Has the public really had enough of experts? Event report

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In the run up to Britain’s referendum on its membership of the European Union, there were many opinions, statistics and predictions made in the debates. As the date of the referendum drew nearer and the debates more heated, Vote Leave’s Michael Gove said in an interview: ‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts.’

His remark caused much consternation about whether we are now in a post-truth age where expert opinion can be easily dismissed, and was the topic of discussion at an event organised by the Royal Statistical Society and the Institute for Government. The event was chaired by the new director of the Institute for Government, Bronwen Maddox, and featured RSS executive director, Hetan Shah, on the panel. Hetan was joined by Deborah Mattinson, founding director of Britain Thinks, Oliver Wright, policy editor at The Times and Will Moy, founder of Full Fact.

Hetan Shah of the Royal Statistical Society argued that we should bear in mind that the EU referendum was a special case (in terms of use of facts). Polls still show a high level of trust in experts such as doctors and in the statistics that are produced by the Office for National Statistics. That said, polling from NatCen shows that 69% think politicians don’t use statistics well and that the statistics watchdog, the UK Statistics Authority, did not intervene strongly enough when facts and figures were presented incorrectly during the referendum campaign.

Hetan concluded that the best way to have an informed debate is to have an education system that teaches basic statistical concepts such as probability and uncertainty.

Deborah Mattinson disagreed that the referendum was a special case, but highlighted ongoing issues in public debate. Focus groups found that many ‘experts’ were considered to have vested interests in remaining in the EU, and that the Leave campaign was trusted more by the public than Remain - and Boris Johnson was trusted more than David Cameron.

Focus groups also showed that while people understood leaving the EU might be bad for the economy as a whole, they did not think it would affect their own finances directly. The public did, however, see the connection between the EU and immigration.

Oliver Wright, put forward the view from the media. He said that despite public perception, journalists do value experts and facts considerably. He lauded the Full Fact website, saying that when it was first established it caused a huge culture shock for the media - but it's made journalists much more careful about how they use facts. The issue, Oliver reckons, is that we need to be more careful about whom we deem ‘experts’. The MMR scandal, for example, is a case where so-called ‘experts’ were responsible for creating and debunking it. He concluded that journalists do care about facts and expert opinion, but do so questioningly.

Will Moy, founder of the aforementioned Full Fact, found that the EU referendum campaign prompted a huge public demand for reliable information, and paid tribute to some of the experts who were 'massively committed' to engaging with the public. He mentioned Martin Lewis of the Money Saving Expert website as a credible, authentic and identifiable expert in the public eye, and asked, ‘how many experts pass that test?’ Martin Lewis, said Moy, engaged with people on an individual level and appeared to be on their side – something that many policy people can learn from. Experts, he said, often talk of averages and aggregates - but the public doesn’t talk like this, they need to know how it relates to them as an individual.

Moy concluded that information deficit in the EU referendum debate should have been identified in 2014 not May 2016 and that foundations were needed before the campaign started.

A lively discussion followed the speakers. A number of factors were cited that led to the mistrust of expert opinion: the public do not have a great enough knowledge of basic economic concepts; the financial crisis caused a huge setback to public trust of experts. MPs have a problem with image and can appear to the public to be working in their own self-interest. However, people are more likely to trust their own MP; familiarity can be key to trust.

It was acknowledged that while false claims were being called out, truthful claims were being disregarded too. There were not the institutions in place at the time of the referendum to correct mistakes. And if more evidence behind policy should be published – as outlined in the RSS Data Manifesto – it would help the public make up its own mind.

Policy makers and the public need to work together, said Mattison – and more education is needed for both. Shah stressed that the new core maths post GCSE qualification was a good first step.


Watch the event in full here:

 

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