By Feargal Cochrane
When former justice secretary Michael Gove commented that "people have had enough of experts" he was tapping into a popular motif of the EU referendum campaign. It seemed to place more emphasis on how people felt about issues, as opposed to what they actually knew.
To be fair to Gove, he was aiming his fire at economic experts, whose predictions were consistently wrong – rather than at expertise per se. His now notorious anti-expert statement was made as part of a rear-guard action in a TV studio, in an attempt to defend himself against the fact that few economists agreed with his support for Leave. But if you live by the catch-phrase, as many politicians now do (Brexit means Brexit, anyone?), you can die by it too. Thus experts – such as Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England – were derided by Gove as being devoid of humility and exhibiting an arrogance that must be curbed.
Some of this has been sensationalised by the popular media for the benefit of a good headline, but the move to equate expertise with arrogance is nevertheless worrying. Decisions taken on a hunch, or without sufficient evidence, are often subsequently regretted by those who make them.
The EU referendum campaign exemplified this antediluvian approach. We were told not to confuse the electorate with facts, evidence, data or relevant experience. Indeed those that did were considered detail-freaks, jargon-peddlers or simply nerds who missed the bigger picture. This has recently been referred to as 'populism'.
It's linked to President Trump's attempts to cow the US media by suggesting experts were out of touch with the popular mood of the country. At a more sinister level, the supposed fake news peddlers from CNN and other media sources have been cast as being a dangerous impediment to Trump's attempt to Make America Great Again. In other societies, past and present, such official declarations of an enemy within would be swiftly followed by the arrival of the police at the homes of the offending journalists, the closure of their offices, and worse.
In a campaign speech in Wisconsin in April 2016, then-candidate Trump declared: "The experts are terrible. …Look at the mess we're in with all these experts that we have." Admittedly, Trump was in campaign mode and this sort of simple message worked effectively for him. His appeal (despite being a multi-millionaire with a social network that went to the core of the US political elite) was as the anti-establishment, anti-expert, call-it-as-it-is 'regular joe'.
However, such public pronouncements by Trump and Gove go beyond the short term headlines and speak to a much longer term and corrosive dynamic within public discourse. The anti-intellectualism inherent within such positions is not just short-term political opportunism – it represents a sustained attempt to degrade the capacity of society to make informed decisions on the basis of the evidence available. This has been aided and abetted by the popular media, which has lazily adopted a banal and superficial approach to the coverage of political issues in the US and increasingly in the UK too.
This is heavily personality based. Policy issues are framed without much careful analysis of the evidence base to sustain them. Put bluntly, if Fox News becomes your most popular source of news content, President Trump is what you get at the end of it. Opinion is everything – the more trenchantly expressed the better. Evidence for the assertions made is of secondary value.
In the UK context this was especially noticeable around the Brexit referendum, where the dominant narrative was over immigration and a focus on some of the more vividly drawn personalities from the campaign. Ukip was box office. Its former leader, Nigel Farage, gave great copy for those content to wrap the news item around his repartee. Photos of Farage being crass in the European Parliament or guffawing in the pub before sipping his pint, proved to be popular news items, rather than the more boring data relating to the actual costs and contributions of immigration for the UK economy, or the economic and political arguments for remaining in or leaving the EU.
Yet this is where the experts can and should be put centre-stage. The Political Studies Association (PSA) has close to 2,000 experts, and over 50 specialist groups, researching, teaching, and unpacking politics within and beyond the UK. The PSA is immensely proud of the contribution our members are making, not only to the field of political studies – but to public life more broadly.
This expertise is not something PSA members should apologise for, or feel they need to whisper about behind their hands. It is vital for the health of democratic society that their expertise filters into public discourse and helps to shape the political choices that the electorate is confronted with today and in the years ahead. Of course expertise should not replace democratic decision making processes but experts do have a key role in providing reliable evidence for politicians and voters.
Here is the heart of the matter. It's one of the reasons why the PSA uses blind peer review before publications are accepted in its own academic journals. Not all opinion is equally valid. Some opinions are drawn from solid methodology, critical engagement with a canon of other work in the field, a robust dataset or generation of new empirical evidence, from which informed conclusions can be reached and a conceptual framework established to interpret the results. This is expertise, and it is desperately needed in today's political climate to make a contribution to an informed society. Its absence consigns us to a debased form of politics, where ignorance and prejudice have equal billing in the policy process with expertise and evidence-based arguments.
Last month, at the PSA's annual conference at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, hailed the importance of experts not just for her as a politician – but for society in general:
"You are, without a shadow of a doubt, addressing issues that are of direct relevance to all politicians, not just in Scotland and the UK, but in Europe and across the world. But more importantly, you have been addressing issues that are of hugely important relevance to citizens right across our world. There has been a sense that evidence based arguments have somehow stopped being important in political campaigns and in public discourse. But actually, as all of us know, experts do make an important and positive difference, not just to the academic understanding of political issues, but also to wider public debate and to the very health of our democracy."
In the run-up to the general election, the PSA will be striving to champion the research expertise of its members across key policy debates within the UK and beyond. Michael Gove and President Trump's comments will not be the end of the story. Society needs experts more than ever in today's complex times.
Feargal Cochrane is vice chair of the Political Studies Association and professor of International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent. He is director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre and deputy head of the School of Politics and International Relations at Kent. His current research is examining the impact of Brexit on the peace process in Northern Ireland and its devolved institutions.
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