In Retrospect: MRIA Ottawa’s “The Authenticity Paradox: Is the Public Losing Faith in Experts?”

BY ARUNDATI DANDAPANI, DIRECTOR-AT-LARGE, MRIA OTTAWA CHAPTER AND MRIA EMERGING LEADERS TASK FORCE, September 2016

MRIA Ottawa’s glitzy fall opener, “The Authenticity Paradox: Is the public losing faith in experts?” explored this global phenomenon with far-reaching implications for research, the media, and democracy itself. Four eminent minds held forth on what declining public trust in expert opinions and the rise of populism means for Canada and how the audience could leverage this knowledge in daily practice. The power-packed panel spoke at the historic Rideau Club on Wednesday, September 21st drawing an engaged crowd of business professionals, market researchers and public servants.
Event moderator Nancy Jamieson, a leading public affairs consultant for decades, facilitated a conversation on authenticity; mistrust in experts, politicians and elites; and a growing environment where opinions from the social media megaphone trumps ivory tower intellectualism. Co-panelists Earnscliffe Principal Allen Gregg, CBC’s senior correspondent Neil MacDonald, and political columnist Susan Delacourt shared thought-provoking insights into a changing public opinion landscape in Canada and the US.

An utter disregard for facts leading to disastrous outcomes has become something of a pattern in public life.  The outbreak of measles in Disneyland owing to parents who refused to get their kids vaccinated because of a spurious study linking the vaccinations to autism is a recent example. Climate change denial, Brexiters’ mistrust in experts, and demagoguery substituting for thoughtful policy in election rhetoric are others. The deluge of media and the public illusion that “everyone has equal access to expertise or knowledge” is wrecking people’s choices.

Susan Delacourt, author of Shopping for Votes declared, “We are living in post-partisan times. We are driven by how we feel, and not what’s good for us and this is resulting in bad decisions and poor choices. We are bothered more with the message we are receiving than the message being sent to us,” whether it’s through politicians or brands. “Authenticity” appeals to a mood and perceived values rather than facts. Traditionally conservative news media like the CBC adopting an opinion page to “keep up with the times” and the rise of blog media, are further signs that “authorship” is most important. Alas, we can only measure what people are reading, not what they need to read, rued Susan Delacourt, at a time when faith in the media has sunk to its lowest (32%) in US polling history.

Allan Gregg warned of this public tendency to “using softer criteria” and judging people on personality and perceived values. He noted that challenging economic conditions have caused certain segments of the population to perceive opportunity as being limited, making them perceive the success of others as a threat to their personal well-being and leading to this “incomprehensible political dynamic in the US” where supposedly “authentic” politicians gain swifter currency than those who wield “authority”. Neil MacDonald revealed that “facts do not matter where deep passions run.” Archie Bunker, Rob Ford and Paul Knox have served in public image as “authentic” icons. Outsiders like Larry O’Brien and Naheed Nemshi are testament to this phenomenon. While polarizing figures on the right-wing often receive the most attention for this, “authenticity” as a driver of political success is not just a right wing tendency, argued Susan Delacourt. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, went against orthodoxy and stood for feminism, abortion laws and legalizing pot in his election campaign.

In Canada, trust in politicians is lowest (9%) when compared to all occupations according to an EKOS poll. Politicians are constructing various realities and facts in a post-factual democracy where “we turn to facts for satisfaction,” according to Neil MacDonald who said, “I cannot just distance myself from the facts, but I immerse myself in them.” Canada’s last federal election for example, was a contest about who could harness fear versus hope, said Susan Delacourt. It was agreed that while distrust of the elites was understandable, the elites are necessary.

Finally, the speakers recommended getting a grip on the facts, being comfortable in one’s skin, accepting one’s mistakes, expanding on diversity among elites, and striving to find evidence-based consensus. They offered the solace that big data is running politics and making parties more responsible with its granularity. A Q-and-A probed more into remedial action.

The event drew diverse attendance from many cohorts, including MRIA members, non-members, and out-of-town visitors. The MRIA would like to thank the Ottawa Chapter and its sponsors, guests, and panelists for such a successful event.

For a slideshow on The Authenticity Paradox, click here.