In an age that seemingly hates experts, how should academics respond?
A lot of things were said during the Brexit referendum. Some of them were silly, some of them were incorrect, some of them were outright lies. Some of them were also noble, true and profound. It is, however, perhaps Michael Gove’s ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ comment that will survive the longest. It has, for the liberal media at least, become a moment that loosely demarcates a slide into a fictional ‘post-truth’ politics era, in which even when provided with evidence, facts and argument, most of the electorate remain doggedly determined to take back control from everyone- even the reins of Reason.
As with most political narratives, the ‘post-truth’ era is, of course, a nonsense. Politicians haven’t suddenly started lying to people, manipulative demagogues haven’t suddenly burst into existence and probably because of this people haven’t suddenly started to distrust the words of those in power and authority- these things have always happened in politics. Those of us that supported Remain, or ABT (Anyone But Trump), shouldn’t lay the blame on a fanciful new era of deception and bigotry sweeping the western world, but rather focus on how progressives have failed to offer a compelling, coherent and trustworthy narrative to the public. The public heard our arguments, looked at our evidence and decided to trust the other side: analysis and blame should start and end with us, not the public.
This is not to say that the public are perfectly informed when it comes to politics- clearly, there is a need for better education, information and debate, which ideally is where academia should come in. But we need to do so from a place that doesn’t assume stupidity or ignorance or an inability to research and engage with big issues, but rather one that is generous, trusting and that recognises the genuine reasons for distrust: indeed, this is the only way ‘experts’ have a hope of engaging other citizens.
Firstly, we need to recognise the legitimate concerns around the role of experts in political decision making. ‘Expertise’ is a highly subjective term, often abused when it comes to political discourse- it takes an awful lot to become an expert in anything (10,000 hours if you go by the definition of cognitive psychologists) and the field of which one can be an expert is pretty narrow. You might find an expert on teaching history to secondary school pupils, say, but you’re unlikely to find an ‘expert’ on the entire issue of education. This doesn’t mean accumulated knowledge and experience should be ignored in various fields, just that we should be sceptical of the extent of expertise held by individuals and small, homogenous groups- we are more likely to find the expertise we need to make big decisions in larger, more diverse gatherings.
Secondly, the deifying of expertise has a dangerous flip-side: the vilification of the ordinary citizen, a vilification that often has racist, sexist and classist undertones to it. The reactions to the victories of Leave and Trump and the denigration of working class voters that accompanied them is the latest manifestation of this. Not only are such reactions hideously prejudiced, they also ignore very real anger and concerns and serve only to drive those groups even further away from those that express progressive values.
Finally, a fear or experts is not illogical- their role in political decision making has been growing since at least the premierships of Blair and Clinton. Many researchers have highlighted the increasing exclusion of ‘laypeople’ from political decision making as a response by elites to increasingly complex and nuanced societies. It is in part a recognition of this tendency, and the scorn or secrecy it often breeds, that feeds disillusionment with modern governance and those of us in academia that provide the intellectual tools that attempt to justify it.
A recent, more detailed analysis of the EU referendum results highlights the vital role educational attainment played in voting choice, with those without a degree being much more likely to vote Leave. For some, this is justification for elite rule, a reason to scorn the less educated (and inevitably working class) Leave voters, suggesting they lack the intelligence or ability to make the big decisions. What it actually tells us is that those of us who have the opportunity, the privilege, to be able to devote time to intense study, have failed to properly communicate what we have learnt, and to properly share the benefits of the economic and political projects our learning has led us to embark upon.
None of this means academics should be afraid to enter the political realm- we need to more than ever. Many academics need to be unafraid of drawing political conclusions from their work, and then acting on them. All of us should be embedding ourselves in bringing about the changes our research and learning suggests are needed: with climate change, inequality and the resurgence of the far-right, the stakes are too high for us to sit at the side-lines, or to mock the ‘ignorant masses’.
Recognising the legitimate criticisms of the rein of experts tells us about how we should be doing this. When embedding ourselves as part of grassroots movements we need to be practising Frieri’s style of education in which we both teach and learn from those we engage with: doing so will move public debate along in an inclusive, less patronising and elitist way. Our place is to advise, inform and to also learn and grow along with everyone else- not to sneer, belittle or undemocratically hold onto the reins. We need to put our efforts and resources into empowering our fellow citizens where we can, not patronising or belittling them at every turn and colluding in withholding power from their hands, where it belongs. We also need to defend knowledge and evidence-based policy-making, and trust that citizens can recognise the merits of this when it is properly communicated. We should be using knowledge and expertise (where it truly exists) to aid and bolster social movements and participative and discursive democracy, not as justifications for elitist pretentions.
We focus on the masses, but why do we not instead focus on the systemic pressures that forge them into what they are? Our job as academics, or experts in our field, is to liberate, not justify oppression and ostracising. Ultimately, our knowledge and resources should be employed defending and growing alternatives and radical democracy, not bolstering an elitist status quo. That is, after all, what the evidence suggests is best.