Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Why won't they listen to the experts?

Why are so many people ignoring expert opinion?

When this question was raised, principally in relation to economists and the consequences of being in or out of the EU, but also more broadly, my friend Michael Meadowcroft penned the following comments, which I think are very perceptive:

[A] A great part of the problem is that the vast majority of economists - and of academics in other professions - are not politicians and do not understand the issues of judgement required in achieving objectives. This is often apparent in the language used, which has to be "translated" in order to be politically relevant. Where Keynes gained was that he was very much aware of the realm of politics, partly because he was brought up in a political home (for instance, his mother was a long- term Cambridge City Councillor) and was also actively involved in the Liberal party and in the reality of international conferences with the necessity of finding solutions to huge political problems.

[B] We pay a very high price for the freedom of the Press. In the current referendum "debate" The Sun, Daily Express and Daily Mail are simply propaganda sheets for the Leave campaign. They publish nothing whatever favourable to Remain. Of course, the majority of political animals - myself included - very rarely see these papers and so are unaware of how awful they are. The BBC falls into a different trap - it mistakes "balance" for equal coverage. Thus, if a hundred experts in a particular field are for Remain and only five for Leave it still gives equal coverage. One idealogical economist, such as Patrick Minford, is given equal coverage to a dozen distinguished economists pro-Remain.

[C] The Leave campaign continually attacks the messenger rather than the message, so that the Governor of the Bank of England is attacked for making illegitimate statements and for past economic predictions being shown to be fallible, and other respected institutions are said to be biased because they have funding from Remain sources, etc etc.

[D] There are stupid decisions on, say, electoral registration that affect the result. For instance, denying 16 and 17 year olds the vote, even though they had the vote in the Scottish referendum. The decision to move to individual registration (from household registration) was highly flawed. It is a classic case of what is right in principle being politically flawed. It is legitimately expedient to stay with a system that registers far more individuals than relying on individuals. In some areas it has reduced registration by 10% - and this cannot possibly be a consequence of unqualified individuals being wrongly included under the former system. It particularly affects students where all those living in university accommodation were automatically registered by their "landlord", and, in theory, in multiple-occupied houses by the landlord.

[E] Finally, as I've explained before, the whole referendum process is susceptible to being hijacked by populist views, skilfully manipulated, which pay no regard to facts.

It's a mountain for rational opinion to climb!


  1. It's worth bearing in mind that a lot of these experts thought Britain should have joined the euro, so they have already been proven to be wrong once.

    It's also worth noting that even if the expert is right, as well as the fact that 'economists […] are not politicians and do not understand the issues of judgement required in achieving objectives' there is also the possibility that people simply disagree with the experts about what objectives they are trying to reach.

    For instance, an expert may say, 'if you do this you will end up with less money than otherwise,' and someone replies, 'okay, I accpt that I will end up with less money, but I will gain something more important than money, so I will do it anyway' then they are ignoring the expert opinion but they are doing so for perfectly sensible reasons related to what values they put on various outcomes.

  2. On your first point, economists were actually quite divided about joining the Euro. I think we should have, and that, had we done so its history could have been very different. For example, I doubt if we would have allowed both Germany and France to exceed the convergence limits, and I think it is almost certain that we would not have allowed Greece to join, and possibly not Spain and Portugal either.

    On your second point, I think you're right. I'm sure many "Outers" are determined to give the establishment a kick up the backside, whatever the cost. I suspect that, if "Out" wins, these are the people who will suffer most.