Experts, eh? Can’t trust ‘em. A pillar of the establishment that electorates are now rejecting, how they squeal about the emergence of a fact-free world. Evidence matters not to the plebs, drunk on the untruths of populism. The EU referendum was lost to lies; Trump’s pants were on fire, yet he will be president. The liberal-Left progressive agenda, maintained as much by Tory as Labour administrators, is now being trashed.
Indeed, the clearest illustration of the rise and fall of our current polity is its weakening stranglehold on truth. Those radical students of the 1960s and 1970s became our political and cultural leaders, cementing their authority with a political correctness indoctrinated through the education system, and increasingly imposed by law. As government policy would be evidence-based, opponents would not have a leg to stand on. Our administrators, with little difference between the main political parties, had everything sewn up.
Ironically, the undermining of fact began as a cause of the intelligentsia. Back in the 1960s, when Foucault illuminated the use of knowledge as power, educationalists railed against Gradgrind stifling of creativity. Sociologists and feminists tackled the totalitarianism of science, which they subverted with relativism. Phenomenology and qualitative methods were raised to equal standing with the empiricist, quantitative paradigm. Factual reductionism was replaced by the doctrine of multiple truths. To some extent this was a necessary corrective to naïve positivism. Arguably, despite the efforts of philosophers of science, dualism is inescapable. As human beings we are two-sided, with rational and emotional realities.
Yet once they became the establishment, the former campus activists moved the table and chairs back. They had learned that some versions of truth are more equal than others, and that whoever controls the language, controls the debate. Fact was now useful in pushing their agenda, while traditionalists stuck to outmoded beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. Policy is founded on data, but such data were often gathered merely as an accessory to the intended message. Evidence is inherently biased, as interested parties decide what is counted – and what counts. The gender pay gap exemplifies selective use of numbers to prove a point and justify action. The liberal-Left has come full circle from attacking positivist proof to absolutism laced with spurious and over-extrapolated research findings.
Some facts are sacred. Black History Month has the laudable goal of bringing different perspectives to the fore, but sometimes unsubstantiated claims are uncritically accepted as truth. This is often the work of ideologically motivated white scholars, as demonstrated by the elevation of Mary Seacole to a wholly inaccurate status of a founder of nursing (usurping unfashionable Florence Nightingale). Few would dare to challenge this new truth.
Dubious conclusions on statistical data are frequently made by politicians. I recall ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone enlightening Evening Standard readers on why property values are higher in multicultural boroughs: it’s because people like diversity. Fewer immigrants lived in racist Barking & Dagenham, where house prices were lowest. As anyone in the business knows, the complexity of the housing market can be stripped down to one overarching variable: demand. And politicians such as Ken, in unholy alliance with corporate capitalism, are feeding an unsustainable influx that prices ordinary people out of their homes. Not necessarily better, Ken – just more people competing for less space.
Failures of information can have more damaging consequences. All those illustrious experts, in the London School of Economics, the Financial Times, Wall Street, Frankfurt and Shanghai, did not see the global economic crash coming. Immersed in their formulae and matrices, they detached themselves from the murky reality of social forces and individual fear and greed. The allegedly fact-free Daily Mail repeatedly warned of the catastrophic outcome, with haughty dismissal. Also consider the ridiculously inaccurate opinion polling for recent elections, and how complacent expectations of a particular result left politicians and the country unprepared for the verdict.
The political and social climate is changing around us, but students are leaving university with a BA in Not Getting It. We are all guilty of selectivity in what we read, but the decline of traditional media has exacerbated this fault. Instead of reading an edited package of news, albeit of a political slant, people now get individually targeted stories sent to their screens, while political views are exchanged in an echo chamber. Meanwhile, the output of once reliable sources such as the BBC is faltering. This week, in response to the shock election of Donald Trump, our national broadcaster explained how ‘fake news’ had swayed American voters. And on the same morning the BBC highlighted a leaked memo showing a lack of clear planning for Brexit. It was from the government, we were told. Except it wasn’t.