On Sunday the 23rd October 2016, the Institute of Ideas and Newsweek held a debate on “post-factual politics”, asking what is the future of experts and whether their prominence doesn’t often remove some of the democratic accountability of decision-making.
This debate formed part of the 2016 edition of the Battle of Ideas debates festival, which you can find more information on via the links below. Other recordings from the Battle of Ideas will be being uploaded in the coming days and weeks and to receive up-to-date information about recordings from both these and other Time to Talk events, you can follow us on our Facebook and/or Twitter accounts, where we regularly publish information about new material.
The Brexit referendum result and the US presidential campaign have both fuelled concerns about the rise of “post-truth politics”, with many painting 2016 as the dawn of a post-factual era. After all, Donald Trump has called fact-checking an “out-of-touch, elitist media-type thing” and his seemingly cavalier relationship with truth seems to stretch far beyond even the most cynical spin-doctoring of mainstream politicians. And, Brexit leader Michael Gove’s now infamous claim that “people in this country have had enough of experts” continues to provoke outrage. Many asked pointedly if he would dismiss the expertise of doctors when ill and people in the science world have taken his remarks as a rejection of empirical research and a challenge to the efficacy of evidence.
Populist politicians aside, what are we to do with “ill-informed voters”? Almost the whole global economic, scientific and financial establishment lined up to warn of the consequences of Brexit, but 52% of the country ignored them. Why, when data and quantitative information is everywhere, does it seem like people still prefer to “vote with their hearts”? Some blame the media for running attention-grabbing half-truths in their headlines. Others argue it is up to the experts to go on the offensive in order to get their insights across. Yet, when one expert advocates using “our skills not only as subject specific experts, but as teachers, to try to nudge society towards a democratic process based on true critical thinking” is an important point being missed? This appears to assume that the public would follow expert advice, if only they better understood; that there is no room for legitimate disagreement or debate. In fact, those who see experts as a new “priestly” class argue that far too much of political life is being outsourced to experts – whether at the Bank of England or in the government’s “Nudge Unit” – with huge swathes of decision-making subsequently being removed from democratic accountability. Some argue that this political privileging of expertise is the real threat to expert knowledge, representing an erosion of knowledge as an end in itself. Increasingly, academic and scientific research is expected to serve a social or economic purpose; “policy-based evidence” in support of an implicit political agenda. Indeed, might some of those bemoaning “post-truth” politics simply be reflecting disbelief at the fact that the experts’ own liberal-cosmopolitan worldview has been challenged?
What is the future for experts in an era of “post-truth” politics? Have experts been over-reaching into areas where what is needed is not so much facts as political principles? Or, if the facts are dismissed, will society sink into a mire of prejudice and superstition, with policy little more than a non-evidence based shot in the dark?
More recordings from the Battle of Ideas 2015 will continue to be uploaded in the coming days and weeks. To receive up-to-date information about recordings from the Battle of Ideas and other Time to Talk events, you can follow us on our Facebook and/or Twitter accounts, where we regularly publish information about new material.
Frank Furedi – Sociologist and Social Commentator; Author, What’s Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a Sociological History
Josh Lowe – European Politics Reporter, Newsweek
Neena Modi – Professor of neonatal medicine, Imperial College London; Consultant in neonatal medicine, Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust; President, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
Adam Rutherford – Geneticist, Science Writer and Broadcaster, BBC; Author, Creation and A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived: The Story in our Genes; presenter, Inside Science and The Cell
Claire Fox – Director, Institute of Ideas; Panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; Author, I Find That Offensive