We rely on experts in every field. Yet from economists to climate scientists they hold wildly disparate views. Might the very idea of objective knowledge be illusory and expertise be a form of institutional power? If we were more sceptical would it lead to democracy or bring chaos?
Matthew Parris is a writer, broadcaster and former Conservative MP. He writes columns for the Times and the Spectator as well as presenting Radio 4’s Great Lives. Here he speaks to the IAI about expertise, vested interests, and the importance of a healthy kind of scepticism.
Daniel Rhodes: In the debate on IAI TV you talked about the threat of “technocracy” or a “rule of experts that might be considered a threat to democracy”. Do you see the experts themselves a threat to democracy or is it a tyranny of data that we should guard against?
Matthew Parris: I think it would be the tyranny of pretend objectivity. Politicians don’t pretend to be objective; we know where they’re coming from – their hidden agendas are not really hidden from us, and we take everything they say with a pinch of salt. But the moment someone puts on a white coat, or shows you some graphs on a screen and talks as an expert, the impression arises that they are objective, that they know everything that needs to be known, and they don’t actually have any agenda of their own. But expert opinions are still only opinions: sometimes they have good evidence, sometimes they don’t. Fashions reign among experts just as they do amongst journalists and politicians and they very often turn out to be completely wrong. That’s not an argument against having experts – against listening to what they say – but it’s an argument against the mystique that attaches itself to someone known as an expert, to whom politicians and the public are sometimes too ready to defer.
DR: So a “technocracy” is not a power grab by a particular group with vested interests?
MP: I don’t think that groups of experts get together to ask how to stage a coup, but I do think that all classes in society – and all professions – are in some way territorial. Everyone is trying to enhance their own status, but they need to be kept at bay, just as journalists and politicians need to be kept at bay. If we all keep doffing our caps and saying “Yes sir, if you say so, Dr. Feinstein, then that must be government policy”, then I think we make a mistake.
DR: With regards to public policy, do you think there should be some kind of bottom line whereby we should not accept our politicians acting against scientific consensus?
MP: No, there should be no bottom line: politicians are democratically elected, and as such they are quite entitled to challenge conventional wisdom, professional wisdom, or expert wisdom. If the public don’t like their challenges, the public can vote them out, but I would hate the idea that politicians, having the interests of the electorate at heart, they should simply defer to a sort of Brahmin caste of experts.
DR: But not all political offices are held through election; some are appointed. For example, a minister of health who doesn’t believe in vaccines: would that trouble you? Should there be an apparatus in place to prevent that happening?
MP: The apparatus in place is called a general election. If we had a Prime Minister who appointed as his Health Minister someone who didn’t believe in vaccines, all hell would break loose, and I’m pretty confident that the Prime Minister and his party would lose the next election. But I don’t think you should try to enshrine, either in law or in custom or in our constitution, what counts as the wisdom of the day and what sort of precedence that has on what politicians want to do.
DR: But that situation did arise without the uproar you described, in that we had Owen Paterson serving as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whilst he didn’t acknowledge the existence of climate change.
MP: I don’t think that’s quite a correct characterisation of Owen Patterson’s view. He wasn’t a climate change denier, but he was quite sceptical, and I think he’s perfectly entitled to be. If you don’t like a government that may give you an Environment Minister who’s sceptical about some of the effects of climate change then you can vote that government out. There is no rule that says that the climate change consensus is right and must supersede the law or the constitution.
DR: Are there any particular conditions or factors that you see shaping expert opinion in universities and other institutions? What kinds of vested interests are we talking about?
MP: Any profession tends to have a vested interest in the opinions and received knowledge of the body of men and women who characterise its established command. In that way, professions are no different from anything else. For example, medical professionals in the 19th century refused to acknowledge that infection was spread by germs, and persisted in their belief known as ‘miasma theory’, which was that infection was passed by bad air. In this case the medical profession were one of the last to wake up to the truth. More recently, the medical profession was fairly slow to wake up to the dangers of smoking. Expert opinion can be completely wrong.
But political decision-making is never simply a case of facts and evidence; it is also a matter of judgement. For example, the weight of expert opinion may be that human beings are contributing massively to climate change – I would hope that politicians would accept that as a scientific judgment. But once you try and place it into policy, how much does one country load new burdens on itself if other countries will not do the same? That’s a political judgment. How much can one country take in terms of regulations? That too is a political judgment. So politicians can’t and shouldn’t duck their own positions as final arbiters in questions that are at least as much questions of political judgment as they are of evidence.
