Politics without expertise has little value

4 May 2017


'Wise people understand the need to consult experts; only fools are confident they know everything'. That's how American author Ken Poirot summarised the modern attitude towards expertise. Poirot’s ever-so-slightly more illustrious predecessor, Voltaire, initiated this attitude with his infamous desire to be 'as stupid as Locke'.


Great value has traditionally been placed upon knowing one’s faults and one’s ignorance, and being open to submit to expertise. Recent trends, however, would suggest that value in this trait is diminishing.


Several examples spring to mind. The Brexit vote proved that warnings by the IMF and OECD were ignored, as voters seemed to agree with Michael Gove’s assertion that 'people in this country have had enough of experts'.


Leave voters had no trust in the advice-givers. They did not want their judgment to rely on politicians, academics, journalists, international organizations, or think tanks. The Bank of England, one elderly man dismissively told his prime minister in a pre-referendum Question Time debate, had been wrong three times on interest rates alone. Why should it be trusted now?


It is tempting to dismiss this attitude as a triumph of passion over rationality. Yet the same pattern can be seen in the United States. Republican voters disregarded the pundits and elected Donald Trump. Meanwhile, in France, Marine Le Pen, elicits little sympathy among experts, but yet has strong support.


It's not just limited to economic expertise, either. Donald Trump was greeted with manic applause in Colorado Springs in the run-up to the presidential election with his brazen dissent for polls: 'even though we’re doing pretty good in the polls, I don’t believe in the polls anymore. I don’t believe in them', he said, also referring to the media as 'vicious and hostile and dirty'.


This all points to the death of the expert. Economists are no longer trusted to talk about the economy, pollsters are no longer trusted to represent public opinion, politicians are no longer trusted to act in good faith, and news organisations are no longer trusted to report facts. In their place lies the post-intellectual, post-truth wasteland.


Interestingly though, one sector has remained upright as the rest of the world is tipped upside down. An Ipsos Mori poll from earlier this year showed that 79% of people trusted scientists to 'generally tell the truth'.


Dismissal of expertise is moronic. It allows people to believe that the world is flat, that the moon-landing was faked, and causes them to vote for Trump or Brexit.


One of Voltaire’s less famous quotes is that 'doubt is not a condition, but certainty is absurd' - we should be very doubtful of anyone who purports to certainty.



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