When politicians hide behind experts

People aren’t opposed to expertise – they’re opposed to the use of expertise to stymie democratic debate.

Norman Lewis

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Topics Brexit Politics

In the run-up to the General Election, The Times tested 100 swing voters to see what would happen when they were presented with ‘facts’ on certain issues by dispassionate experts. The issues discussed were the role of the private sector in the NHS and university tuition fees.

At the start of the session, 50 swing voters thought the private sector did have a role to play in the NHS, 36 thought it did not, and 14 were unsure. On tuition fees, 55 supported them, 38 did not, and seven were unsure.

Enter, first, NHS expert Jonathan Simons, a social-policy consultant at Public First. He showed the voters how health spending is apportioned, without discussing the merits or demerits of the spending. Up next, on the issue of tuition fees, was Andy Westwood, a professor of government at Manchester University. He explained how the tuition-fees system worked.

After the intervention of the experts, The Times asked the participants to vote on the same two issues again. The results were rather different. On the NHS, 75 people thought the private sector did have a role to play in the NHS, while only 11 now disagreed. On tuition fees, 63 people now supported them, while 37 did not.

The Times concluded that voters’ ‘views do change when… presented with facts by people that they can trust’. It prompted a Times editorial on ‘Truth and post-truth’, which argued that ‘there is an important role both for experts and trusted media in challenging political lies. If there is to be an effective remedy to a post-truth world it cannot start by underestimating the public.’

The disingenuousness of this exercise and conclusion is breathtaking. The Times’ surprise that voters can change their minds in the face of facts is only surprising because its starting assumption was the opposite. Ever since the Brexit vote in 2016, the media and political elites have not only underestimated members of the public — they have also denigrated them. The very idea that, post-2016, we live in ‘post-truth world’ is based on the unwarranted assumption that ordinary people are gullible, and easily swayed by lies and fake news.

Moreover, the proposal to use apparently disinterested experts to correct the public’s views is deeply anti-democratic. Politics, here, is presented as the problem to which more technocracy is the solution. Debate is to be eschewed. Argument muted. This is the media and political elite’s dream: an expert-led and manipulated consensus, in which people will be compelled to recognise the ‘truth’ and judge accordingly. It effectively depoliticises politics through the politicisation of expertise.

Yet the problem for society is that you cannot depoliticise politics by politising the sphere of expert authority without undermining both. This in fact accounts for the mess we find ourselves in today.

In the first instance, political decisions cannot be crudely reduced to technical decision-making. Politics is not a technical, data-driven science. It requires judgement, by citizens and politicians, based on differering and competing moral values and meanings. Secondly, facts are never simply objective. They always embody theoretical assumptions. Understanding material reality always involves acts of judgement and interpretation, and, often, misjudgements and misinterpretations. Well-meaning experts will always bring their narrow field of expertise to bear upon a problem. But it will necessarily only offer a partial view and interpretation of a problem.

For instance, take a real issue, like malnourishment in a developing country. We could draw on the expertise of: nutritionists, who will view the issue in terms of creating an optimal diet; agronomists, who may frame the problem in terms of food production; demographers, who will see the problem in terms of population growth; and so on. All these inputs and a broader view of the economy and society, could inform a collective, democratic judgement as to what policies a society should pursue. This would be a product not of expertise, but of democracy and expertise. It involves a moral and political choice, which requires informed debate and contestation, even among experts themselves.

Those calling for a new era of ‘truthful politics’ claim that ordinary people have turned their backs on experts. But there is no evidence of this. A post-Brexit poll by the UK Institute for Government showed that over 80 per cent of all voters thought politicians making difficult decisions should consult experts. Which is not a surprise. The truth is that many ordinary people have not rejected expertise per se. Rather, they have rejected the politicisation of expertise. That is, they have rejected the political use of experts to answer political and moral problems often way beyond experts’ areas of speciality.

One of the disastrous outcomes of this process, in which a political elite uses experts to authorise its judgements and decisions, is what might be called the ‘expert de-authorisation spiral’. That is, using experts to justify political decisions and compel the public’s assent doesn’t only violate the norms of democratic accountability — it also undermines the legitimacy of expert authority.

There is an inexorable logic to this process which makes it so destructive. The expert is forever being asked to exercise his or her authority for political ends beyond the field in which it applies. While a climate expert can tell us about the complex interaction of sea and air temperatures, for example, he or she cannot tell us which energy policies should be pursued by a government. For a political decision involves moral, ethical and values-based judgements of which the input from climate scientists would form only a part. Hiding behind climate-change experts is a way of avoiding having to win a public debate about the best energy policy to follow in the future.

The politicisation of expertise results in technocratic authoritarianism. It is the demand that the public defer to those who know what is best for us. It is therefore a scenario that culminates in mass passivity and timidity.

