Thursday, 27 December 2018

The people's voice and expertise > How democracy is about respectful discussion, not just voting

We seem to have had enough of experts...

Whether in planning:
Futures Forum: The revolt against the planning expert

Or science:
Futures Forum: Climate change: Brexit and Clexit
Futures Forum: Brexit: and Clexit: or the links between Eurosceptics and climate change sceptics
Futures Forum: Brexit: and the future for climate change >>> anti-intellectualism and inter-generational theft 

Whether in the UK:
Futures Forum: Brexit: and post-fact politics

Or the States:
Futures Forum: Politicians, wonks and technocrats

You will remember the current Environment Secretary's words during the final debates on Brexit two and a half years ago:
Britain has had enough of experts, says Gove | Financial Times
Gove: Britons "Have Had Enough of Experts" - YouTube

Perhaps he now thinks differently:
Michael Gove decides that experts are actually extremely useful after all | TotalPolitics.com

The question, though, is whether he voiced at the time a sort of 'anti-intellectualism':

‘Had enough of experts?’ Anti-intellectualism is linked to voters’ support for movements that are skeptical of expertise

August 30th, 2017

However, since the mid-1990s, anti-intellectualism has been on the rise in the American public, especially amongst self-identified ideological conservatives, as demonstrated in Figure 1. Since 1972, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked nationally representative samples of Americans (roughly once every two years) to report whether they have a great deal, only some, or hardly any trust in the “scientific community.” The figure plots the proportion of liberals and conservatives placing high levels of trust in the scientific community (Note: this is an extension of analysis from Gordon Gauchat).

Figure 1. Liberals and Conservatives’ trust in the scientific community

As the figure shows, liberals and conservatives held similar levels of trust in scientists from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s. Focusing on the right-hand panel in 1974, for example, 52% of liberals and 50% of conservatives held a great deal of trust in the scientific community. Following approximately 1994, however, their opinions began to diverge. By 2014, 53% of liberals and only 36% of conservatives held a great deal of trust.

'Had enough of experts?' Anti-intellectualism is linked to voters' support for movements that are skeptical of expertise | USAPP

There might be a way out of this:
Futures Forum: Brexit: and looking beyond revolt: "If we’ve learned one thing in the last week, it is that communities – not Westminster - must agree what works for them." 

Which means experts and non-experts listening to each other:

Was Michael Gove right? Have we had enough of experts?

Experts are finding it harder to be heard. But is that because of how they communicate? And how solid is their much-vaunted evidence base anyway?

by Helen Jackson, Paul Ormerod / July 14, 2017
Published in August 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine

Using evidence to assess the outcomes of policies is a vital part of good governance. Whether it is examining how a Budget will affect those on low incomes, or how well fishing quotas are managing stocks, no one but the most bumptious ideologue would deny it. The plastering of demonstrably dodgy statistics on the side of the Brexit battle bus last year stoked indignation on the part of many who think of themselves as rational and well-informed. The arrival of Donald Trump, an American president who feels no compunction about disseminating falsehood, has further darkened the mood among the liberal intelligentsia. There is a strong sense that the forces of reason must now rise up and see off the purveyors of the “post-truth” world.

We must, however, also grapple with one other contemporary reality. Underlying the great turmoil of politics at the moment is precisely the view that “the experts” are less trustworthy and objective than they purport to be. Rather, their considered opinions are seen as a self-reinforcing apparatus for putting themselves beyond challenge—to advance their holders’ status, their careers or, most damaging of all, their political views over those of the less-educated classes. The great popular suspicion is that an elite deploys its long years of schooling and “the evidence base” to make itself sound more knowledgeable as it rationalises the policies it was going to prefer all along.

Is that a fair charge? Well, that is an empirical question, and definitive evidence for answering it is in short supply. What we can usefully do, however, is interrogate where the “evidence base” comes from, and how solid it is.


But the backlash against “experts” is, nonetheless, still principally associated with the right. The more educated, liberal-leaning section of society needs to understand why this is. It is not because, as is commonly assumed, the right is simply the political wing of the dark side.

The right’s great insight is that the left can create a political apparatus with good intentions but the wrong incentives, and that this apparatus can become impervious to challenge. It argues that political choice is based on economic self-interest, and that this can apply, perhaps unconsciously, even to people apparently motivated by the public interest. These suspicions, articulated as “public choice theory” by the Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan, have most often been applied to bureaucracies with noble theoretical aims that go awry in practice, but the same analysis can be extended to universities and research institutes too—or indeed “the evidence base.” The Buchanan analysis can easily morph into an intransigent view that pursuing practically any collective goal will lead to empire-building bureaucracies, which also fall prey to “capture” by self-serving lobbyists. Taken to extremes, it promotes a profoundly destructive, atomistic worldview that leaves society paralysed in the face of the most serious moral questions. One only has to look across the Atlantic at the way the American right is responding to climate change and healthcare to see that.

