Sunday, October 30, 2016

The War on Experts: Why it Matters

Politicians like power, and they do so for a variety of reasons.  Most believe their ideas deserve to be realised for the sake of the public good, or at the very least rationalise their ambition in terms of this adherence to a higher ideal; very few would unashamedly admit to vying for power for its own sake.  In democratic states, the distinction is, in any case, hard to make: no politician was ever elected on a platform of unadulterated, unjustified ambition.

Ignorance is another matter, however: revelling in it appears to have become a mark of distinction for a number of expert-bashing members of parliament.  Gove tells us Britain has ‘had enough of experts’; Rees-Mogg demands the resignation of the governor of the BoE; and only yesterday, his conservative colleague Glynn Davis confidently - and somewhat outrageously - tweeted:

“Personally, never thought of academics as 'experts'. No experience of the real world”. 

Not surprisingly, all of these sceptics are situated at the extreme end of the Tory brexiteer spectrum, a place where expertise - above all, academic expertise - appears to be seen as a curious defect, a disqualifier from ‘normal life’.  What is, of course, conveniently omitted is the rather quaint nature of an entirely political existence.  It takes a measure of doublethink, for instance, to imply that the ‘Westminster bubble’ or the upper reaches of British corporate life are somehow more of a qualifier to real world experience than the precarity lived through by young academics, a precarity in no small part thrust upon them by policies voted through in previous years by the much more privileged likes of Mssrs. Gove, Rees-Mogg, and Davies.

In a post-truth society, attacks on experts are attacks on the very idea of truth itself.  They enable politicians to create their own realities and spread their sophistries unchallenged by the shackles of expert scientific knowledge.  In that sense, Gove and Davies have something vaguely in common with Vladimir Putin: for just as the master of the Kremlin has decided there is no such thing as universal morality, the anti-intellectuals on the extreme euro-sceptic fringes of the Tory party have decided there is no such thing as objective truth, just everyday lived experience.  As a consequence, the world is theirs to re-invent, at will, and ‘experts’ just stand in the way of their unbridled attempts at reinvention.

This very mechanism is, in fact, at play, when one referendum result – one clear answer to one clear question – is then used and abused to interpret dozens of other contentious questions in very specific – but ultimately unjustified – ways.  When Theresa May repeats that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, she in effect says that it is she who will tell you exactly what it means – in good time.  Untruths and half-truths then follow: ‘The vote was against immigration’.  ‘The vote was for hard Brexit’.  ‘The vote was for grammar schools’. And so on.

Throughout this exercise in political semantics - comfortably outside any election manifesto - detachment from experts remains preferable: for the dogmatic, it means the ability to enact pure ideology; for the ambitious, it allows the exercise of power unencumbered by the authority of scientific fact, or critical analysis; for the pragmatic, it enables political compromise outside the bounds of technocratic truth.

True, the expert will not be right all of the time; in fact, he will make mistakes. But, certainly when compared to politicians uncritically beholden to the twin vices of dogma and ambition, he will be right more of the time.  That might be annoying to the doctrinaire and the ruthless, but of vital importance to any polity aiming for enlightened government by the well-informed, rather than the inexpert blundering of demagogues.

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