The Repudiation of Experts in the Post-Truth Age
10 months ago Chad 0
There is no such thing as an objective truth… All facts are just interpretation… All knowledge is just someone’s narrative
A Crash Course in Fact
June 24th, 2016 was a grim day in Britain’s ivory towers. Cobbled together under their lalique cactus tables, the stunned inhabitants comprising the political, financial and intellectual elite received a bloody nose after eagerly queuing, then echoing parallel sentiments in favour of staying in the European Union. ‘This will be a victory for ordinary people,’ declared Nigel Farage. That may be the case but the question that persists since that vote is: did the referendum reveal, or cause even, a break in the relationship between the common citizenry and those who proclaim to know best, the so-called experts?
www.strongerin.co.uk, the official website of the remain campaign had a list of over a thousand ‘experts’ from NHS England, the Russell Group of universities, top oncologists, the national farmers union, Oxford professors, Stephen Hawking, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, scientists, historians, environmentalists, GCHQ, the British government, the police, the Bank of England, the IFS, the IMF, the CBI, NATO, the Trade Unions, etc. all lined up behind the same idea. They claimed to be ‘experts,’ with accumulated years of specialist knowledge experience and know how. The people rejected them.
People consume five times as much information each day as they did in the mid-1980s. With all this data sloshing around it is easy to feel lost. One politician uses a statistic to back up her argument; a newspaper uses another fact to refute it; an economist uses a third to prove them both wrong. By now though, we should all know that statistics lie. For example, using the mean, on average, humans have one testicle. This is obviously a misleading description of the population..
With all this data sloshing around it is easy to feel lost. One politician uses a statistic to back up her argument; a newspaper uses another fact to refute it; an economist uses a third to prove them both wrong.
When Michael Gove, the former Minister of Education and a purported intellectual, declared with the most bitter of ironies on ITV that ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts and people from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and consistently getting it wrong…’
This may have been a glib sound bite to deflect an awkward question but it was one with potentially profound implications. Was Mr. Gove onto something here? Are people less willing to believe ‘so called experts’ and does this mean we are more willing to challenge orthodoxy (a good thing) or is this proof of an assault on the idea that society is built on reason and evidence (something much more worrying)?
If Two Economists Have Diabolically Opposite Views, They Are Both Right!
In recent years, politicians in western democracies have increasingly pushed ‘experts’ to the fore to justify their decisions. On issues such as climate change or vaccinations, for example, ‘experts’ tell us what to do and believe. There seems, however, to be plenty of evidence that those claiming to possess the knowledge gene are oftentimes wrong (see financial crash of 2008), derided and are now being pushed back. Some see this derision of experts as the manifestation of the post-truth morass that is Trump’s America.
The implications range from intelligence to medicine but no field feels a greater urgency than economists. Paulo Coelho once wrote that everything is possible, from angels to demons, from economists to politicians. As confessions go, it was hardly the most revelatory. Jennifer Lopez admits she has problems with relationships. George Bush Junior accepts he made a bit of a hash of Iraq. Fat Joe owns up to struggling with bacon sandwiches. They would have all come as more of a surprise than the chief economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, finally admitting that when it came to forecasting the impact of Brexit they were a couple of alphas short of a full algorithm. Well, thanks Andy. Who knew? An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.
It hardly needs repeating that the UK economy has sailed through the vote to leave the EU with hardly any impact at all. Growth has been robust, employment is up, and retail sales are surging ahead. We have one of the strongest economies in the developed world. And yet, before the vote, the Bank was forecasting a recession, rising joblessness, and rising inflation if the UK left. Indeed, so convinced was it of that outcome, that it quickly halved interest rates, and started printing money again, to cope with the inevitable ‘crises.’
Far from the “profound and immediate economic shock” predicted by Britain’s finance ministry in the event of a vote for Brexit, the economy has, so far, barely slowed.
It seems to the invisible aliens that whilst we should listen to economists and learn lessons we should completely ignore them when they speak of the future. They don’t know and neither do we. Economics is essentially a social science masquerading as pure and applied science. Economists try to predict the actions of millions of consumers and the millions of decisions they make, trying to impose some order on what is truly neither orderly nor foreseeable.
It was, Haldane now admits, ‘a Michael Fish’ moment. Like weather forecasters in the 1980s, he argues that economists need to get far better at working out where the world is going. In fairness, there is some truth in that. Economists are rubbish at forecasting. They even make jokes about it, although admittedly not terribly funny ones (‘did you hear about the economist who jumped into a swimming pool and broke his neck? He forgot to seasonally adjust.’). That is partly because it has become bogged down in complex mathematical models. But it is also because the modern, global economy is such a fantastically complex thing, with so many thousands of significant variables; it is virtually impossible to always assess it accurately.
