“Have had enough of experts…”: An attempt to find common ground

“Have had enough of experts…”: An attempt to find common ground

No phrase of the Leave campaign is more vilified than Michael Gove’s, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts…”. Unlike many of the other contentious phrases, such as the £350m, it transcends Brexit itself to express everything that Remain voters – broadly liberal, highly educated, outwardly-looking – find repugnant about the movement that led to Leave. It is seen as a quintessential expression of populism, a battle-cry of the ‘somewheres’ against the ‘anywheres’ and is both highly quotable and easily open to mockery.  And yet it was not a gaffe: the quote struck a strong chord with many of his supporters, myself included.

Gove’s statement, of course, referred to financial experts, but it could equally well have applied to his time as Secretary of State for Education where he did battle against what he memorably christened ‘The Blob’, the experts of the educational establishment.

In an effort to build empathy across the political divide, I will attempt to use an analogy to explore why Gove’s statement is more reasonable than many think, and why appealing to experts may not always be the decisive factor in resolving an argument. I should emphasise that, as an analogy, I am not saying that the circumstances are exactly the same, nor that every single aspect of the analogy will find a precise equivalent.

The analogy

Many people – perhaps particularly amongst the aforesaid broadly liberal, highly educated and outwardly-looking Remain voters – would find it concerning if an all male panel were to be debating a subject that particularly affected women, such as abortion rights. Many people might also suggest that, if one were devising a policy to address gang violence in an ethnically-diverse inner city area, it might not be the best idea for all of those determining the policy to be white, middle-class individuals who had never lived in such an area. Even if all of them were experts, professors in criminology and the like, many people would still suggest that members of the actual community themselves (who might have fewer formal qualifications) should be heard and involved in formulating the answers.

Importantly, these arguments don’t rely on malice or overt prejudice to carry weight. The external panel, or committee, might simply not have access to information which would be known by members of the community. Their knowledge might be overly theoretical, not taking into account the realities on the ground. They might have different values to those affected, leading them to discount these values in devising solutions, or to overweight benefits and underweight costs. People might point to unconscious bias, noting that even in medicine this can impact results unless there is a full double-blind trial, and that sociological and economic studies have far more weak-spots at which unconscious bias could creep in. And finally, they might cite occasions in the past where well-meaning outsiders have got things wrong in the past, for example the disastrous attempts to achieve urban regeneration by demolishing traditional neighbourhoods and rehouse people in tower blocks.

On the whole, I believe those challenges would be correct. I don’t hold to the extreme position that only those of a certain identity have a right to be heard on a matter, but I do believe that the voice of those impacted by a decision should be heard strongly and that, where possible, they should be involved in shaping those decisions. I suspect most readers of this blog, Remain or Leave, right-wing or left-wing, liberal or conservative, will agree with me.

Now consider the case of Brexit or education policy

We see that the experts who are being appealed to are, almost universally, similar types of people – highly educated, middle class, usually able to find jobs easily across the country or the world. We can’t help noticing that they’ve benefited a lot from the status quo, whether that’s EU membership or the current education system, in a way that many of those supporting Gove may not have been able to. And we notice that, due to those characteristics, they’re likely to be highly insulated against some of the downsides, such as closing factories, off-shoring or the toleration of low standards in failing schools. Even if the experts accept that there have been downsides, we can’t help wondering if their personal experience is leading them to, perhaps unconsciously, overweight the benefits (which have helped them) and underweight the costs (which affect other people).

Looking further, we see that these experts seem to have very different values to us. We note that at the last election, as few as 7% of academics voted Conservative. We see that the experts seem to speak about matters important to us, such as sovereignty or citizenship, in very different ways, and in a manner that sometimes suggests that they find it difficult to understand why someone else would find it important. We wonder whether, even if the experts have more information, they will really be weighing it up in a way that at all matches the values and priorities we would attach to it.

And finally, we might note that the experts have been disastrously wrong in the past, using premises and assumptions that seem to be very similar to the ones they are using now. We might point to the attempt to effectively stop teaching grammar and spelling in the ’80s, to the joining of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, or to the expert consensus that joining the Euro would be a good idea. And we look at all these issues and wonder whether, even though they undoubtedly know more facts, whether we really want to trust the experts again in this situation.


None of this is to say that experts have no place in the debate. They do – and, indeed, Gove himself seems to be making much use of them at Defra. But they are not the only, or even the final, word on many matters, particularly where unconscious bias, uncertainty and different values play an important role. If you would criticise the all-male panel discussing abortion, or the all-white, middle-class committee setting out policy for the multi-ethnic inner city, then I’d ask you to extend that empathy for those unwilling to blithely submit to the will of experts on Brexit or education.

