Have we had enough of experts?

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.

 

 

The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

Waking for charity with Melanie

We’ve been out walking, 10km (not miles, that’s the way it is these days), for ‘Walk the Wards’, a charity event to raise money for local hospitals in the Cheltenham area. (My partner, Hazel, is a volunteer on the oncology ward at Cheltenham Hospital.)

There’s something wonderfully positive about such events. I’ve run marathons for charity, but this was more laid-back, more focused – one charity, not many, and walking, so time to think, and no crowds to cheer you on, just mud (too much rain overnight) and a sense of common purpose.

The mood continues into the afternoon, this afternoon, Sunday afternoon. It’s drizzling outside.

It was drizzling – raining – at Woodstock in 1969, when the singer Melanie came on stage for her first-ever performance to a big crowd. The audience were lighting candles to beat back the rain. (We had imagination in those days!) She came away, as she said, a celebrity, and with the chorus of ‘(Lay Down) Candles in the Rain’ in her head. ‘I left that field with that song in my head, the anthemic part.’

Lay down, lay down, lay it all down…let your white birds smile/at the ones who stand and frown./Lay down, lay down, lay it all down…let your white birds smile/at the ones who stand and frown.

We were so close, there was no room, we bled inside each /other’s wounds.

We all had caught the same disease..and we all sang, the songs /of peace.

I wasn’t at Woodstock, but I listened and lived it back in 1969. Listening to Melanie singing Ruby Tuesday (in the bath, after the walk!), and that catch in her voice – something of the old optimism came back to me.

Today’s walk, ‘Walk the wards’, did a little bit of the same. Brought back the optimism.

In this overly negative, too often backward-looking era, with Barack Obama a memory (though still an inspiration), we have to hang on to the ‘can-do’, make it new, share it with our kids and their kids.

Another Melanie song, ‘Peace will Come’:

And my feet are swimming in all of the waters /All of the rivers are givers to the ocean /According to plan, according to man …

Oh there’s a chance peace will come /In your life

Each generation feels the push-back, each new generation has to push forward, all progress is slow, but if the older generations can find it in them to join with the younger, as I did with my two children, very grown-up children, last year, opposing Brexit in Trafalgar Square, then there is hope…

And yet… a mention of Brexit slips in. Many walking today will be Brexit supporters. Nothing is ever simple.