By Richard Portes
Michael Gove touched a populist nerve. Leading up to Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union, he delivered a soundbite that gained wide currency.
Gove, then Lord Chancellor, declared: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” So was he right? Are people fed up with experts? And more importantly, should they be fed up? Would policies be superior and people be better off if the views of experts were ignored?
In certain segments of the population, there is undoubtedly a considerable distrust of experts.
Take the distrust of economists. Much of that is based on economists’ apparent inability to come up with forecasts that turn out to be even roughly right.
Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England has candidly admitted that forecasts are often wrong. The Bank’s failure to foresee the 2008 financial crisis was, he has declared, a “Michael Fish moment”, a reference to the infamous television weather forecast in 1987 in which Fish reassuringly told viewers that “there’s no hurricane coming” – just before a huge storm brought devastating damage to much of southern England. And what about the Bank’s incorrect prediction that a vote to leave the European Union could trigger a sudden economic slowdown – a slowdown that didn’t materialize? The Bank was wrong. “A fair cop,” said Haldane. He should have added, however, that because of its prediction, after the referendum the Bank itself took policy actions to mitigate the threat of a slowdown. All forecasts should be conditional on factors that might influence the realized outcome – factors such as policy changes. And they should explicitly recognize the uncertainty around their central prediction, as the Bank’s ‘fan charts’ on inflation do.
But forecasting is a very small part of what economists do. So, for example, if you ask for experts’ forecasts on the path of the British economy over the next year or two, most of them will have to reply, “sorry, but that’s not my game”. It doesn’t mean that they’re not experts or that they don’t understand how the economy works; it just means they’re not forecasters.
More generally, distrust has been encouraged by those who have vested interests in discrediting experts because they want to advance a particular agenda – be that in the field of economics, climate change, health or whatever – which may conflict with what expert opinion would be.
In too many cases, politicians and representatives of interest groups say they’re looking for evidence-based policy, when in truth they’re looking for policy-based evidence. If the evidence that comes from experts doesn’t accord with their view of the world, they’re prepared simply to shelve it. Many reports by government departments, for example, have met that fate: they get buried.
This distrust of experts has been encouraged and cynically manipulated. There is an element in our popular media which is quite prepared to quote supposed facts that aren’t at all factual, rubbishing what they don’t agree with and giving lavish coverage to claims that accord with their view of the world. Fake news, indeed.
I am not denying the dangers of “confirmation bias”: we all tend to embrace pieces of information or research findings that bolster our own preconceptions while disregarding data that don’t fit with those preconceptions. But to some extent that has been remedied by so-called metastudies, collecting together the findings of large numbers of pieces of work that have looked into a particular area. These studies-of-studies do at least allow you to form a view of which of the underlying pieces of work are based on evidence from adequate sample sizes and proper inference and often suggest a reasonable consensus. These metastudies provide a healthy corrective to the confirmation bias problem. This is, of course, very far from the mindless ‘groupthink’ of which we are sometimes accused.
So yes, experts genuinely do try to test their own findings; they are prepared to be self-critical; in short, they try to get things right. For academics, that is part of the ethics of our profession. Nevertheless, experts are widely distrusted. At the extreme, they are reviled. Why?
Bolstering the elite?
In part, I think the reputation of experts has suffered because they are seen as reinforcing the elite: as the elite has come under attack from populist quarters, so experts have suffered the same fate. You have to feel sympathy for the large number of people who, over the past 20 years or so, have lost a great deal. In many advanced countries, labour’s share of national income has declined, employment has become less secure. Even in countries such as the UK where unemployment is relatively low, jobs aren’t of the same quality as they were. Many are involuntarily part-time or precarious. Inequality has risen: the US and UK are prime examples, but it’s also true in places such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland.
These issues – income inequality, job insecurity, the social impacts of immigration and even gentrification – create resentment. That’s perfectly natural.
And it has been manifested in a populist reaction against a perceived global elite. Many people feel that the elite doesn’t understand their problems; the elite is disconnected from what a very substantial part of the population is experiencing.
