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Populism versus the Experts

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the relationship between contradictions within liberalism and the current rise of populism, with an emphasis on the recent Brexit referendum. I want to focus here on a specific aspect of this – the role of experts, in particular social scientists.

Anti-intellectualism, or the rejection of expertise, is the eternal partner of extreme populism. It is something that featured heavily in the Brexit discourse. Responding to expert views of the economic problems predicted to follow from a British secession from the EU, senior Tory politician and Leave campaigner Michael Gove expressed the popular view that people have “had enough” of experts. This anti-expert mood is described by scientist and promoter of science, Brian Cox, as “the road back to the cave”. And he’s surely right. Not all opinions are created equally, nor do they deserve equal respect and attention. There are excellent reasons to respect the views of someone who has committed large parts of their life to understanding something over someone who has put in little effort or is passing on received ideas as truths. Populism rejects this basic truth and opens the door to the contest of crude opinions rather than deep thought.

And yet, there is something plausible about the scepticism directed towards expertise, at least where political economy is concerned. The experts, nearly to a person, failed to predict the economic crisis of 2008. Experts have failed to create durable and broadly acceptable solutions in the post-crisis period. And experts were instrumental in promoting the socially corrosive economic policies of neoliberalism that I have related to the current rise of populism. So why should we trust these experts? This is a huge question that I cannot exhaust. But I want to draw attention to the problem of objectivity in the social sciences.

This is essentially a problem of ethics in the social sciences. At first glance the problem appears to be one of the ethics of applied social science: how should the findings of social science be used by practitioners in, say, government or industry? In this understanding, the ethical problem in the social sciences is analogous to those in the natural sciences. Just as we may ask whether atomic physics should be used to make a bomb we might ask whether, say, a particular economic model should be pursued in policy. But this misreads the problem. The difficulty for the social sciences is a deeper one than that faced in the natural sciences: method and application are not so easily separated. There are two related components: first, how far social science has (or can) isolate itself from ideological and moral concerns; and second, how far social science can isolate themselves from the subject of their study.

I will dispatch with the first problem very briefly. There are underlying and unstated philosophical and ideological beliefs that inform the social sciences. Some have plausibly argued that economics is highly political and ideological (see e.g. (Chang, p. 451)). All sciences simplify in order to create manageable models of the world. But ideological predispositions can affect what the modeller chooses to include and to ignore, greatly affecting the outcome (wealth distribution is one commonly ignored in economic models).

It may be, as I think it is the case, that moral aspects are inherent in the very nature of what the social sciences study. This is not a problem in itself: it is simply part of the problem that these fields address. It raises questions as to the scientific credentials of these fields of study – perhaps they are more like philosophy than natural science? This is important but I set this matter aside. Where it is a problem is when the moral assumptions are tacit, hidden deep beneath the graphs and numbers. This renders the assumptions not only unquestioned but unquestionable. To assess their findings the moral assumptions need to be explicit and widely understood. Only then can we reasonably hope to evaluate the contents of this type of expertise.

The second component is more serious. Economics and political science materially affect the systems that they measure in ways that natural sciences do not. This can be simply understood. Physicists may describe gravity accurately, inaccurately, or simply wrongly. They may even “explain” it. A scientific model of gravity is good insofar as the effects of gravity accord with it. But whatever is the case, gravity gives not a single damn. Whether physicists are right or wrong (whatever that may mean in the context of physics), gravity will do what gravity does – it will never seek the guidance of physicists before dropping that apple to the ground. More formally, the link between the material world and the hard sciences is unidirectional: science observes the world, the world does not watch back.

This is not the case in the most important social sciences. Economists and political scientists are themselves actors in the system they monitor. They are voters, citizens, workers, and consumers. They act closely with the system’s primary actors who consult the scientists and their work for guidance on how to act. In a very real sense, the social sciences have a capacity to shape the societies that they describe. Karl Polanyi, in a little known paper from the 1940s, described this problem: “the social sciences may have enhanced man’s ability to attain his ends”, but, he argues, “they certainly diminished his faculty of knowing what they are”. The social sciences “have a massive influence on man’s wishes and purposes”, and “some assertions tended to be actually question begging in a rather unexpected way, by creating the very phenomena on the existence of which they were insisting” (Polanyi, 2014, pp. 114-5). Assumptions about how people are lead to the creation of institutions that reflect those assumptions, in turn inducing the very behaviour predicted.