Linguistic Innovations and Gymnastics
The postmodernist assault on ‘objective truth’ was originally intended to unseat those in power and bring in previously repressed voices into the debate. Initially welcomed, the idea was that independent blogs, YouTube channels, free thinking insurgents and invisible aliens locked out of the political process would gain a voice. It seems, however, that rather than giving a respectable platform to the previously disenfranchised, these new formats are being used by a new breed of leaders to entrench their authority. Meet the postmodern politician who doesn’t just bend the truth like his predecessors but deliberately subverts the idea that there is any knowable objective truth at all.
Meet the postmodern politician who doesn’t just bend the truth like his predecessors but deliberately subverts the idea that there is any knowable objective truth at all.
Consider The Donald. He happily contradicts himself, for example, boasting that he once pretended to pose as his own PR man and then denying it. He asserts things that most sources claim are just false: that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than Obama’s or that he won the popular vote in the election. Vladimir Putin has the same disdain for facts. As his army blatantly annexed Crimea, he went on TV and with a smirk, told the world there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Trump maintains that we will never know who shot down MH-17 despite all the evidence pointing to separatists controlled by Putin.
Putin, Trump and their contemporaries undermining of the possibility of establishing reality is tactically clever. They thus remove the space where one can make a rational case against them. Criticism becomes lost in a fog of the unknown. Indeed maybe Putin and Trump’s postmodernist disdain for objective facts is part of their appeal.
Facts are, afterall, unpleasant things. They tell you that you are going to die; that you might not be good looking, rich or clever. They remind you of your limitations. There is a rebellious joy in throwing off the weight of them. Trump’s disdain for the truth is an anarchic liberation from glum reality. He comes from the fantasyland of reality TV, where ordinary people can burst through the glass ceilings of class and fame to achieve fame and fortune.
So is the postmodern, post-truth politician unbeatable? No. Whether one is building a bridge or a new society, facts are necessary to prove you are achieving your mission. Facts are part of progress. It is no coincidence that both Trump and Putin are backward looking, selling fake memories to make America or Russia great again. Nostalgia has an emotional appeal but to bring back facts one shouldn’t discard passion. What one paradoxically needs is the imagination to envisage a compelling future.
Beyond the Trumpian twilight zone, does the attack on experts possess an insidious, anti-intellectual spirit? Is the public backlash really against ‘experts’ or against people who had an ideological position and couched their dogmatism in the language of neutered, neutral expertise? Have these experts allowed the information they advanced to be used in a polemic way? Perhaps 2017 is not the year of post truth. Instead, maybe what has transpired is the politicisation of the truth. The old truism that there are lies, damned lies and statistics has merely been modernized for the Internet age. The Internet makes the years of knowledge acquisition by doctors or lawyers of little reverence. We can all do it now. At least, we think we can.
Could this be healthy though? We must remember that the Enlightenment we so revere today consisted of challenging ‘experts,’ particularly priests who thought that they and their holy books had all the answers. Flat worlds and all that. Contemporary ‘priests’ in government, academia and industry are similarly besieged from all sides and only time will tell if their current denunciation is well founded.
Perhaps Michael Gove’s comment is even more insidious than first thought. Has he emboldened people to question all sorts of expert advice they don’t agree with? Will echo chambers start to emerge where conservatives and liberals and Muslims and Christians and feminists and revolutionaries and peaceniks only read, listen and watch their ideological kin?
We have already seen evidence of this where liberals read the New York Times or The Washington Post whilst conservatives read The New York Post and The Financial Times; Left Leaning folk read The Guardian in the UK whilst those on the right read The Telegraph.
But the elite cannot have it both ways. The news is no longer purely informative; it seeks to sway and make opinion. Having driven this ‘freedom of information’ agenda in a capitalist putsch couched as social media and a tool for connectivity (when it actually makes us more disconnected and lonely), surely it was inevitable that people would lose reverence for those who had sole occupation of the tools of the media.
Now that everyone can start a YouTube channel, why listen to the grey haired white man with the pointed nose on the six O’ Clock news? With Arsenal Fans TV generating debate, the invisible aliens don’t need ESPN and Sky Sports to tell us how Arsene Wenger or Steph Curry is doing. With Twitter or Facebook, John Doe’s muddled thoughts on Donald Trump get the same audience as a seasoned political operative. The elite profits and profited from the world they casually armed but are now somehow in a state of disquiet when said bombs are being thrown back at them..
The elite profits and profited from the world they casually armed but are now somehow in a state of disquiet when said bombs are being thrown back at them.