2 March 2018

Certainty is more poisonous than experts or elites


Poor Michael Gove. I fear that when his political career is buried – a day to be delayed for some time yet, I trust – his epitaph will read “People have had enough of experts”. For a certain class of Remainer, this has become the essence of Brexit. The contrast between their own enlightenment and the dimwitted, defiantly-ignorant, clod-hopping, stupidity of their foes is something that may be taken for granted. Indeed, it requires no bolstering evidence; the assertion of the fact is treated as being its proof. 

But that is not quite what Michael Gove said and what he said was a little bit more interesting than the commonly-used – and abused – shorthand version of his pre-Brexit remarks implied. What Gove said was, “I think the the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best because these people are the same ones who [have] got [things] consistently wrong”. 

There is nothing more irrational than clinging to the belief that human beings make major decisions on a rational basis. The Brexit battle was not so much one between “Project Fear” and “Project Sunny Liberation” but between “Project Complicated” and “Project Gut Feeling”. The simplicity of the Leave campaign, like the simplicity of Donald Trump’s campaign message, overwhelmed the kind of ordinary cost-benefit analysis that experts – or members of the so-called “elite” – like to think still counts for something. 

But then we live in a democratic moment in which many, perhaps even most, pillars of authority have been flattened. Social media, here as in so many other regards, has played a part; every man is a publisher these days and everyone can find a community of like-minded souls. You need not rage alone; you can do so in company. If you scream, others will come. You can be made uneasy by some of this even as you may also recognise there can be something stirring about it.

And yet, like so many previous revolutions, it carries the risk of going too far. Of course expert predictions on economic growth or government finances or so much else are often contradicted by actual events. They are guesses made on the best-available information. And since that information is both incomplete and then hostage to future – and unknowable – events, these forecasts are bound to prove mistaken. In that respect, dire warnings that a no-deal Brexit might come at a cost of 8 or 9 per cent of GDP in a dozen years’ time are both sobering and manifestly unpersuasive. 

The problem is not the forecast, but the certainty in which it must be packaged and delivered. The confidence with which such predictions are made – and then circulated as though they must be written on tablets of the hardest stone – diminishes their value. Like the weather forecast, such predictions would be better made in probabilistic terms. (As indeed, not before time, the BBC weather maps online are now doing, estimating in percentage terms the likelihood of further rain or snow.)

Even so, the abrupt dismissal of all inconvenient projections diminishes our politics too. The plague of confirmation bias evident amongst both Leavers and Remainers as each searches for friendly statistics to comfort their own preferences does nothing to enhance public life. It shortchanges voters, too, who can be forgiven for thinking that since you can prove anything with numbers you can, in fact, prove nothing. 

Stereotyping hardly helps. Millions of working-class Britons voted to Remain and millions of middle-class graduates voted to Leave. The Home Counties which voted to Leave have, oddly, received less attention than those post-industrial towns in northern England where Leave was perceived, or represented as, a cry of rage. Doubtless this is because confronting that story would complicate it too. 

And even Remain-heavy parts the country such as London and Scotland still saw nearly four in ten voters cast their ballots for Leave. The idea that Remain is an “elitist” plot to usurp the preferences of the plain people of England is as preposterous as the complacent assumption that if only the common people could discern the “truth” everything would be both different and better arranged. 

“Elite” has become a four-letter word, however, leading to the preposterous situation in which Jacob Rees-Mogg, spawn of an editor of The Times who has built a career, or at least a persona, on the back of anachronistic elitism, condemns John Major, who sprang from rather humbler origins, as an out-of-touch elitist. 

Major, of course, is a member of the elite too, rendering the protestations made on his behalf by some Remainers – many of them infatuated with him for the very first time – just as asinine as Rees-Mogg’s criticisms. Those criticisms, naturally, played the man not the ball and here too we may allow that Remainers are not really very different from the Leavers they cannot abide. I plead guilty to this too; Boris Johnson’s arguments might be more persuasive if they were made by almost anyone other than Boris Johnson. 

Expertise is unfashionable, however, largely because expertise is so often and so easily disputable. The knowing retort that no-one would volunteer to be operated upon by an inexpert surgeon ignores two salient considerations. First, there is a considerable difference in aptitude even amongst surgeons. But even so, second, a certain baseline of proficiency may be easily determined. Some expertise may be more easily demonstrated than other types of excellence. 

Many people who read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball forget this. Lewis’s argument, like that of the Oakland Athletics baseball team whose novel approach to recruitment formed the basis of his book, was not that traditional experts were wrong. It was, rather, that traditional expertise only took you so far and sometimes over-valued certain obvious skills – athleticism, hitting ability – over others. Some skills were under-rated. Anyone armed with sufficient resources could use traditional scouting methods to assemble – and pay for – a successful team; the challenge was doing so without market-leading resources. Moneyball was a story of one type of expertise meeting another. It was not a story arguing that “experts are wrong”. 

Politics and economics, however, are not so easily broken down as baseball. Political science does its best, but is better at explaining past events than forecasting future ones. Even so, government plans have to start somewhere. There is nothing so wrong as the suggestion that everything everyone knows about anything is wrong. Such assumptions may prove mistaken, but that is a different matter entirely. 

Most of all, however, it is certainty – and its twin, self-righteousness – which poisons debate. It is the certainty of triumph or disaster and the attendant partisanship that trails along in certainty’s baggage that makes so much of what passes for our political arguments so depressing. The grey middle ground is squeezed by the certainty of black or white. That in turn reduces room for compromise or the possibility that, however mistaken they may be, your opponents might just be making their arguments in good faith. And without that elementary allowance, politics cannot function. Which may be one reason why it presently feels so very broken. Any amateur can see that. 

Alex Massie is a political commentator