perform “reality checks” on their thinking. Citizens also want to be heard, to be consulted, so that trust -  an essential ingredient to the efficiency of public action -  can be restored. 

Examples from Institut Montaigne

Institut Montaigne has carried out a number of initiatives to better understand citizens’ expectations, and thus, to better address the challenges that French society is facing:

Concluding remarks

Experts’ considerations are all too often distant from the concerns of the citizens they claim they understand. It is the responsibility of institutions like think tanks to ensure that the picture they show and the recommendations they formulate correspond to the vision and the expectations of these citizens.

Henceforth, comforting and legitimizing expertise necessarily requires to confront ideas and propositions with that of other structures (in France and abroad), and with the local realities surrounding the implementation of public policies at the territorial level. Only tangible and proven results, which are carefully explained and issued from a rigorous thought process will enable to bring expertise back to the core of our democracy’s functioning. 

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