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.

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9 Comments on “A quest for ignorance?”

  1. I hope it goes without saying that I share your belief in rational debate, informed by a logical analysis of evidence. But we in higher education do need to reflect on why it is that a large porportion of the population is so sceptical about experts in general, and academics in particular. One possible response is to blame it all on nasty newspapers, but I regard that as both improbable and complacent. Another is to ask whether we could do much better than at present to engage larger parts of the population in informed discussions of our research. In which case we need to think more cleverly and strategically about our relationship with those people who think we are somehow making all this stuff up.

  2. no-name Says:

    It is easy to agree that there is no substitute for expertise. However, there does seem to be a surfeit of self-proclaimed experts, and rational intellectual debate is not enhanced by their pronouncements.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      This is a very interesting remark in that it alludes to the dramatic changes brought about by the Internet, a platform for communication where everyone shares opinions often masquerading as self-proclaimed expertise. In media studies (and not just) debates about the challenges to professionalism from ‘amateurs’, has been raging for a while, at least since Andrew Keen published in 2007 The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/jul/08/computingandthenet.society
      However, what is discussed here, the traditional British virtue of common sense and, more precisely the anti-intellectualism which underpins it, were theorised (ironically enough) by Burke with his profound mistrust towards ‘theory’ and theorists. In fact it has been argued that “The ideology of anti-theory and ‘common sense’ has been enormously successful. It continues to circumscribe and limit British intellectual culture today. It performs a deeply conservative function. Prevailing practices, institutions and hierarchies are insulated from criticism – they are simply ‘reality’ and part of the natural order of things.” https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ed-rooksby/britishness-and-anti-intellectualism
      Also, as it is often the case, those who invoke bluff ‘common sense’ are the actual snobs, see the persuasive case for this in “Pretentiousness” by Dan Fox https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/11/pretentiousness-why-it-matters-dan-fox-review
      At times of “post-truth politics” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/13/boris-johnson-donald-trump-post-truth-politician
      the activity of fact-checking by sectors of the media and institutions like universities is extremely valuable, however it would be a big mistake to assume that facts alone can restore trust in the ‘truth’ and/or the professionals (being them politicians, academics etc.), most would still prefer happy lies to sad truths. The crisis we face is an epistemological one. (Epistemology: the study of the nature and scope of knowledge and justified belief. It analyzes the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, belief and justification. It also deals with the means of production of knowledge, as well as skepticism about different knowledge claims.)

  3. Vincent Says:

    In my opinion many people are sick of having things imposed. Be that in the act or the refusal.
    It would’ve been an easy fix to bleed the poison out of the immigrant debate and leave to to the nutters and little Englanders. The touchstone for this is Lincolnshire around Boston where the fruit pickers have a massive draw-down on services that were just adequate before their arrival. Shortsighted civil service ‘experts’ decided to create mayhem in that region and gave the gift to the Exiters.
    On the debate, I think the UK and Ireland would be better off outside the EU. Both have had 40+ years to adjust their economic and societal template and still continue to develop the strategy of the privateer. But by being inside the EU we are prevented from dramatically lowering the exchange and thereby trading out of a problem.
    This entity we’re in at the moment benefits only those with fixed pensions from the State. But we needed to act along the German model for it to work. Since we haven’t, it can’t. And since we won’t, we’re better off out. As in Greece, Italy and Spain. Probably the Balkans too.

  4. This is a curious phenomenon. But then, thinking back, I have even have had criticisms to make about ‘expert’ knowledge.
    There was a person with all the latest thinking calling me out for my out-of-academy thought. The distance between the two, those who value knowledge yet do not have access to up-to-date thinking, and the others with that access, can be vast at times. Is there an arrogance – 0n both sides: ‘I have a voice too, it may not be au-fait with the fine arguments etc’, and ‘The considered thinking on these matters is…etc’?
    It can seem so. And at times seeming, one might say, is all.

  5. James Fryar Says:

    I think there are a number of issues that have given rise to this strange phenomenon.

    One of the things I note is that there is selectivity in how ‘experts’ are perceived. It is telling that there are very few members of the public, very few politicians, and very few journalists who are arguing that the ‘so-called experts’ don’t know what they’re talking about in relation to the Higgs boson! Nobody questions the ‘experts’ on that. And the reason is that that topic is so far removed from everyday life that people happily accept the ‘proclamations’ of the experts. It is probably noteworthy in my ad hoc analysis here that the attitudes towards experts only start to become dismissive as the topic begins to drift towards aspects that people feel affect them. In other words, attitudes become dismissive towards experts when they discuss topics the public cares about and have opinions that the public can disagree with.

    This really shouldn’t surprise us. What we’ve known for about a century thanks to countless wonderful experiments in psychology is that people make decisions on issues very quickly, then evaluate evidence as being more relevant if it conforms to the original assessment. This confirmation bias is such an ingrained subconscious aspect of our human nature that we go to great lengths to try and eliminate it. It’s why the military spends years training people to take orders and has a hierarchical structure. It’s why we produce checklists and standard operating procedures. It’s part of the reason we have peer review in academic papers.

    Now you combine confirmation bias with the internet and access to information, and it’s not unreasonable that we have this issue. People can now go on-line, pick and choose the information that fits the view they had originally, and subsequently dismiss the opinions of experts because they don’t fit the narrative the bias has already formed. So I agree with Anna.

    I think it is telling that the polls showed large numbers of people in favour or against a Brexit pretty much from the moment the referendum date was set and long before any debates or discussions had started. Large numbers of people reacted with their gut feeling, then convinced themselves afterwards that it was an informed decision based on a careful analysis of the evidence. The dismissal of the opinions of experts simply falls into the cherry-picking of evidence consistent with bias. That might sound condescending. It isn’t. It’s a fact based on what we know about how people process information. We’re all guilty of it. The difference is that academics and so-called experts operate within systems set up over many decades to try and remove it. That’s what we need to teach kids in schools …

  6. Anna Notaro Says:

    In light of today’s Brexit win it might be worth reading what Isaac Asimov prophetically wrote over 30 years ago:
    “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. [..] Now we have a new slogan on the part of the obscurantists ‘Don’t trust the experts! […] We have a new buzzword, too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around. People like that are called ‘elitists’.”

    ☛ Newsweek: “A Cult of Ignorance” by Isaac Asimov, January 21, 1980 Link to full text PDF http://aphelis.net/cult-ignorance-isaac-asimov-1980/

  7. This is a great article. whether or not it was a good idea to brexit, time will tell.

  8. Cormac Says:

    That’s a very interesting point from James Fryar.
    I have long noticed a marked contrast between public attitudes towards experts in cosmology (the science of the big bang) and attitudes towards experts in climate science. It seems that a major factor is that most of us have first-hand experience of climate (or think we do) and therefore feel we know something about the subject. Add to this the confirmation bias James mentions, and one can see how the climate skepticism peddled by vested business and political interests falls on such fertile ground…

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