Furthermore, the argument goes, the elite is supported by experts: it is not just the elite but also the experts who fail to understand what people are experiencing. The experts are seen as furthering the interests of the elite. They, like everyone else, are subject to confirmation bias; their experience doesn’t accord with what people are feeling in their everyday lives in their local communities. The elite and the experts just don’t get it. At best, we are technocrats who ignore social and political constraints.
Unfortunately, people fail to notice the amount of work those experts have put into studies of the broader population in areas such as economics, sociology or anthropology, often with great attention to the social context. That disregard for serious research is characteristic, too, of all but a small slice of the media, so the public don’t get a broader view of expert understanding of their concerns and the underlying causes. Instead, the resentments can be manipulated and exploited to fuel distrust of the elite and of experts.
There is a further problem – and it is one that is eagerly seized upon by those who want to rubbish experts’ views to promote their own agenda.
The popular view is that economists always disagree with one another. (Recall the old gag: ‘If you laid all the economists in the world end-to-end, they’d never reach a conclusion.’ Or ‘two economists, three opinions.’) Too many in the media and politics have led the public to believe that you can disregard experts because they can’t agree with one another, so people are free to make up their own minds.
It is simply false, however, to say that economists always disagree. On many, many issues involving both theory and evidence, there is a wide range of agreement. Repeated surveys of panels of top economists have been done in the UK and the US, and they show a strong degree of consensus on many policy-related issues. Of course we have differences in the kinds of theories we favour, but most of us respect what the data tell us. The notion that there is perpetual and wide-ranging disagreement between rival groups of economists is nonsense.
And yet politicians and others find it convenient to push this idea that experts can never agree. That allows waters to be comprehensively muddied. This doesn’t happen only in the realm of economics. It’s true in areas like climate change, the safety of vaccinations, and the causes of autism, where there is a reasonable degree of consensus among experts. Take vaccinations, for example. In the state of California, you find that a significant proportion of upper income, highly educated people believe that vaccinations are dangerous, so they don’t have their kids vaccinated. The result: you have a measles epidemic. It’s very disturbing.
So what use are we experts? One of our functions is s simply to take claims that are based on no evidence or faulty reasoning and point out that the facts – the hard data – conflict with those claims. If a speaker says something that’s unacceptable, it’s my job to stand up and say “sorry, that’s just not true” or “you can’t say that with any degree of certainty.” If we don’t do that, what use are we? We should be intervening in the public discourse.
Also, we should be setting the agenda for thinking about problems. Some of these are purely research problems that we deal with as academics, and some have broader social and political ramifications where experts can still play a role in setting a proper framework for a discussion.
Part of the distrust of experts is because economists at least haven’t done a good enough job in making our case to a broader public on specific issues coming out of research. The position has improved: I believe that the average reader of the Financial Times or The Economist is substantially better informed about economics than he or she would have been 20 or 30 years ago. Several other media outlets have first-class economics columnists. There are some excellent economics blogs, too, including some that are based on serious research and communicate it in a fairly accessible way. But there hasn’t been much of a trickle-down to the rest of the media.
I find it really distressing that while our efforts to disseminate the fruits of research have increased over the past couple of decades, levels of distrust have risen. And, of course, if distrust of experts goes up, there is less willingness to spend public money on research. Still, it is very much a part of our job to do our best to communicate to decision-makers what we do that is relevant to policy.
Of course, experts in areas such as economics face a challenge: often, we have to accept that there is some degree of uncertainty in our empirical findings. That means it’s hard to come up with a simple soundbite – one that you won’t later regret. There is an inherent conflict in delivering a straightforward, striking, persuasive message while recognizing that there is a significant degree of uncertainty in that message. You can’t get round that.
Nevertheless, I can confidently deliver some soundbites that are easy to digest. Not one, not two, but three. First, Michael Gove may well be right: perhaps people are fed up with experts. But second, that cynicism is misplaced. And third: experts are useful; they can deliver insights and help make the world a better place. Trust me. I’m an expert.