Economics is, in this sense, performative. It permeates politic practice (rapidly, and often recklessly). The simplifying assumption that people are rational choice machines leads to the adoption of institutions that suit rational choice machines, creating incentives that cause people to act in accordance with them, and thus validating the original assumption. This drives out other behaviours. Neoliberalism, guided by the advice of economists, has introduced market mechanisms into many areas of life previously governed by non-market norms. This has, in turn, replaced those norms, transforming the interactions of people and the containing cultures alike (Sandel, p. 48; Satz, p. 99). Michael Sandel gives a curious example of one manifestation of this effect. He records the number of times that the word “incentivize” appears in major newspapers over the period of time when governments actively began integrating employing economic “incentivization” into their policies (Sandel, p. 87):

Period Instances
1980s 48
1990s 449
2000s 6159
2010-11 5885

The economist Adair Turner reminds us that:

Ideas matter. They strongly influence the assumptions with which policymakers approach practical policy choices. They define other areas as unsound, not worth considering, taboo. (Turner, 2016, p. 242)

Social science, and economics particularly, are the source of many of these ideas. Definitions of welfare, measured in monetary terms, hide other important human relationships. A deeply-held preference in economics for the logic of “Pareto efficiency” – that a social change can be measured by whether some benefit while others are no worse off – submerges vital discussion about distribution. A fetish for constant exponential economic growth avoids distributional considerations and important questions about work and social roles.

Political scientists have, to a large extent, adopted the methods (and with these, the assumptions) of economists. To give one example, rational choice theory leads to models such as the so-called “median voter theorem” – the idea that politicians will move to the centre of the political spectrum in order to capture the largest number of votes. Vote-seeking politicians, in turn, have taken this as instructive and moved to the centre. It should be unsurprising, therefore, that so many politicians appear identical in policy terms. This, in turn, reduces voting to a beauty contest. Worse, it leaves wholly unexplained where the centre is, or whether it is in a healthy state.

These examples illustrate the broader problem of scientific detachment in the social sciences. These “subject-polluting” effects are hard to reconcile with the social sciences’ self-image as hard objective empirical sciences. Social scientists are left with a possibly intractable task: to identify and employ ways of controlling for their own presence in society. When unexpected consequences occur, such as voter apathy or, as is currently happening, a sharp lurch to the far-right, social science is left without the tools to analyse these new emergent problems.

Social scientists can, then, influence their subject. Likewise, the subject can influence the science. In the social sciences, experts disagree, sometimes enormously. Political and economic opportunism frequently clouds this fact: powerful actors routinely select and promote the experts that suit their already formed views, and public discourse frequently prejudices the matter in favour of the loudest voices. When research itself is held to the test of commercial applicability, the case is prejudged in favour of views that internalise market assumptions. Research in paradigms that suit particular interests can be encouraged and actively promoted in the public discourse while less agreeable insights are neglected. And this, in turn, creates social resources enabling the “successful” actors to further their views. To be sure, this dynamic occurs in the hard sciences too. But it is impossible to understate the impact when this happens in the social sciences.

The problem of political and economic expertise is a huge one. I don’t claim to have any definitive solutions. But a few tentative observatory conclusions are due.

First, it cannot be stated strongly enough that populism is absolutely not a solution, nor will it ever be. Populism is not a constructive force. It is the rule of the mob – a fact that has been argued against democracy for as long as the notion has existed, even as mobs flatter themselves as being “democratic”. But make no mistake – mob-rule is every bit as destructive, and may be more so, than technocracy, the rule of experts.

The astute reader will have noted that in criticising experts I have made reference to other experts. This is important. The way we respond to expertise matters a great deal, and not any old argument will do. It is not sufficient to claim revelation, or to appeal to the number of people that believe otherwise. Expertise matters. It is essential to the social division of labour. How we relate to it is the key issue.

We cannot all be experts, but we can develop our own tools that enable us to both reject charlatanism and assess the merits and demerits of competing arguments. To deal with experts we must simultaneously move towards them while understanding the full nature of their positions – their underlying assumptions and so forth. Something like this is a necessary requirement in healthy democracies. We must account not only our own direct knowledge, but also the sources of our information: the press is particularly important and has a distinct responsibility in this respect (recent events are testimony to what can happen when they do their job poorly). I am not saying we should assess every argument. The peril of populism is that the argument space is flooded with many more bad ideas than good: learning to distinguish between these without being drawn into foolish debates is perhaps the most important skill. More than anything, we need to be aware of disagreements between experts. Experts are not gods, nor are they devils – we should not regard them as such. We should recognise their limitations and come to understand the histories and underlying moralities of their positions. Only then can we reap the benefits of their expertise in the worthy context of democratic participation.


Works Cited

Chang, H.-J., 2014. Economics: The User’s Guide. London: Penguin Group.

Polanyi, K., 2014. How to Make Use of the Social Sciences. In: G. Resta & M. Catanzariti, eds. For A New West: Essays, 1919-1958. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 109-118.

Sandel, M. J., 2012. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. London: Allen Lane.

Satz, D., 2010. Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale – The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Oxford University Press.

Turner, A., 2016. Between Debt and the Devil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



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