Bill Arnone, CEO, National Academy of Social Insurance

As we strive to enhance our Academy’s effectiveness in fulfilling our mission – increase public understanding of how social insurance contributes to economic security and advance solutions to challenges facing the nation – one of my major concerns in today’s polarized environment is the distrust of expertise among segments of the U.S. population.

Some of this distrust is due to deliberate efforts to undermine evidence-based research. My January 2017 message to Academy Members, “What does a “post-truth” era mean for the Academy?” addressed this. There are, however, other factors in such distrust.

Nervous States

Nervous States: Democracy and The Decline of Reason, by political economist William Davies (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018) examines factors contributing to this distrust in expertise. The book is a riveting examination of the challenge confronting organizations of expertise like our Academy.

In the book’s introduction, Davies identifies the crux of this challenge: “Knowledge becomes more valued for its speed and impact than for its cold objectivity, and emotive falsehood often travels faster than fact.” The title is based on his observation that “(i)n the murky space between mind and body…lie nervous states: individuals and governments living in a state of constant and heightened alertness, relying increasingly on feeling rather than fact.” One of the contributing factors to such states is “real-time media, available via mobile technologies.”

Davies notes, “we spend more of our time immersed in a stream of images and sensations, with less time for reflection or dispassionate analysis.” A similar theme underpins The Death of Expertise, by political scientist Thomas Nichols (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Engagement in an era of distrust

Our Academy has sometimes been described as an “honest broker” or “neutral intermediary” in the public policy space. Maintaining these roles – especially at a time when others may be embroiled in policy disputes – is critical to our credibility and trustworthiness.

How do organizations of experts like the National Academy of Social Insurance translate our policy research into understandable and actionable findings, especially when increasing numbers of Americans rely more on “real-time media” for facts and knowledge?

Furthermore, why should people – particularly those who are the current and future beneficiaries of social insurance and related programs – trust expertise that seems so detached from their daily life experience? How will we frame policy issues and communicate our research to engage key social insurance stakeholders more effectively? How might we include the “voices of beneficiaries” in our policy work?

Clearly, we need more engagement with our stakeholders – especially in the attention marketplace of social media – where emotional content, messaging, and translation are the keys to effective communication. This leads to another critical question for our Academy:

How will we break through some of the barriers to appreciating and relying on the Academy’s work and expertise, without jeopardizing our reputation?

According to Davies, “mounting inequality…means that, in certain ways, the facts produced by experts… simply do not capture lived reality for many people.” Davies adds: “Indicators such as GDP capture things in the aggregate, while GDP per capita captures what this means for people on average. But the divisive effect of economic inequality is such that aggregates and averages are simply no longer credible representations of how things are.”

In short, according to Davies, “statistical frameworks have moved even further away from lived experiences.” He warns: “When individuals feel unrepresented by the pronouncements of economists and statisticians, why should they continue to listen to policy experts?”

Developing a new engagement strategy for the Academy

Throughout the Academy’s thirty-two-year history, we have carefully maintained our reputation for evidence-based research and a nonpartisan approach to policy. In today’s polarized environment, such a posture is often met with skepticism. We need to recognize this perspective and seek ways to overcome it.

One suggestion Davies offers is that organizations like ours reconnect policy to “deep human needs, bringing shared feelings – including shared vulnerability – directly into the public domain.” In the final analysis, Davies predicts that organizations that emerge in today’s charged environment will be due to “survival of the truest” based on “authentic expertise.” Striking the right balance between reason/thinking and emotion/feeling is the key to our effectiveness. How we frame issues must reflect both.

As Members of our Academy, your suggestions on how we might enhance our engagement activities are always welcome. Please send them directly to me at Please also feel free to share your reactions to this piece using the comment box below.

Posted on: August 16, 2019

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