How is it that in the run up to the Brexit vote and across the pond in the US the public have come to see experts – academics, practitioners, leaders in the field – as unqualified to guide policy?
In the UK, we heard Conservative MP Michael Gove’s now familiar words, “people in this country have had enough of experts” and fellow leave campaigner Labour MP Gisela Stuart say to voters that “There is only one expert that matters and that’s you, the voter.” More recently, Conservative MP Glyn Davies tweeted that he’s never thought of academics as experts because they have “no experience of the real world.” (Lord Norton of Louth appropriately responded that “They probably know, though, a non sequitur when they see one”.) In the US we’ve recently heard Donald Trump disparage a military expert and former dean of the Army War College, Jeff McCausland, claiming that Trump himself knew more than McCausland about military strategy. This comes after months of speeches and three presidential debates in which Trump has blatantly lied about facts and disregarded expert opinion. The vote for Brexit and the support for Trump suggest that people are willing to believe that expert opinion is not all that useful. In this blog I explore some reasons why that might be. Of course many other reasons have been put forward, and I have linked to these at the bottom of the blog.
One important reason may be that reputable academics and research institutions produce evidence for or against certain propositions in the form of data, statistics and argument which are (we hope) free from persuasive emotional biases. So argues Julia Shaw, Canadian psychologist and senior lecturer at London Southbank University, who says that emotional triggers in an argument are far more persuasive than logic alone. Shaw claims that the kind of arguments used by the Leave Campaign in the UK and by Trump in the US are “appeals to fear”. That is, they argue that the consequences of the other side’s argument – for instance, that the UK would experience huge amounts of immigration following a remain vote – are scary and therefore that their own argument is true. Whilst it is a logically invalid argument, Shaw says that it is very effective at convincing people. Once emotions get involved in your decision-making process, according to Shaw, you engage in what she calls “peripheral processing,” which is when you focus on the emotions on the peripheral of an argument and hence fail to focus on the internal logic of it. So when Michael Gove and Boris Johnson say that expert opinion doesn’t matter, what they are doing, according to Shaw, is telling the listener to turn off their logic and to listen only to the emotional pull of an argument.
The emotional pull of some of the main arguments made by the Leave Campaign and similarly Donald Trump is that the way of life of the ethnic majority is threatened by outsiders, that the country’s fate is being taken out of their hands. You can see this in Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” alongside his attacks on Latinos and Muslims. You can also see it in the Leave Campaign’s persistent focus on immigration and how it was getting somehow out of control. Amanda Taub from the New York Times calls it “the crisis of whiteness.” All over the western world, she says, the value of being white in western countries has been shrinking as decades of rising multiculturalism have reduced the whites’ ethno-national majority. In this context,
Whiteness means being part of the group whose appearance, traditions, religion and even food are the default norm. It’s being a person who, by unspoken rules, was long entitled as part of “us” instead of “them.”
Rising levels of multiculturalism have meant that the white national majority’s ability to say “This is our nation”, ‘our’ meaning the ethno-national majority, has been diminished.
To agree with Julia Shaw’s argument that when politicians tell us to disregard the opinions of experts, they are merely distracting us from thinking logically about their arguments, we need not say that the anxieties faced by the white national majority are invalid or somehow insubstantial. Neither need we say that there are no valid points to make that Trump’s and the Brexiters’ policies would better address “the crisis of whiteness” for their respective nations. To agree with Shaw we must merely say that whatever those points may be, they will not be reached by using a purely emotional-based campaign which detracts from any discussion of the validity of those points. The real reason for the focus by the Brexiters and Trump on the fear of immigration then seems to be that it is used to distract attention away from substantive criticism of their policies. For instance, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s remarks disparaging the views of experts came after a whole host of experts had warned against the potential costs of Brexit (e.g. here, here, and here). Had the experts been on their side, it is hard to imagine Gove and Johnson dismissing their views and focusing so extensively on the fear of immigration.
The implication for those of us who would like to see increased value of the currency of evidence and expert opinion in debates about public policy may be that we must fight fire with fire. So argues Julie Shaw, who claims that unless those on the side of Hillary Clinton in the current presidential election make use of emotion-based campaigns in their fight against Donald Trump, they could face the same fate as those on the Remain side of the Brexit debate in the UK who, she argues, “severely overestimated the impact of calling on evidence and experts to convince people to vote in their favor.”
Another factor which influences how persuasive the public finds expert opinion is that experts are seen as “elites” who are so detached from real people that they are unable to distinguish the needs of the country. There is an element of truth in this: at least in the field of science, only 15% of scientists in the UK come from working class backgrounds, far less than would be expected by chance. Similarly, people from the top social class are over-represented in science by 100%. Aside from the obvious argument for equal representation in science and other fields on the basis of equality of opportunity, there is an independent argument for equal representation on the basis that it would increase the uptake of well thought out, evidence-backed opinion. Whether the elite nature of scientists and experts makes them unable to distinguish the needs of the country is doubtful. However, such a situation clearly has negative implications for the respect for expert opinion, as evidenced by prominent politicians’ dismissal of it in recent months. The implication is that those of us who want to see more evidence used in debates on public policy should push for more equal representation in academic and technical fields – not just equal representation of class, but of gender, race, and so on.
I hope to have gone some way to explaining the recent tendency of the public to believe that expert opinion is not to be trusted. Doubtless it is only a partial explanation. But the more we can find out about the causes of this trend, the better-equipped we will be to push back against it to ensure that in policy debates, evidence is valued first and foremost.
John Van Reenan puts forward the idea that major news outlets like the purportedly impartial BBC gave airtime to unsubstantiated claims made by the Leave campaign in the Brexit debate and failed to show them in a critical light. In so doing, Van Reenan claims, the BBC implied that there were just some economists in favour of Leave and others in favour of Remain rather than focusing on the vast disparity between the numbers of reputable economists on either side. He suggests also that academics in the field of economics should have been more willing to to talk to the public and more supportive of colleagues who were doing so. Thirdly, he suggests that there are some basic economic misconceptions which pervade the British public and that these should be better addressed by our education system.
Simon Wren-Lewis says that it is becoming increasingly difficult for academics to be heard by the media against the noise of think tanks and other bodies with good PR. He makes the point that whether a source has good PR or not has nothing to do with the value of the content they are trying to publicise, but nonetheless it is being used as a criterion for working out what is news and what isn’t, and hence the voices of academics are being drowned out. Implication: to get academic knowledge to policymakers more effectively, time and energy needs to be spent finding new ways to engage with the media.