I don’t expect any Remain voters reading this to change their mind on Brexit. That’s not the intention of this post. I don’t even expect you to agree with Michael Gove about experts. But I hope that you might start to understand one reason his words resonated so strongly with many Leave supporters.


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8 thoughts on ““Have had enough of experts…”: An attempt to find common ground

  1. I accept your arguments about needing to hear from the people affected.

    My impression of what the danger of such a remark was is that it seemed to be applied also to scientific situations, say climate change or other such things. I think that there are some situations or issues in which experts who have studied data, or experts who properly understand statistics or some other scientific or mathematical issue, should not be brushed under the carpet. And from “my world”, that’s where the frustrations came from. That facts were disregard and that it leads to the “alternative fact” situation a la Trump.

    I agree that people who are affected, especially people who are negatively affected, should have a voice and be heard and counted important. But certain facts are facts and also need to be taken as such.

    This slightly links to something I sometimes find difficult: if someone, like some of our friends and sometimes also you a little, speak on a subject “from the outside” with such conviction and authority, disregarding the experience of someone who has been working in and experiencing that subject/situation for many years. For me this would be about teaching, or something like Cambridge admissions. I find it offensive to be told by someone who has the single experience of having been interviewed (maybe also stories from their friends) how something should be done that I have been doing for 6, 7 years. In the case of Cambridge admissions it wasn’t you. I suppose that’s similar to what you are saying about experts vs people who are actually experiencing a problem/situation. It is worse if people *think* they are experts and try to lay down the law to people who are actually working in that area.

    Do you think that this is something that is reflected in the public realm? For example, should someone only be called an “expert on inner city multi-cultural areas” if they have worked with people in such areas for many years? Maybe what is wrong is not whether to listen to experts, but who is actually an expert on what topic.

    1. Hi Julia, I found this bit really interesting: you said you find it difficult when people

      ‘speak on a subject “from the outside” with such conviction and authority, disregarding the experience of someone who has been working in and experiencing that subject/situation for many years’

      I completely agree that generalising from one anecdote, disregarding experience or treating their view as certain is wrong (this is also true of e.g. one teacher talking to another). But people working in any setting will themselves disagree and more importantly they could be systematically wrong (because of self-selection, the group having a vested interest as well as expertise and groupthink).

      Most experts in homeopathy agree in homeopathy, the most expert people in any given religion believe that religion and they can’t all be right! Arguably the most qualified people to understand how to tax and regulate banks are if not currently bankers ex-bankers with friends and interest still there.

      It’s a difficult problem. But I think you need outsiders as well as insiders. And my personal sense (more prejudice from a fondness of the UK tradition) is that if anything you want the overarching policy on something to be set by someone not completely embedded in that thing.

      1. Hello Lafayette, I agree that people from the outside can often see a problem more clearly, but only if they’ve actually spent some time looking into the issue and studying/acquainting themselves of what is going on. A discussion with a friend also brought out that I didn’t quite mention that I also believe a kann mixture of people need tu discuss such problems: some who are affected explaining how/why they feel affected/mistreated/at a disadvantage/whatever the situation makes appropriate, and also some people who have experience working with that group of people, plus people who may have studied the problem in kehrt contexts or from a different angle.

  2. Agreed with basically all of this (as a remainer). We have to remember two key points
    – Beliefs of ‘experts’ usually aren’t a bunch of independent people each looking at the same evidence and reaching the same conclusion, but rather a group of people in some sort of community. This allows for groupthink
    – Almost inevitably expertise in an area is tied up with interests/stake in that area

    I suspect there are lots of people who will say we should leave how we teach+cure people up to teachers and doctors but don’t think we should leave how we police communities up to policeman, or how we run prisons up to prison officers. And for that matter if teachers reached the ‘wrong’ outcome they’d want to intervene.

    I also think there’s an issue where ‘facts’ get mixed up with judgement. It’s not particularly rare to hear people say ‘it’s been proved that immigration is good for the UK’, which is just silly: they’re usually referring to a study which shows a GDP benefit, but that’s not the same thing. I think part of the issue with climate change is that scientists are seen as not just reporting facts but advocating for political actions of certain kinds.

  3. Gove has been proved to have been on the money. There is no doubt that the British public had “had enough of experts”. But I don’t believe that this frustration was born out of concerns about the dangers of unconscious bias, different values, or ‘experts’ having been wrong in the past. Instead, it was the result of a ‘silent majority’ believing that the system was not serving their interests. This sense was compounded by the financial crisis, MP’s expenses scandal, European migration to the UK, step changes in technology, quite possibly the impacts of austerity and the belief that the above had contributed to an erosion of traditional values / social cohesion.

