‘People in this country’, said Michael Gove, ‘have had enough of experts’. During the run up to the referendum, geeky Gove was ridiculed for his views. Brexiteers who dismissed the predictions of the Chancellor, the Bank of England, the CBI, the universities and the rest were reviled. If you reject expertise then you must be stupid.
After the vote, the experts predicted that the economy would shrink, the collapsing pound would cause inflation and jobs would disappear. Now, three months on, the experts have changed their tune. Even the Guardian is running headlines saying ‘The Brexit economy: post-referendum data defies gloomy UK predictions’. But do the readers believe the new data? No, they do not. Almost six thousand Guardian readers were upset and left comments after the article, and most are sceptics. It is not just the Brexiteers who have had enough. Michael Gove was surprisingly percipient.
Why have we stopped believing in experts? Psychologists believe that, to have a healthy personality, you need to trust your parents. The Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT has studied the effects of lying on children and found that children who have been lied to, begin to distrust the world outside the home. Self-doubt turns into suspicion of authority.
Adults are the same. If they feel that they have not been told the whole story, they begin to doubt their ability to know what is a dependable source of information.
So what kind of expertise can we trust? The smartphone in my pocket is an accurate source of information. At the school quiz night, the competitive dads were using their phones to check their answers. When I could not identify a small grey bird (why do small grey birds all look the same?) I could take a guess (a Willow Warbler perhaps?) and play the bird song from my phone. I did not need an ornithologist to give me their specialist knowhow because the birds warbled in response. Expert knowledge is no longer highly valued when everyone has it in their pocket.
If we do not have confidence in experts, how can the establishment survive? We are certainly more difficult to govern. We know when we are being lied to. That is why we like the politicians who are ‘straight talking’. As the political centre is distrusted we move further from it – both Left and Right. But there is a solution. If politicians and experts want us to believe them, they need to change.
Before the referendum, the experts behaved as though they had more value than the public. The influential psychotherapist Karl Rogers suggested that to change the way people think you need ‘client centred’ communications. A dynamic that does not allow people to have their own opinions leaves us disempowered (Rogers 1959). Politicians and experts must respect the voters as equals. Without respect, the centre will not hold.
Even if the experts stop talking down to us, their days are numbered. Knowledge is about the wisdom of others. That too is being digitised. The driverless car will know how to respond to the wobbly cyclist because it will have learnt from the all the other driverless cars that have safely overtaken cyclists and have pooled the information in the central database. The knowledge of the others held in every car. The website Memrise uses the wisdom of crowds to help individuals learn new languages.
We no longer need the arrogant experts, because we have wisdom of the crowd. Gove may be on the back bench, but he is a man to watch as he is clearly in touch with the feelings of the nation.
(Image: Policy Exchange)