Have we had enough of experts?

Experts have taken a beating recently, in both the academic (focusing on peer review) and political spheres. 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.

Wider issues relating to post-truth (wilful miscommunication), a malign press, and the use and abuse, and multiplicity of opinion, on the internet, are also relevant – but my focus here is on how expert knowledge,  and how political the subject has become.

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’.

Why has this divide developed? 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, 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 more educated, liberal leaning’ … these days even language like this can raise hackles – education can be held against you.)

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 into 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.)

Whatever their political persuasion, ‘expert elites’ (‘elites’ is also a contentious word these days!) are happiest operating at arms-length from the electorate. They see themselves too readily as a class apart.

To combat this, ‘evidence-based thinking …must (be) subject(ed) to more “sense-checking”, (we) must give thought to what a wider public would make of it’. This can be easier said than done when both public and the popular press demand easily-understood arguments and, wherever possible, certainties.

Paul Johnson (of the Institute of Fiscal Studies) touched on this point in his talk (‘Making Choices’) at the Cheltenham literary 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.

It’s a black-or-white world and experts hoping to contribute subtle or balanced argument to public debate can have a mighty task on their hands.

 

 

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