Experts: not perfect but better than nothing

Gove had a point when he lambasted the faulty predictions of experts, but they remain the best guide we have to the future

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Saying that Michael Gove claimed: “the people in this country have had enough of experts” is technically incorrect, at least in terms of what he meant. When interviewed on Sky News a fortnight before the referendum vote, Faisal Islam repeatedly tried to interrupt Gove who was actually attempting to say “the people in this country have had enough of experts with organisations with acronyms saying they know what is wrong and getting it consistently wrong.”

Sure. No one likes it when something presented as fact turns out to be incorrect. It’s safe to say there’s a lot of disillusionment, when figures are being spouted and forecasts announced by the IFS, ASI, IEA, IMF and many others who are discussed in the media as though they are household names, when in actuality, they really aren’t.

A big misstep by David Cameron, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, and others who are the poster-men and women of the liberal elite is that they have been very good at quoting figures by these bodies and dressing them up as facts on a par with Newton’s third law of motion.

George Osborne used these kind of reports as a way of pledging that people would be worse off if they left the EU. People were repulsed by him. Donald Trump’s ‘facts’ were proven false and extraordinary throughout his campaign, but he was able to tap into real feelings. These organisations produce forecasts based on evidence, incorporating up to millions of variables. Estimates can only ever be shaky at best, but that doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. If the weather forecast says it will be sunny tomorrow and it’s raining, then fine, mistakes can happen. But expectations tend to be closer to the truth than not. If growth is expected to slump when we leave the EU, that doesn’t mean voting leave was a safe option with respect to growth.

Far be it from me to support Gove. Last summer he proved that he thought of himself as the Macbeth of contemporary politics and turned out to be a knock-off Iago. Ultimately though, he had a point. When asked exactly which professionals were backing leaving the EU, he didn’t need to give an answer.

Whether the content of what he was saying was ignorant or blasé or evasive, he was able to tap into the idea that quoting figures from think tanks and institutions wasn’t going to be the vote-swinger. The evidence-based rhetoric is failing because it’s not being presented in a way that connects with people. People shouldn’t be fed up with experts, but they are rightly angry with the way that expertise is being used in the absence of a rational, coherent debate all that’s been left is to tap into feelings. Inflation and interest figures mean little when it’s unclear how easy it will be to feed one’s family, or keep one’s job, and when forecasts are presented as facts and the forecasts are wrong, it’s no wonder that populism triumphs over evidence.