What The Times’s experiment really highlights is that expertise always needs questioning. How has knowledge ever increased without existing orthodoxies and truths being challenged or countered?

True expertise is always rooted in society. It has always developed in accordance with how well it has explained or changed the world for the better. To advocate a form of expertise that is above society is to rob the expert of the lifeblood that keeps the pursuit of that expertise honest, focused and legitimate. The ‘expert de-authorisation spiral’ is a threat to the future not only of expertise, but of democracy itself.

Norman Lewis works on innovation networks and is a co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Comments

James Knight

12th December 2019 at 7:45 pm

Experts will tell people to stay put in a Tower block fire.

Michael Lynch

12th December 2019 at 11:48 pm

One of the best comments ever. Succinct and entirely to the point. Economic experts couldn’t predict the biggest recession since the 1930s either until it smacked them in the face.

Pragmatix Pragmatix

12th December 2019 at 6:00 pm

Ah, the Expert.

Perhaps best described as a cross between a drip under pressure and a has been.

A dear friend of mine, no longer with us, was I suppose an “Expert”: even in long retirement he was constantly consulted by major governments and organisations all over the World. Yet he hated the term “Expert”.

As he stated: “The longer I live, then the more I know; and the more I know, then the more I realise I have still much to learn!”

Worth remembering, perhaps it was a Government expert scientist who persuaded them to adopt diesel engines in cars as “They were less polluting”.

Well, that was excellent – specious – advice!

Iain Litenment

12th December 2019 at 9:22 am

Facts are not simply objective; they do not sit in a vacuum. They tend to sit in relation to other facts within a society in process, and in relation to the agenda, theoretical or otherwise, held by the investigator.
Take for example the gender pay gap often discussed on this site. It seems to be a fact that there is one. But as Ella Whelan and Joanna Williams have pointed out on a number of occasions, it requires a further unpacking of the data to get a better handle on the truth. Age breakdown, sector breakdown, and individual choice, for example, help in this. A better understanding of the picture will also be added if we look at all of these elements as they change over time.
Finally, with the best picture possible given the tools available, which also change over time, the issues should be debated in the public sphere before any action is taken. But as Norman Lewis points out, expertise has been politicised; and it has been politicised in the service of a section of society that believes itself to be morally and intellectually superior to the rest of us. People understand that they are sold moral messages with the use of expertise and so have become sceptical about what they are told. This has a corrosive effect on the public debate.

M Blando

12th December 2019 at 12:08 pm

You’re entirely correct IMHO. At the root of it all is complexity. Managing the country to the benefit of all is a complex business – yet no one says so… I find the not saying so odd. Surely acknowledging the complexity is the first step in sensible political debate.

Jerry Owen

12th December 2019 at 8:57 am

We need a wider access to information. An access that is being narrowed.
A wider range of opinions need to be voiced on all topics from all sides on all media. A good proveable example would be the BBC with its heavy ‘remain’ bias on QT.
Mark Carney a man who’s expertise has been sought before and after the referendum has been wrong both sides of it. Is he an expert, yet he is still paraded as a font of knowledge?
We live in a heavily censored society, most people don’t see it, if they did maybe they would question things a little more, after all we almost have the threat of JC being PM a man who has a proven track record of supporting terrorists world wide. Where is not only the proven ‘expertise’ on that heard anywhere .. but where is his terrorist supporting ideology really mentioned .
We need breadth of information not experts on it necessarily.

William Murphy

12th December 2019 at 8:41 am

“While a climate expert can tell us about the complex interaction of sea and air temperatures, for example, he or she cannot tell us which energy policies should be pursued by a government.”

I recently went to a talk by a “climate expert” who had been Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College, London. As soon as she strayed outside her very narrow area of expertise (and even that was wide open to debate), she produced highly debatable statements on taxation of oil companies, energy generation and the use of coal in the UK. She seemed to think that we have given up coal in the UK, when we are still using about 8 million tons a year. As for turning her guidance into practical policies….I reckon you would have a better chance of turning water into wine.

K Tojo

12th December 2019 at 11:00 am

Which experts are we allowed to hear? There is a serious question about which experts the MSM will draw the public’s attention to. The climate change issue is a perfect example of the distortion which can occur when the views of approved experts are broadcast enthusiastically and uncritically while the views of dissenting experts are shrugged off as fringe and irrelevant.

Could this be an instance of “manufacturing consent” (albeit one which Chomsky might approve of)? After all, polls show that a majority of people now believe that “the planet” is in danger from climate change and few will know of the very many reputable scientists who fundamentally challenge the climate change orthodoxy.

