Not trusting experts

Probably the defining quote of the Brexit campaign was when Michael Gove said “Britain has had enough of experts.” That sentence either swung the poll in itself or was an incredibly astute observation from someone whose political reputation at that point was disastrous. It showed up the main difference between how Remain campaigned and how Leave campaigned. 

The university-educated middle classes, especially those in the “London-bubble” and who tended to vote Remain and made up the majority of the Remain campaigners, were using the kinds of arguments that convinced them: apparently rational arguments based on the views of economic (and other) experts. The campaigners spoke to different expert groups in turn and produced clear predictions of the difficulties: economic, legal, practical. The people who listened were themselves experts and they were convinced by other experts. 

The Leave campaign focused on more emotional arguments – appealing to national pride, fear of immigrants, the desire to “take back control”. It’s becoming increasingly clear that they didn’t have thought-through expert plans on what these ideas mean. 

Now, while I was (and am) staunchly pro-EU, the point of this blog is not to discuss those arguments. It is to consider why “Britain has had enough of experts” was so successful.

I think there are two reasons. The first is a sense of anger from a large part of the community who feels unheard, ignored and arrogantly patronised by the “elites”.  There is an isolation between London and the regions, between the wealthy and the poor. And this isolation has increased over recent years and while neither side really understands the lifestyle, challenges and pressures of the other, the power balance is very uneven. 

During the Brexit campaigning I joined a group on Facebook called “Scientists for the EU”. When anyone came on that forum and said anything pro Leave, the response (early on – the moderators stopped this eventually) was a barrage of insults about their lack of education, which amounted to “your opinion is worthless if you don’t have a PhD”. The arrogance and rudeness was awful. It’s hardly surprising that people wanted to annoy people who had treated them with such disdain by doing the opposite of what they said. 

That alone couldn’t fully explain the success of the slogan, though. Recently I understood a bigger reason. I was debating climate change on Facebook and I asked someone why she didn’t trust experts. This was her reply:

Another person expanded on this. They have noticed that Al Gore, who in the USA at least is the face of saying climate change is real, is a politician whose political views they disagreed with, and who now owns shares in carbon trading companies, so he will make a personal fortune if carbon trading is fully introduced. 

And without having distinguished scientific truth from other types of truth (see earlier blogs), because they disagree with (and are suspicious of) his suggested solution to climate change, they also don’t trust him saying climate change is real.