22 December 2016

Why we experts must learn a different language

By Jonathan Grant

All right …  but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us.

So ended the infamous argument in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”.  And the same could be asked of experts. What have they ever done for us? From medical breakthroughs, space exploration and our understanding of climate change, to technological advances, improving schools and IVF – the list is almost endless.

But like the Romans, that contribution is being challenged and the role of the expert in the 21st Century is threatened.  As leading Brexit campaigner Michael Gove put it so memorably in the EU referendum campaign, “people in this country have had enough of experts”.  He went on to suggest that economists who were warning about the risks of leaving the EU could not be trusted as they were largely publicly funded, making a comparison with Nazi Germany.

In an interview on LBC radio he said:  “We have to be careful about historical comparisons, but Albert Einstein during the 1930s was denounced by the German authorities for being wrong and his theories were denounced, and one of the reasons of course he was denounced was because he was Jewish.  They got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say that he was wrong and Einstein said:”’Look, if I was wrong, one would have been enough.”

Gove acknowledged his mistake in making this comparison, later saying “I answered, as I often do, with a historical analogy. It was clumsy and inappropriate.” But the cat was out of the bag.  Many “experts” were deeply worried and confused by these comments, worried that the emergence of a post-truth democracy is a threat to their livelihoods and ideology.

So let me confess – I am an expert and I am worried.  My expertise is in the niche area of biomedical and health science policy, but in that area I am acknowledged globally for what I know and think. I have had the privilege of working with governments and medical research charities across the world – in the UK, North America, Australia and the Middle East.

I like to think that my work, in a very small way, has helped to shape the way that research is supported and funded, and in doing so, has helped improve the health and well-being of communities across the world.  But I am useless at many things. If a pipe leaks in my house, I call an expert to fix it; if my child is ill, I take her to an expert to make her better; if my car breaks down, I take it to an expert to be repaired.  The point is that we are all experts.

But have we really had enough of experts?  I increasingly think not, for two reasons:  First, Gove was being politically opportunistic in the EU referendum.

When he was Secretary of State for Justice, he set up a Data, Evidence and Science Advisory Board chaired by Sir Michael Barber. As his departmental plan put it: “We will put evidence at the heart of what we do. We will improve our data, analysis and research capability, so that we can give officials and front-line staff access to evidence about what works, helping to deliver the best outcomes for citizens”.

Second, the evidence points the other way.  A recent poll by the Institute for Government concludes that “85 per cent of people want politicians to consult professionals and experts when making difficult decisions, and 83 per cent want government to make decisions based on objective evidence”.

This does not mean I am complacent.  There are two key issues that we need to reflect on:  the first is the conflation of experts with “elites”.  Even here there is a further unintended ambiguity – are we really ranting against un-meritocratic elites? There is a big difference between someone who has a deep knowledge about a particular subject being asked for an opinion, against someone with a superficial knowledge with access to a broad group of people via social media or other outlets.

The second related issue is the impact of social media on public discourse.  When I was being bought up, I would often watch the evening news with my parents.  This was the dominant source of news and was taken as the “truth” – we may have different interpretations of the rights or wrongs of what was being reported and its implications, but we trusted the “facts”.

Over the past 10 years or so, however, the monopolistic supply of the facts has been fragmented into numerous sources – blogs, websites, Twitter etc.  There is no longer a single source of the truth.  For example, a recent study in the US suggests that almost two-thirds of people get news on social media, and around one in five people do so often.

An international study of over 50,000 people in 26 countries found that half of the people surveyed said they use social media as a source of news each week, and around one in 10 said it is their main source. More than a quarter of 18–24s said social media was their main source of news, which was more than television.

So the post-truth democracy is actually a multiple-truth democracy. Those “truths” may or may not be anchored in evidence or expertise, but they are perceived by the recipients as the trusted facts.  Facts that are reinforced through an “echo chamber” of like-minded people in a self selected virtual network.

So if, as experts, we are not to go the way of the Romans, we need to acknowledge and change our game accordingly.  We need to improve the way that we engage in public discourse, using social media to our advantage, in a language that is accessible and understood.

If we don’t, not only are our livelihoods threatened but the health, wealth and well-being of the nation is at risk. Put another way, my pipe will continue to leak until I get the expert plumber to fix it.

This article was first published in Bright Blue’s latest magazine ‘The End of Establishment?

Jonathan Grant is the Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London