DR: What should the role of statistics-based evidence be in public life? Should we simply encourage a healthy scepticism towards experts or would you prefer a broader debate driven by ideas rather than statistics?
MP: Even statistics are much more driven by ideas than people think. Most statistics are capable of a range of interpretations, and those interpretations are formed unconsciously by ideas and beliefs that we may have. As everybody knows, statistics can mislead – the public is particularly ill-equipped to understand statistics, journalists are ill-equipped to use statistics, and so statistics can be wilfully misused or unwittingly misunderstood.
I would like to see the interpretation of statistics made part of the core education curriculum: children in schools should be taught these things, because we have statistics thrown at us all the time and we don’t know what to make of them. In the end, there are statistics, evidence and facts, but there are also values, arguments and ideological systems. Those things are outside the realm of the experts, and they matter.
DR: Do you think there is too much data in our public debates at the moment?
MP: I don’t think there can ever be too much data if the data is not misused, but I think there is too much rather partial data, sometimes bent toward producing distorted conclusions. The result is the illusion of a debate about the facts, when what we have are people’s interpretation of the facts.
DR: Are there experts with vested interests in the political classes? Is politics, just as much as medicine and science, a profession that is susceptible to ‘expert culture’ as you’re describing it?
M: Yes it is, and so the British Medical Association, one notices, will always be partial to the interests, often the financial interests, of doctors. Agricultural expertise, if it’s too close to the farming profession, gets muddled up with the interests of farmers. Legal experts often have very strong ideas of the importance of hiring a lot of highly paid lawyers. No profession is without its own interests.
DR: But if our political professions are just as susceptible to this expert culture, why should we trust them to safeguard our democracy any more than independent experts?
MP: We’ve learnt a healthy scepticism of politicians. Our first, almost default response to any politician is to ask where he or she is coming from and if there’s any hidden agenda. That approach is quite healthy. By contrast, we sometimes have a rather child-like and naïve attitude towards experts and we don’t adopt the sort of scepticism that we adopt towards politicians.
DR: So you would say that politicians and the press are just as affected by vested interests as all other kinds of experts?
MP: Oh yes, everyone is affected. Democracy is about vested interest; it’s about the clash of different parts of the population. Until you understand that vested interests are part of the warp and weave of the way that people think and work and reach their opinions then I think you’ll miss a lot, and that’s as true of the academic world and the scientific world as it is of the political world.
DR: Is there any risk that fostering a healthy scepticism of experts and expertise might feed into, or feed off, a biased form of anti-intellectualism?
MP: Yes, and it’s quite dangerous. That kind of populist hostility to any kind of professional expertise – “I know a woman who lived to 94 and she chain-smoked since she was 16” etc – is dangerous, and I’m not encouraging that. Academics and experts of any field should always be listened to with respect and attention, but always in our minds should be the possibility that they might just be wrong.
DR: If we try and encourage scepticism towards certain kinds of experts, do you not think that it might lead to some form of anti-intellectualism, or that it might be uncomfortably close to anti-intellectualism?
MP: It might. It would be possible to go too far and just develop a kind of generalised hostility to knowledge, and that obviously wouldn’t be a good thing. Climate change is a good example: among those who are part of the consensus on climate change there is quite a strong sense of the conventional wisdom and peer group pressure pushing them not to challenge those conclusions. But on the other side, the anti-climate change scientists, one senses that very often they’re being paid for by vested interests who are hostile to the measures you might have to take to combat climate change. If we aren’t careful, we might end up feeling that they’re all as bad as each other so it’s not even worth listening to the science on climate change, because they’re all in somebody’s pocket. That isn’t true, and to reach that conclusion would be just as damaging.
DR: Do you think there already is a culture of anti-intellectualism in Britain?
MP: There is against the arts, but there is a fairly good respect for science. I think the arts do struggle with a sort of anti-culture, anti-intellectualism and to some extent, perhaps philosophy does too. More scepticism is required in the social sciences and psychology. Both of these are in a very early state – they only fitfully have any claim to be sciences at all, and we often take the views of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers without question. I don’t think we are sufficiently alert to how little they know.
DR: Would your healthy scepticism toward expertise act as a licence to brush off opinions or statistic that are in some way unhelpful, whilst keeping ones that align with your own argument or opinion?
MP: Yes it can, and one has to be aware of that danger.
DR: So you would say that it could very well act as a kind of confirmation bias?
MP: It’s very important that scepticism doesn’t drift into hostility. Scepticism doesn’t mean rejecting something out of hand; it means listening carefully and in a questioning way.
Image credit: James Mutter