A quest for ignorance?
One of the more curious things to come out of the current British EU referendum campaign is the debate about ‘experts’. For some time the Remain side have been producing economists, political scientists, financiers and others to explain why a UK exit form the EU – so-called ‘Brexit’ – would be a bad idea. The Leave side have been much less successful in getting well known figures to support their case. And so, in the course of an interview on Sky television, leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove offered this: ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’.
However, this is not a completely new suggestion. Some years ago in 1981 I attended a conference as a young lecturer. One of the invited speakers was one of Mr Gove’s predecessors as Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham. In the course of a questions and answers session at the end of his talk, he was invited to consider the line-up of prominent economists then publicly criticising the Conservative government’s economic policies. ‘Ah, the experts,’ he mused. ‘”Expertise” is just a fancy word for “bias”. We don’t need all these self-proclaimed experts.’ And before him still, then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan complained that ‘we have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts’.
In the current EU campaign, the dislike of expertise and a lack of trust in experts has become one of the characteristics of the Leave population. According to a recent poll, Leave voters actually don’t trust many people generally, but particularly not economists, academics, people from the Bank of England, and think tanks. Instead they prefer to rely on the common sense of ‘ordinary people’.
It is tempting for an academic to be dismissive of all this. However, that would be wrong. Far from being dismissive, we should be concerned that the pursuit of knowledge is so little valued by so many people. Is it because Lord Hailsham was actually right – that becoming highly knowledgeable in a particular field desensitises us to the validity of challenge from those not in the inner circle of expertise? Do we need to look more closely – as a research project is doing – at the idea of intellectual humility?
On the other hand, we should be vigorous in defence of knowledge and discovery, without which we can achieve neither progress nor a civilised society. Those of us who make some claim to expertise should do so without arrogance, but also with confidence in the importance of scholarship and the contribution it makes. Common sense is a traditional British virtue; but it is not a substitute for expertise.