When should you trust the experts?

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Utrikesperspektiv.se or the Association of Foreign Affairs Lund.

In the run up to the Brexit referendum, Michael Gove (one of the faces of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign) was chastised for his comment that the British people “have had enough of experts”. The outrage was widespread – every member of the intelligentsia and their dog was lining up to discredit him. But Michael Gove was right1, as the referendum proved.

In hindsight, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Faced with self-inflicted crises such as the Global Financial Crisis and the Eurozone crisis, and foreign policy disasters such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, as well as the current refugee crisis that has dominated the European political landscape, you need not look far to find examples where experts have failed the average voter.

But why was he right? In this article, I list three reasons that may explain why the British people didn’t trust the experts:

  1. Not all experts are created equal

… despite what the Bible says.

This point is surely obvious; in professions where uncertainties are minimal, experts are held in much higher esteem. In other words, who do you trust more: a dentist or an economist?

If I were to go to my dentist with a toothache, and ask her to forecast the probability of successfully extracting my tooth, I would trust her judgement completely. She has done this many times before, so she has a solid grasp of the complexities of the operation. On the other hand, if I were to ask my two local economists about the probability of a recession wiping out my savings next year, I might get two completely different answers.

The old joke that the economists have predicted 9 of the last 5 recessions applies here. But why are we surprised at the limitations of some experts? Global finance is so complex, interconnected and irrational that accurate forecasting is almost impossible. How many expert economists predicted the 2008 financial crisis, for example? Given their dire track record of predicting important events, surely it is perfectly understandable that the average voter will dismiss their warnings as scaremongering – you need look no further than the doom and gloom that followed the UK’s decision not to join the Euro for evidence.

  1. People act according to their (perceived) self-interest

… even at the expense of the common good.

Imagine that you are the average British voter. Nope, don’t even think about picking up that copy of The Economist. After a long day at work, you just want to spend your evenings doing things that you enjoy – like watching your beloved Chelsea, or spending quality time with your kids, or going for a pint at the pub. You simply don’t have the time, energy or interest to read dry articles about the pros and cons of the European Union, or whether globalisation and China’s rise has been positive or not.

That’s what the experts do – and it’s an important job. But on topics such as the EU, where the upsides are mostly hidden and the downsides glaringly obvious, it can be very difficult to make the benefits digestible enough to influence public perception. How do you capture the security that a united Europe has offered over the past 60 years into a quotable sound-bite? And how do you demonstrate the economic benefits of the EU (and immigration) in a way that resonates with the average voter? On the other hand, look how easy it is to create a narrative about the downsides of immigration or the bureaucracy of the EU elites, even when that narrative may only tell half the story.

And then there are those experts who act for the common good against the interests of the individual, like Angela Merkel. A welcoming message to refugees is a lifeline for those fleeing conflict, and a very honourable stance, especially for those of us who don’t have to face the adverse consequences. But it is no surprise that the hard-working, blue collar worker in Sunderland – who, after ten years of loyal service has seen his job taken by a foreign migrant, who can’t get his child into the local school because it is oversubscribed, and who goes to the local hospital and can’t get an appointment for three weeks2 – has a less favourable opinion of the EU’s refugee policy. Again, if you are the average, hard-working family man with mouths to feed, are you really going to think that the expert is acting in your best interest?

  1. Some experts (are perceived to) have self-serving interests

My tooth is still aching, but thankfully I have managed to book a dentist appointment – the luxuries of not living in Sunderland. I can be pretty confident that what my dentist tells me is probably going to be best for me, as she has very little incentive to manipulate my dental extraction to further her interests – assuming that she hasn’t struck a deal with the tooth fairy, of course.

In contrast, the murky world of politics is full of people looking out for their own interests – like Hillary Clinton and her ties to Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase. You know: those same corporations that helped create the financial crisis then took your money to bail them out3. In a similar way, the EU was seen to benefit big business and wealthy Londoners at the expense of small business owners and the average voter, so it’s unsurprising that the anti-establishment alternative, who claimed to be looking after the interests of the little guy, managed to win over the average voter.

On the other hand…

While the credibility of experts around the world may be in the gutter, it’s certainly unfair to describe them as untrustworthy. They are expected to make decisions under great uncertainty, which inevitably leads to mistakes. Mistakes erode credibility, particularly when the consequences are as grave as the Iraq War or the Global Financial Crisis. For example, would you trust the expert who made the mistake of concluding that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, even if the rest of his track record is flawless? I know many who wouldn’t.

Further, how many times have experts made decisions to prevent a potential crisis that never materialised? Had Ben Bernanke not been a scholar of The Great Depression, it’s very possible that the Global Financial Crisis could have been worse than the catastrophe of 1929; had Barack Obama not negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, it’s very possible that the world could have faced a hostile and nuclear Iran in the coming decades, and so on.

Unfortunately for the experts, the average voter sometimes doesn’t know how lucky they are4.

James Davies

1He was right that British people had had enough of experts; not to be confused with being right not to trust experts (see here). And I am certainly not endorsing Michael Gove.

2Of course, a complex web of factors contributes to those adverse consequences, but inevitably the scapegoats are the rich, the immigrants and the bureaucrats.

3Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that banks shouldn’t have been bailed out, or that they were solely to blame for the crisis. I also support Hillary Clinton, although it is not difficult to see why she is unpopular with the American public.

4Other experts would argue that the decisions made by Ben Bernanke and Barack Obama have done more harm than good, and that the average voter is therefore unlucky. The closest thing to a definitive answer, unfortunately, will be left to the historians to write.

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