Ideas For Experts On Expertise Examining The Crisis Of Expertise

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1 February 2018
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When British MP Michael Gove said “The people of this country have had enough of experts” he electrified the pro-Brexit voters and sent ripples of horror through the global club of those who advise decision-makers and opine on matters of fact and of policy.

One type of reaction to Gove’s incendiary comment I saw at the Mercatus Centre at George Mason University in Virginia early last year, when Peter Boettke and others launched Escape from Democracy: The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy,  a book which proceeds from core premises such as the limits of knowledge, the self-interest of experts, and the need for more transparency in decision-making (further description appears at the end of this blog post).

Eighteen months on the ripples from Gove’s comments have reached the University of Melbourne, which has in response convened a conference of, well, experts: “A Crisis of Expertise: Legitimacy and the challenge of policymaking,” to be held on February 15-16 at the Melbourne School of Government.

Not surprisingly, Gove, Trump, climate change sceptics and other Deplorables all get a mention in the conference blurb, which then frames the key question in the highly limited juxtaposition of experts v populists:

“…trust in experts and established institutions is in decline. The role and legitimacy of expertise in policymaking is increasingly being called into question.

Recently, populist and anti-globalisation movements in a number of countries, and on both ‘right’ and ‘left’, have achieved electoral success, in part by playing on these doubts and by rejecting the claims of experts to specialised knowledge and authority”

Some way or other, you can be sure the experts at this conference will be looking for way for their fellow experts to be restored to their rightful place at the right hand of decision-makers across the globe. But as my colleague Matthew Lesh last year pointed out in an excellent article for The Spectator, experts standing on their authority were in fact fuelling the so-called “populist” backlash, and ignoring the sometimes problematic track record of experts and the need for continued democratic control. He quoted Cambridge classics professor Paul Cartledge on the appropriate role of experts.

“When I charter a vessel or buy a passage on one, I leave it to the captain, the expert, to navigate it – but I decide where I want to go, not the captain.”

And of course John Roskam had this wonderful piece on the UK’s “Michael Fish moment” (“definitely no Hurricane on the way…”), and Daniel Wild in a piece for the IPA Review drew on the brilliant and intellectually brutal Nassim Nicholas Taleb to point on that the predictions of experts cannot be trusted as they have no “skin in the game.” More recently, Dr Jennifer Marohasy wrote to the Minister for the Environment, Josh Frydenberg MP, urging him to adopt the Red Team/Blue Team approach to ensure a transparent process of challenge to the assumptions of climate science and policy.

Truth-seeking is, in any event, assisted by dialogue, including with one’s perceived opponents. Hounding critics in the manner which has been seen in climate science, for instance, is not conducive either to legitimacy or to elucidating the facts, as Simon Breheny pointed out in a chapter from Climate Change: The Facts 2017, an excerpt of which appeared here).

In fairness, participants in the University of Melbourne conference won’t necessarily be standing on Enlightenment notions of scientific notions of objectivity, empiricism or logic – this is a modern University after all.  Presenters carry the baggage of the post-modern turn toward critical theory, so at least one key session will examine “Public institutions and social imaginaries in knowledge production” and “Politics and discourses of expertise”. And so on, and on.

A keynote presenter, Andy Stirling, is a former member of the international Greenpeace board member, and Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex. Naturally, to achieve this august position his successive degrees were not actually in science or technology, but rather “science studies” and “archaeology”, capped by a “D.Phil in science and technology policy”. Which is all very well I suppose, but it does put him at one remove from the actual truth-claims bandied about in the domains in which the populist backlash has featured, such as climate policy, sovereignty, the nanny state, economics, immigration, and trade, to name but a few.

In one sense the Hayek quoting Austrians at Mercatus, the postmodernists at the University of Melbourne, and indeed “populists”, have some common ground: they agree that the argumentum ad verecundiam, the appeal to authority, is dead. The onus is on the experts gathered at the University of Melbourne later this month to map a path back to legitimacy which moves beyond mourning towards a model consistent with democratic accountability and the realistic limits of human reason.

[A precis of points made by speakers during the book launch referred to at the beginning of this article appear below, for the benefit of readers of this blog post, perhaps even including conference participants]


These notes summarise comments made by Peter Boettke, the authors, David M Levy and Sandra J Peart, and other guest speakers, at the book launch in May 2017:

  • Experts created this historical moment, not the public, by the way have weaponised expertise in a non-transparent emphatically anti-democratic manner. For example, Obamacare architect Professor Jonathan Gruber who said:

    Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage…And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass.”

  • Economists have definitely contributed to the crisis in legitimacy, as economics has over the past hundred years transitioned from being a tool of social understanding to a tool of social control.
  • All humans are motivated by self-interest, including experts (and not just in the narrow pecuniary interest sense familiar from neoclassical economics).. “Experts have pecuniary and sympathetic interests which induce them to bias”. They can pursue public goals and private goals at the same time. Any premise that experts are only interested in and will inevitably discharge their advice to the betterment of the public good should be discarded at the beginning.
  • [the full quote from Michael Gove is germane to both those points: “I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying – from organisations with acronyms – saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong, because these people – these people – are the same ones who got consistently wrong.“]
  • The development of expertise by its nature creates asymmetry in knowledge – the expert simply does know more about the particular domain or issue, and to an extent we must accept that and move on. So it is then a secondary question how much we can ask the expert to explain (so far as is possible) the basis for their decisions (a transparent approach), as opposed to occasions where so much technical expertise is required then it simply must be left to the expert without further explanation (non-transparency).
  • If there can’t always be transparency, then at least the non-transparency much be transparent – the experts should disclose the premises and data sources, and be honest about any doubts. There is a direct analogy to laws governing disclosure in our courts during civil actions and criminal trials, in which both parties are under positive obligations to produce information relevant to determining the matter at hand.
  • There’s a difference depending on whether policy goals are fixed (a linear process) or emerge (a cyclical model), and in the latter case discussion must be part of the expert’s work. Whether it’s Red Team/Blue Team, or some other method, dialogue (including with critics), will produce an outcome with more legitimacy and almost certainly better understanding and better fit of recommendations to better defined objectives.

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