James Knight

12th December 2019 at 8:00 pm

Climate scientists are what used to be called “weather prophets”. They have never been accountable for their passed failed predictions (like the former consensus behind global cooling). Their theory of CO2 does not appear to be a scientifically testable or a falsifiable hypothesis, so the claims to be a science at all are open to serious question. There is no fundamental scientific distinction between weather and climate, only an arbitrary one. Statements like “the world is getting hotter” are scientifically meaningless if not illiterate.

According to a now removed article from the Independent in 2000:

“Dr David Viner, a senior research scientist at the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia within a few years winter snowfall will become “a very rare and exciting event” “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is”, he said.

Give me the common sense of plebs over these “experts” any day of the week.

Philip Humphrey

12th December 2019 at 8:40 am

I think there are a couple of problems with all of this. First of all some disciplines of “expertise” have (as yet) a predictive power which is somewhat short of a useful probability of being right. Economics, sociology and most of the “soft sciences” generally fall into this category. Perhaps one day we will have the equivalent of Isaac Asimov’s psychohistorians who can accurately predict the future (with all the interesting consequences that entail), but our present economists and sociologists are probably closer to medieval doctors in terms of their understanding of what is really going on.

Secondly, experts are not unbiased, they usually have an agenda. And it’s all too easy for governments (and opposition groups) to cherry pick and listen to the experts they want. And even in (hard) science a majority of experts on a contentious issue is no guarantee of being right. One successful experiment can disprove the cherished theories of a majority of experts, it has and does happen quite frequently.

NEIL DATSON

12th December 2019 at 8:29 am

There are surely two kinds of ‘fact’. One is really not open to any kind of challenge: ‘the sun rises in the East and sets in the West’. The other, being discussed in this article, is contextual. Facts about what is driving climate change are a good example. They may very well be valid, and useful for determining public policies. But only a couple of hundred years ago the vast majority of authoritative voices in Europe wouldn’t have questioned the contention that ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,’ was a fact, and so it influenced public policy. We should respect contextual facts but beware of treating them with too much reverence.

Jerry Owen

12th December 2019 at 8:47 am

This is why the words parroted on a daily basis by the MSM, and ‘experts’ that ‘the science is settled’ is so troubling.

Andrew-Paul Shakespeare

12th December 2019 at 4:55 am

“facts are never simply objective. They always embody theoretical assumptions”

Or rather, facts are simply objective, but they say nothing of how the country should be run. The interpretation of the facts’ implications is the political point.

For example, some people speak Welsh in preference to English. This is a fact.

But standing alone, this says nothing. The conclusions that I’ve draws from this fact — should Welsh-speaking be encouraged? Should provision be made at great expense to educate children in Welsh? Should government departments in Wales discriminate in favour of Welsh speakers?

The answers to all these questions and many more is political extrapolation, and will be influenced largely by the value the individual places on the Welsh language. But simply getting an “expert” (and seldom are their qualifications presented to us) to state a bland fact to us tells us nothing. When you get the expert to then opine on the fact, he’s resorting to his personal political bias, same as the rest of us do.

The inability of many to comprehend this suggests a remarkable naivety. It’s almost as though technocracy is becoming, for some at least, a new religion, the faithful genuflecting to a high priesthood presumed to possess superior wisdom by which to guide the mortal through a dark world of confusion.

John Koenig

12th December 2019 at 7:00 am

“facts are simply objective”
I don’t agree, because the definition of what constitutes a fact is subjective.

If I say “Inflation is 2.6%”, is that a fact? Well, no because it may mean CPI or RPI or something else. Depending on the audience I may then have to add “Inflation is the expansion of….” etc. and “RPI measures … while CPI is measured using…” and so on. Each of these definitions will be *my* interpretations of the the relevant ‘facts’, or my choice of sources that I am quoting.

If I say “This inflation level is too high” then the fun and games really begin, but the whole point of being an expert is to make those sorts of partly-subjective judgements. The alternative is to simply present 800 pages of statistics to the voter and say “Those are the relevant facts”. And even that would not be unequivocal, because who is deciding what is ‘relevant’?

Andrew-Paul Shakespeare

12th December 2019 at 8:33 am

You do make a good point. There’s lots of facts or there: Heat rises, tigers are mammals, Ottawa is the capital of Canada. Whether one considers them to be relevant to the point in question is frequently a question of personal bias.

Ven Oods

12th December 2019 at 1:18 pm

“Should provision be made at great expense to educate children in Welsh?”

Call me old-fashioned if you will, but I believe that, so long as people in Wales aren’t subsidised beyond what they contribute to the exchequer, then what their elected representatives spend their funds on is their business. And if they don’t like it, they can vote them out at the next opportunity.

On the other hand, if they’re being handed more than they contribute, then different rules might apply.

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