Experts have taken a beating recently, in both the academic (focusing on peer review) and political speheres. Focusing on politics, the issue of trust has been brought to a head by the Brexit debate, and Michael Gove’s infamous comment that ‘people have had enough of experts’.
The economy, immigration, sovereignty are central to the Brexit debate. But informing all three is the issue of how expert knowledge is conveyed. Brexit is of course only one focus, though it has become obsessive. What of climate change, migration, overseas aid, crime and punishment? All central to the public discourse, all areas where views tend be to be personal and strongly held, and resistant to argument.
I found an article in Prospect (August 2017) by Helen Jackson and Paul Ormerod helpful. (All quotes below are from the Prospect article.)
Last year, in the referendum debate, ‘many members of the public formed an impression, whether fairly or not, of experts attempting to settle an important and emotive matter over the heads.’ There’s a fault line between the ‘people’ and ‘those who think they know what’s good for them’.
The ‘people’ find support in surprising places.
Take Stanley Johnson’s comments this week at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, in response to Vince Cable’s thoughts on the subject of higher education. ‘What Vince says may be right, but it may not be.’ You damn evidence without needing to put up counter-evidence of your own.
I remember similar issues during the climate change debates in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit in 2009. In this case there was counter-evidence, but evidence which had a wide, arguably overriding, basis of support was matched against evidence from a narrow base – and the two were treated as having equal authority.
Why has this divide developed, between the ‘experts’ and the ‘people’? The independence enjoyed by central banks has been, Jackson and Ormerod argue, a contributing factor. Huge faith was vested in their predictions, until the crash came. Likewise, the end of the Cold War led to a ‘a narrowing of disagreement’ in politics, the sense that we were managing the economy, rather than debating bigger issues.
I’d add austerity to the mix, which as a post-Crash remedy has had the status for many as holy writ, whatever the social cost, and one of the reasons for the Tory debacle last June was a widening of the anti-austerity base to include many Brexit supporters. Above all, in a Brexit context, we have immigration, where public sentiment is impervious to counter-argument.
On the left we have Corbynite populism, picking up on austerity, and swinging to a far extreme of public spending based on unrealisable funding projections. Critical commentary from economists is disdained. (There is of course a far left, neo-Marxist resurgence here as well, a coming-together of the Cold War-era faithful. But that’s another story.)
But, as Jackson and Ormerod argue, the backlash against “experts” is still principally associated with the right. ‘The more educated, liberal-leaning section of society needs to understand why this is. It is not because, as is commonly assumed, the right is simply the political wing of the dark side.’
The right argues that political choice, however well-motivated, is ultimately based on economic self-interest. Noble theoretical aims – or simple good intentions – go awry in practice. Jackson and Ormerod cite ‘public choice theory’ as developed by Nobel-Prize-winner James Buchanan in this regard, arguing that ‘the Buchanan analysis can easily morph into the intransigent view that pursuing any collective goal will lead to empire-building bureaucrats, who also fall prey to “capture” by self-serving lobbyists’. (So opposition to expertise morphs unto opposition to the big state – and we have the phenomenon of the attempted post-Brexit takeover of the Tory party by the libertarian right. Also, the American right’s position on climate change and healthcare.)
For many resistance to this worldview takes the form of a bitter ‘for-us or against-us’ polarisation, which cannot be the way forward. (And resistance breeds resistance on the other side.) We need a recogntion that expert elites have been operating for too long at arms-length from the electorate, taking them for granted. ‘We must not denigrate evidence-based thinking, a bad habit of thuggish regimes, but we must subject it to more “sense-checking”, and in communicating must pause and give thought to what a wider public would make of it.’
We must persuade, not hector.
You’ll notice the pervasive use of ‘we’ by Jackson and Ormerod. Experts do see themselves as a class apart, they too easily pull up the drawbridge. As a group they need to be down among the public, communicating in the language of everyday, which is far from easy when the public demand easily-understood arguments and, wherever possible, certainties.
Paul Johnson touched on this point in his talk (‘Making Choices’) at the Cheltenham festival last night. The public don’t want a range of possibilities, they want a straightforward yes-no answer to a question, and that’s what our media interviewers and commentators try to cajole out of them. Nor are they allowed changes of mind, however justified or well-argued.
Ormerod argues elsewhere that most government policies more or less fail. I’ve seen the figure of 70%, but there are many levels of failure. (There are policies born of necessity, and policies born of dogma, and a multitude inbetween.) EExpect too much and disillusion awaits. Check out the book, The Blunders of our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe.
Politicians and the experts who advise them are too often on a hiding-to-nothing. I’d argue that nothing will change until we move away from the culture of assertion and certainty. And that won’t be easy.