Just over a week before the UK’s referendum on European Union membership, Paul Whiteley, a professor in the University of Essex’s department of government, was scheduled to take part in a BBC Norwich debate alongside three other academics to fact-check statements made by pro-Remain and pro-Leave politicians.
But one of the politicians set to appear, Douglas Carswell, the UK Independence Party MP for Clacton, refused to appear alongside them. “He was no longer prepared to share a platform with any experts,” according to Whiteley (Carswell did not respond to a request for comment from Times Higher Education).
“Considering the importance of the wider issues this is a relatively trivial incident, but it does show how academic experts are no longer seen as authoritative,” he reflects.
Carswell was one of the many Leave campaigners who rubbished the opinions of “experts” whose economic modelling predicted that Brexit would make the UK worse off.
“All we’ve heard from the Remain side – apart from outlandish scaremongering – is appeals to authority. Instead of presenting the issues, they expect us to trust the ‘experts’ to get it right,” the MP wrote on his blog earlier in June.
Michael Gove, the prominent Leave campaigner, has achieved infamy in some quarters for his remark during the campaign that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. He later compared economists warning about Brexit to scientists wheeled out by the Nazis to discredit Einstein. One anonymous Remain campaign chief quoted in The Sunday Times said that Gove had “launched an all-out assault on the Enlightenment in the name of atavistic nationalism”.
Leave voters were just as dismissive of academic experts as Leave politicians. According to a YouGov poll before the referendum, more than half said that they did not trust academics, and nearly six in 10 distrusted economists, on whether or not to leave the EU.
Remain voters were far more trusting and academics were the only group with a net positive trust rating overall.
But scholars are still worried by the apparent alienation of such a large segment of the population and the victory of a campaign with such a strong anti-intellectual streak. What has gone wrong?
The most immediate issue is how the economic arguments were deployed. “Expert opinions, particularly in relation to the economy, were misused during the campaign,” argues Whiteley.
“The models that the Treasury used to justify the claim that each householder would be worse off by £4,300 [if Britain left the EU] were state-of-the-art [economic] models, but they are incapable of making a definitive forecast like that since they are subject to very wide confidence intervals when projected many years into the future,” he says. “This was not made clear and so the Leave side effectively trashed them.”
“There’s no doubt that for some people, all ‘experts’ are suspect,” says Charles Pattie, a professor of electoral geography at the University of Sheffield. “Economists' collective failure (for the most part) to predict the 2008 crash no doubt feeds that”, while it has also entered “collective memory” that there was “expert consensus” that Britain needed to join the exchange rate mechanism in the 1990s, which ended disastrously on “Black Wednesday” in 1992.
Academic opinion has also struggled to keep up with the lightning-quick dissemination of opinion made possible by social media, says Mike Finn, a teaching fellow at the University of Warwick who focuses on contemporary British politics.
“We’re a long way from Radio 4,” he says. “We’re now in the world of social media. It means facts become facts in a different way.”
When something goes viral, “academic expertise lacks power in the face of that tidal wave” and ideas travel rapidly and are difficult to refute, he thinks. “It’s like watching popular myth-making in real time…myths that are very hard to challenge because they are endorsed by however many shares.”
However, one academic, Michael Dougan, a professor of European law at the University of Liverpool, did have his expertise go viral: a video of him analysing the figures circulated by both sides attracted nearly 500,000 views. “A lot of expertise was not disseminated in that way,” says Finn. “Academics are too slow to pick this up.”
Also blamed for the broader erosion in trust is the impact agenda – the government-backed push for research to have a visible use in society. It creates “perverse incentives to dumb down and oversimplify”, says Whiteley.
“Make academic communication compulsory so everyone is clamouring to be heard and you will devalue its impact and some of it will be simply misrepresented and ultimately not believed,” he says.
Then there is the wider sense that universities and academics are on one side of a cultural split in British society – and Leave voters eye them suspiciously from the other side.
“Academics are part of that establishment class, but perhaps don’t see themselves in that way,” Finn thinks. The academy needs to attract more scholars from poorer backgrounds who understand other parts of society, he thinks.
Fifty years ago, things were very different, Finn contends. As Harold Wilson declared that he would embrace the “white heat of technology”, several Oxford dons sat in his Cabinet. “That was seen as a selling point”, as they were “grammar school boys done good”, he says.
Now, it is Oxford graduates, not Oxford academics, that dominate the Cabinet, and they are seen as “elitist and out of touch”. This shows how universities are seen as “bastions of entrenched elitism”, claims Finn.
Meanwhile, rising inequality provides a background to collapsing trust in many sources of authority, not just academic expertise, says Whiteley. “If many people think that the system is not delivering for them, they are unlikely to think very much of the people in charge,” he says.
What place is there now for academics and universities in public debate, after the Leave victory? Jamie Martin, a former special adviser to Gove who campaigned for Leave, particularly on science issues, acknowledges that the campaign did indeed encourage voters to look at politicians and economists and say: “We don’t trust you."
But Martin makes a distinction between expertise in “hard science”, which he says Gove holds in high esteem, and politics and economics, which are “necessarily subjective” areas where “I have my view and you have yours".
Arguments about immigration are based around unquantifiable cultural preferences, and academics find it difficult to contribute to this kind of debate, Martin adds.
“If you enjoy that mix of cultures, that’s a value judgement against someone who opposes free movement,” he says. “You can’t have expertise on a value judgement. A lot of this was about cultural values.”
Still, for all the soul-searching in academia about declining trust, scientists remain one of the most trusted professions in the UK, according to an Ipsos Mori poll released this year. Seventy-nine per cent of the public trusted them to “generally tell the truth”. Professors scored similarly highly before they were dropped from the survey in 2013. But whether future surveys will tell a similar story is unclear.