Knowledge authorities derive power from their influence over the production, validation, or distribution of knowledge. This power arises from—and sustains—certain ways of understanding the world. The fall of old authorities could make sense-making less top-down in the future, leading to two outcomes: more access to cutting-edge information for everyone, and more opportunities for non-elites to have a prominent voice in public debates. But in such a future, it may be harder for Canadians to agree on who or what to trust.
In the past, mainstream knowledge authorities were familiar experts distinguished by academic qualifications or professional experience, such as journalists, officials, and faith leaders. Until recently, trust in these authorities—and in institutions such as the press, universities, and courts—seemed unshakeable.
Technological and social changes are challenging that authority by disrupting familiar patterns of trust and power.[i] The Replication Crisis,[ii] which suggests that some published research in the social sciences may be fundamentally flawed,[iii] is one factor. Poor popular understanding of science,[iv] and especially the ever-evolving state of scientific knowledge, is another. So is the relatively low profile of experts in the new, digital media system[v] compared to the legacy media system that gave them powerful platforms. Mastery of the new information ecosystem and its core technologies has become the leading source of knowledge authority.
As a result, today’s rising knowledge powers bear little resemblance to their predecessors. Big Tech controls unprecedented masses of data[vi] and shapes our information consumption[vii] with devices, algorithms, and streaming content. Influencers[viii] leverage charisma[ix] and tech savvy to sway mass audiences.[x] And regular people enjoy easier access to the research ecosystem[xi] than ever before, thanks to the open access movement[xii] and to citizen science initiatives.[xiii]
In the future, individuals may have to take greater responsibility for their own sense-making. New sources of information and new tools could make this relatively simple. Previously marginalized voices[xiv] may find wider audiences,[xv] which might popularize alternative ways of understanding the world.[xvi] Indigenous peoples, the environmental movement, and a variety of social causes might become more influential as a result. But the same could also be true for groups pushing extremist views,[xvii] conspiracy theories,[xviii], and mis/disinformation,[xix] or for platforms pushing particular economic or political agendas. In the end, a more open information playing field could create more confusion by making it harder to know who to trust.
[i] Bob Weber, “Canadians’ trust in science falling, poll suggests,” CBC, last modified Sep. 23, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/science-survey-1.5291291. Compare “The COVID Effect: Canadians Trust Doctors and Scientists while Politicians and Employers Lose Ground,” Cision, last modified Feb. 11, 2021, https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/the-covid-effect-canadians-trust-doctors-and-scientists-while-politicians-and-employers-lose-ground-810405062.html.
[ii] Kelsy Piper, “Science has been in a “replication crisis” for a decade. Have we learned anything?” Vox, last modified Oct. 14, 2020, https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/21504366/science-replication-crisis-peer-review-statistics.
[iii] Sarah Boseley, “Work of renowned UK psychologist Hans Eysenck ruled ‘unsafe’,” The Guardian, last modified Oct.11, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/oct/11/work-of-renowned-uk-psychologist-hans-eysenck-ruled-unsafe.
[iv] Laetitia Lenel, “Public and Scientific Uncertainty in the Time of COVID-19,” History of Knowledge, last modified May 13, 2020, https://historyofknowledge.net/2020/05/13/public-and-scientific-uncertainty/.
[v] Ryan Broderick, “I’m Not An Epidemiologist, But – The Rise Of Coronavirus Influencers,” Buzzfeed, last modified Mar. 18, 2020, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanhatesthis/im-not-an-epidemiologist-but-the-rise-of-the-corona. Timothy Caufield, “Pseudoscience and COVID-19 – we’ve had enough already,” Nature, last modified Apr. 27, 2020, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01266-z.
[vi] Luke Dormehl, “The world needs a better way to regulate Big Tech’s unchecked power,” Digital Trends, last modified Aug. 2, 2022, https://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/jaime-susskind-digital-republic-interview/.
[vii] James Vlahos, “Alexa and the search for the one perfect answer,” Wired, last modified Feb. 18, 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/amazon-alexa-search-for-the-one-perfect-answer/.
[viii] E. Dreyfuss, “In Praise of Dadfluencers,” Wired, last modified June 6, 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/praise-of-dadfluencers/.
[ix] Devin Gordon, “Why is Joe Rogan so Popular?” The Atlantic, last modified Aug. 19, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/08/my-joe-rogan-experience/594802/.
[x] Chris Stokel-Walker, “The rise of EduTube: how social media influencers are shaping universities,” The Guardian, last modified Dec. 2, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/dec/02/the-rise-of-edutube-how-social-media-influencers-are-shaping-universities.
[xi] M. Solly, “Ten Smithsonian Artifacts you can 3D print,” Smithsonian Magazine, last modified Nov. 27, 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ten-smithsonian-artifacts-you-can-3-d-print-180973649/. R. Watts, “The memes of medieval monks inspired the artwork for this comedic turn-based strategy [sic],” PC Gamer, last modified Dec. 5, 2019, https://www.pcgamer.com/the-memes-of-medieval-monks-inspired-the-artwork-for-this-comedic-turn-based-strategy/.
[xii] Lindsay Ellis, “A Turning point for scholarly publishing,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, last modified Feb. 17, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/open-access-is-going-mainstream-heres-why-that-could-transform-academic-life/.
[xiii] “A revolution in science: 5 ways to contribute to climate change research with your phone,” CBC, last modified Jan. 15, 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/the-nature-of-things/a-revolution-in-science-5-ways-to-contribute-to-climate-change-research-with-your-phone-1.6326556.
[xiv] Andrew Morantz, “The Stylish Socialist Who Is Trying to Save YouTube from Alt-Right Domination,” The New Yorker, last modified Nov. 19, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/the-stylish-socialist-who-is-trying-to-save-youtube-from-alt-right-domination.
[xv] Sehgal, “‘Lakota America’”.
[xvi] “Teaching the teachers with land-based learning,” CBC, last modified Mar. 23, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/land-based-learning-education-first-nation-wild-rice-1.5497286. Bryan Eneas, “Land-based education in Sask. education system not just a trend: teachers,” CBC, last modified May 30, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/land-based-education-more-than-a-trend-1.5156457.
[xvii] A.M. Stern, “White nationalists’.”
[xviii] Thomas C. Williams, “The French origins of “you will not replace us”,” The New Yorker, last modified Nov. 17, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/04/the-french-origins-of-you-will-not-replace-us.
[xix] Ben Decker, “Hats and Hate: Merchandising Disinformation Brands,” Global Disinformation Index, last modified May 3, 2019,