by Olivia Hanks
All people are of equal value. The same is not true of opinions – and the conflation of the two is leading us down a dark path to ignorance and authoritarian rule.
2016 was not a good year for experts. Michael Gove (that straight-talking man of the people) declared that the British public had “had enough” of them. On the face of it, it seems he was right: in voting to leave the European Union, 17.4 million people defied the advice of specialists in every field from finance to ecology to social cohesion. A few months later, in the best Anglo-Saxon tradition of oneupmanship, the United States voted to be led by a man whose approach to policy is to say things at random and see which gets the biggest cheer.
A scornful dismissal of ‘experts’ clearly appeals to people’s dislike of being told what to do. The idea that all opinions are equally valid is often falsely equated with democracy – as though, since participation in elections is based (theoretically) on the principle of ‘one citizen, one vote’, society’s collective knowledge must work the same way. This view, that knowledge of an issue does not make you any more likely to be right about it, is clearly ridiculous. And when we conflate mass ignorance with democracy, we are on a very slippery slope. It is an approach that favours authoritarian leaders, since the wise voices disagreeing with them can be legitimately ignored. The Brexit shambles is already showing evidence of this trend, with the resignation of Ivan Rogers, UK ambassador to the EU, following Downing Street’s frosty reaction to his leaked warning that the Brexit process could take a decade.
This view, that knowledge of an issue does not make you any more likely to be right about it, is clearly ridiculous
Elections, by their nature, are essentially popularity contests, but democracy at its best is more than that: it can work by deliberation and consensus, and by demanding that our elected representatives listen to experts, rather than sticking dogmatically to their own positions in the face of evidence.
Gove did later say that he had not meant to refer to expert engineers, doctors and so on – only to ‘economists, pollsters and social scientists’. So that’s only about half the UK’s rich tradition of rigorous academic research dismissed, then. Gove – who was widely derided in 2014 for his claims that lefty historians had got it all wrong on the First World War, which was in fact a just war led by heroes – appears to think that because the arts and humanities are more subjective than the ‘hard’ sciences, they are therefore nothing more than a great big bran tub from which we can all pull out opinions at random, with a prize every time. But as UKIP donor and professional ignoramus Arron Banks found recently, when you tell a world-renowned classics scholar on Twitter that she has got Roman history all wrong, you come out looking pretty silly.
The responses to Gove’s and Banks’s arrogant nonsense show that plenty of us still understand the value of rigorous research and thought; we understand that the views of a scholar who has devoted their life to a subject and those of someone who once watched a documentary about it do not weigh equally on the scale.
We should be wary of self-appointed ‘experts’, yes; we should ask where their authority derives from, and who is paying them. But the way to spot the fraudulent is by developing our own critical thinking skills. One of the most valuable courses I followed in school was GCSE History, where we learned to evaluate source material such as photos, diaries, newspaper articles and cartoons not only for their usefulness in providing information, but also for their reliability. This is a skill I use every day; and incidentally, it’s one there would be no place for in Michael Gove’s ideal history curriculum, which would privilege rote-learning over critical thought.
In Britain, we love amateurs. This, in the past, has served our communities well – we are a volunteering nation, of parish councillors, fundraisers and gardeners. We like to have a go at things: from mending the shed to evacuating stranded soldiers in rowing boats, it is part of our nation’s mythology. But with David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox charged with delivering a successful Brexit, and anyone who tries to provide advice immediately dismissed as ‘doing Britain down’, we seem to have taken things a bit far.
There is a sneering anti-intellectualism in British society that sits oddly alongside our world-leading higher education system. Our deep-seated notions of social class do not help: the fact that a top-notch education was for so long reserved for the wealthy (and that the vast progress in this area is being undone) means that in the minds of many, it is still the preserve of a loosely defined and despised ‘elite’. It is despicable of people like Gove and Nigel Farage, who benefited from such an education, to perpetuate this anti-intellectualism.
We must not be fooled into thinking this disdain for ‘experts’ has anything to do with democracy. On the contrary: it is promulgated by authoritarian leaders who wish to turn people against one another and discourage informed opinions; and by quasi-fascist publications like the Daily Mail targeting the judiciary as ‘Enemies of the People’ for having the audacity to bring their knowledge and experience to bear.
Democracy only works when the population is well informed. If this is not seen as something to aspire to – if experts are not role models but objects of derision and hatred – the number of people proudly trumpeting their ignorance will only grow. So, in 2017, find an expert (check their credentials first – Michael Gove, the expert on experts, doesn’t count), listen to them, and learn something.
Header image: Ryan Somma, Creative Commons