Those who reasonably resist this worldview can counter it in two ways: either through bitter “with us or against us” polarisation, or by having the foresight to avoid the charges that public choice theory would lay at the academy’s door in the first place. That means at least examining the possibility that policies that come blessed with an expert stamp are serving the interests of those who put them forward, rather than dismissing it out of hand.

Truth and evidence must obviously be upheld. But there is a real danger in expert elites studying the electorate at arm’s length and seeking a kind of proxy influence without having to worry about gaining political support. We must not denigrate evidence-based thinking, a bad habit of thuggish regimes, but we must subject it to more “sense-checking,” and in communicating it must pause and give thought to what the broader public will make of it. The alternative is a dialogue of the deaf between the know-all minority and a general populace which some may caricature as know-nothings. In such a stand-off, real evidence soon becomes devoid of all currency.

To avert it, the experts need to show some humility: we can’t diagnose and prescribe for all of society’s ills. We also need to recognise that to be persuasive we must actually persuade—and not simply hector. The great mass of voters are not, after all, under any obligation to accept expert authority. We need to reflect critically on the problems in academia that can block the testing of ideas on the inside, and dismiss all challenge from outside our walls. And we need to show self-awareness: deep intimacy with a subject can, on occasion, lapse into a tunnel vision that blanks out culturally-rooted perceptions and the lived experience of voters. Those things can’t be ignored. They are, after all, the lifeblood and raison d’être of politics, and can only be gauged by asking people, unschooled as well as schooled, for their opinions, and ultimately relying on their decisions.

Was Michael Gove right? Have we had enough of experts? | Prospect Magazine

Finally, from last week's Guardian: 

A Brexit citizens’ assembly: the people’s voice is needed


A polarised politics has prevented a civil and respectful debate about Brexit. Ireland shows deliberative democracy may help to break the deadlock

Fri 21 Dec 2018 

An anti-Brexit demonstrator wears a mask bearing the stars of the European flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London this week. Photograph: Tim Ireland/AP
The failure of Theresa May’s government to anticipate and then adequately address the political crisis caused by the result of the vote to leave the European Union in June 2016 is vaporising trust in politics. Once voters looked to parliament for reassurance that MPs knew what they were doing and had faith in their ability to weigh risks and move forward by accepting rational counter-arguments. They now see parties that are ideologically polarised, internally incoherent and unreasonably oppositional. This has led to gridlock, rooted in the tension between the referendum’s outcome and the ability of parliament to deliver it. Yet if this situation has been caused by the import of direct democracy, in the form of 2016’s poll, into a representative democracy, could one way to resolve the impasse be to focus on political and institutional reform? That is the claim of those promoting a citizens’ assembly as a solution to the current Brexit conundrum. It is an idea worth interrogating.

Proponents say that proper democracy means more than the right to vote in general elections. It must include deliberation, mature institutions, and checks and balances. It is undeniable that calm appraisal of evidence without the blinkers of party loyalty and ideology has been missing from Brexit debates. Campaigners point to Ireland, which set up first a constitutional convention and then a citizens’ assembly, to ponder Ireland’s biggest post-crash issues. The assembly was composed of a chairperson and 99 citizens, randomly selected to be electorally representative, and met on weekends 12 times over 18 months. It considered five subjects: abortion, climate change, an ageing population, how referendums are conducted, and fixed-term parliaments. Citizens listened to experts, and made recommendations to the Irish parliament.

The great success story of this process was Ireland’s referendum on abortion – a question that has bedevilled its politics for 35 years. It was the assembly’s citizens that voted 64% to 36% in favour of having no restrictions on termination in early pregnancy; it was the assembly that changed the mind of the conservative Fianna Fáil leader when he backed the repeal of the constitutional amendment that outlawed abortion; and it was the Irish parliament that decided to hold a referendum on the issue. The process was instructive: a draft bill was published undercutting the reactionary politics of paranoia. When the national poll was held, an emotive vote was not subverted as an informed public had been insulated from fake news and cynical manipulation. Politicians who saw their constituents having a civil conversation about abortion knew that they must too.

If the Brexit referendum had been preceded by such a dignified process, it would, as Fintan O’Toole observed in these pages, have been a very different experience. Such assemblies can build empathy and chip away at polarisation. True, in Ireland there has been criticism about how representative the assembly was, and how little politicians did about climate change. Representation and reflection are difficult to marry. But if the current Brexit imbroglio highlights anything it is that democracy is about respectful discussion, not just voting. 

The Guardian view on a Brexit citizens’ assembly: the people’s voice is needed | Editorial | Opinion | The Guardian

See also:
Futures Forum: Brexit: and 'Heroic Failure'
Futures Forum: Brexit: and how the Irish referendum's "deliberative democracy" countered fake facts

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