    Where I think we differ, is that I believe that this dynamic left people susceptible to arguments peddled by the likes of Gove, Farage, (Trump in the US) and others that were no more ‘honest’ nor in people’s interests than the arguments of ‘experts’. It allowed Brexit (as with Scottish independence) to be presented as a panacea. The tragedy of the referendum for me was not the outcome but my sense that it was not the result of rationale, honest debate.

    So, I take issue with your argument above for the same reason I took issue with Gove’s. Not because I believe it isn’t appropriate to question the legitimacy of ‘experts’ in informing national debate, but because I believe he did so in order to cynically exploit people’s disaffection with the status quo rather than pursuing his objective (Brexit) on the basis of objective, rationale argument. I think that you are implicitly doing the same. Stoking distrust of the opinions of ‘experts’ doesn’t strike me as the best means of “finding middle ground”. However, I confess, given the current political, societal context, I’m not sure exactly how that could be achieved.

    1. This seems unduly negative in its assumptions about Iains motives. As far as I know this blog doesn’t have masses of readers who are predisposed to distrust of experts or otherwise ‘left behind’ and looking for people to blame. This post (and much of the blog) clearly pitched to people who
      A. Are highly educated and think about and discuss issues in a fairly rational, structured way
      B. Come to different conclusions to iain.If

      It’s hard to read this as cynical exploitation of the disaffected.

  4. The problem I have with Gove’s comment is not so much what he meant, but the wider context and how it was interpreted. The word “experts” seemed to be interpreted much more broadly than financial experts, as others have mentioned above.

    In the context of the Referendum, for most of our the Remain camp were bagging their argument on evidence etc. – which, I’ll admit can be interpreted in many ways. The prominent Leave campaigners were coming out with outrageous statements (many of which have since been backtracked on), but which appealed to people on an emotional level – the £350m/week being just one example, but there were lots of others about immigration. It wasn’t until later on in the campaign that Remain seemed to clock that they should campaign on this “emotional”, with people like Gordon Brown joining the fray.

    So when Gove said we’d had enough of experts, that was used to say that anyone using evidence was not worth listening to, making it much harder to counter the statements made by the tabloids and Farage. Whether this was Gove’s intention, or whether it was a (for him, fortunate) side effect, I don’t know.

    The other problem with the argument that the “silent majority” need to be heard is that they are normally heard through representatives, rather than directly. So the people “at the table” of the debate were people like Farage, Dacre, Johnson, Gove etc. When the Mail runs headlines about membership costing is £350m/week, or the EU being to blame for UK schools being low quality, or that jobs being lost to immigrants, a lot of people who were facing austerity, or had kids in a poor school, or who had lost their job, seemed to interpret that as being solely our largely due to the EU. The “experts” – trying to argue that this is very complicated and that perhaps elements of government policy (sometimes over decades), austerity etc. were to blame – were apparently no longer fit to be listened to.

    I’m not saying that all Leave campaigners were making outrageous statements – there is rational debate to be had about the pros and cons of the EU (such as this blog, perhaps) – but Gove’s statement contributed to the feeling that the debate was not being had. I know that this is often seen as either sour grapes, or that Remain should have run a better campaign, but it is how I, and I think a lot of Remain voters, feel.

    Like others above, I’m not sure what the solution to the problem of including everybody in the rational debate is, but I certainly don’t think that the Referendum debate as held was a suitable solution.

  5. Great to have such a thriving comment scene growing – and please do complete the survey, those of you who’ve not done so yet!

    Lots of really interesting points. To pick out three:
    – I broadly agree with where Lafayette and Julia have ended up, on balancing the views of those inside and outside an issue.
    – I don’t disagree that the referendum debate often feel short of what we might like in public discourse. Everyone (myself included) tends to find it easier to forgive the faults of those on their own sides, so I don’t suggest we start a post-mortem. But is there a case for holding those who claim to be representing an impartial truth (e.g. experts) to a higher standard than we do others?
    – It’s interesting the number of people who’ve raised the point that even if there were flaws, they’re angry about the potential to undermine the authority of experts more generally. To me this is strongly reminiscent of the Dreyfus Affair or, more recently, the Macpherson report, when I can remember from the time many people (even if they accepted specific failings) being angry at the way they felt the report undermined an authority that was overall a force for good.

    There’s always a balance to be struck between legitimate criticism and upholding authorities – and our views are likely to be impacted both by how significant we see the failings and how beneficent we see the authority itself. In general, I’d argue that we can and should challenge consensus on particular issues, whilst still upholding the experts in areas such as vaccinations or climate changing.

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