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Could coronavirus bring back our faith in experts?

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imageThe Conversation/Wes Mountain, CC BY-SA

In recent years an ugly hostility to experts has become entrenched in public life. Populists like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have defined themselves in opposition to elites, gaining high office while pouring scorn on anyone who actually knows what they are talking about. British politician Michael Gove stated it baldly when he said the public was sick of experts.

Across the world the level of aggression directed at climate scientists has been frightening. Academics, public servants, judges, scientists, meteorologists and health officials have all become used to being traduced where once they might have been respected for their unique skills and knowledge.


Australia too has been infected by anti-intellectualism, a powerful undercurrent in Canberra. Late last year the government announced a shake-up of the public service aimed at busting the “mandarin” club. Deriding research projects funded by the ARC and NHMRC has long been a staple of tabloid resentment. As I write this universities are struggling to find friends in government, despite the urgency of their research work and a predicted loss of up to $4.6 billion in the wake of COVID-19, which will severely curtail our research capacity.

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But things are changing quickly. For weeks now we have barely seen the prime minister without Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy by his side. Writing in the Nine newspapers this week, the journalist Peter Hartcher posed the important question of whether COVID-19 could be a circuit-breaker for populism founded on hostility to experts.

The political calculation used to be that the public will tolerate it when experts get rough treatment. But now we’re being told, quite rightly, that we are in this together.

And who will solve our problems now? Medical researchers, epidemiologists, immunologists, economists, psychologists, legal scholars, sociologists. In a word, experts.

The Conversation was created in 2011 to build a bridge between academic experts and the broader public. For the past nine years we’ve been working with the world’s best academics, bringing you their groundbreaking research and drawing on their expertise to help explain the big issues and news events of our times.

Despite a large and appreciative audience, we’ve always been swimming against a tide. But it’s turning, and the research and expertise found in Australian and New Zealand universities couldn’t be more essential.

Now is the time to get behind the experts: debate them, critique them, respect them, value them. It’s what The Conversation has always done, and what we will continue to do as we look to our brightest thinkers to map a future after COVID-19.


Authors: Misha Ketchell, Editor & Executive Director, The Conversation

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