Experts and elites

The road to revolution (part 3)

“The people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms,” said Michael Gove during the referendum campaign. It wasn’t clear what he thought of those without acronyms, but he probably didn’t like them either. In fact, he’s not very keen on experts altogether.  

That was an especially dumb remark from an intelligent man. During Gove’s education, which he values so highly, he was taught by experts in the subjects he was studying. During his time at various ministries, he has been guided by experts, by people who have had the experience and the knowledge that he lacks. But the most noteworthy thing about his remark was that it seemed to strike a chord with a large part of the population – the part that later voted to leave the EU.

Michael Gove might like to draw a distinction between those experts whose expertise lies in things that are known, or in events that have happened, and those for whom it lies in predicting what may happen. However, these are – or should be – mainly the same people. A knowledge of what has happened and what exists is a precondition for understanding what may happen.

However, let us confine ourselves to the second category – the predicters – because those are the experts who infuriate us. The ones, to be specific, that think that something will happen that we don’t want to happen. The ones whom we don’t like because they may be right.

We don’t want global warming to be true, because it means we will have to change our behaviour. So let’s say it isn’t happening. Bloody experts. What do they know? We don’t want to believe that immigrants might enrich our country. So let’s say they’re parasites. Bloody experts. What do they know? We don’t want Brexit to leave us poorer. So let’s say it will make us richer. Bloody experts. What do they know?

Up to a point it has always been popular to deride experts, and up to a point it is healthy. Predicting the future is a mug’s game. However well-informed the mug, he or she cannot be right all the time and may sometimes be spectacularly wrong. There is always good reason to be sceptical about any prediction, but predictions still need to be made. It would be impossible to run a government, or any organisation, otherwise.

Or indeed our own lives. We constantly make silent predictions about ourselves. When we take an important decision, that is based at least partly on a prediction of what the consequences of that decision will be. We may be wrong, just as those who predict the consequences of Brexit may be wrong, but we still need to make the calculation. And we don’t like anyone else telling us what to do. We’re the experts in our own lives.

The logical concomitant of deriding experts is to assert that people who know nothing about a subject, who have spent no time studying it, who could not even tell you the most basic facts about it, are just as likely to make an accurate prediction as an expert. To me, this is nonsensical, but it seems increasingly to be what people believe.

Experts are members of elites: they are the elite of their particular specialisation. It is not surprising that a derision of elites should accompany a derision of experts, as it now does. Once upon a time, nations strove to produce elites, and populations respected them. Not any longer.

Our understandable dislike of a social elite has morphed into a dislike of most other elites. The days when Harold Macmillan could fill government posts with 35 Old Etonians, seven of them in the Cabinet, are thankfully long passed. However, the more meritocratic age that has followed – in politics, in business and in most walks of life – has created new elites, and we don’t like them any better. In fact, we may like them less, because they are more like ourselves and serve as a reminder of what we have failed to achieve. We can no longer say it was because we “didn’t have the Latin”.

But our attitudes are confused. We salute record hauls of Olympic gold medals and applaud the elite sporting programmes that have enabled them. We would probably agree that the most gifted young musicians and artists should be nurtured. And also with the proposition that Britain’s future will depend on science and technology, and that we need to develop world-class talent in these areas. An elite, in other words.

If anyone suggests that our school and university system should aim to create an academic elite, however, they are howled down. Perhaps it has to do with what can be proven or demonstrated. We know we can’t run 100 metres in 10 seconds, or build a robot, so we reluctantly acknowledge the superiority of those who can. But none of us is prepared to accept that someone else is more intelligent than we are. It’s down to luck. Or unfair advantage. Or anything other than the fact that we may be less intelligent. Educationalists saying that some people are brighter than others? Bloody experts. What do they know?

So it’s down with elites, and down with experts, and down with anyone who might be able to guide us intelligently into the future – not always in the right direction, but more likely than monkeys to reproduce the works of Shakespeare. But let’s ignore them. We’re just as good as they are.

This is all part of the road to revolution. The traffic is going one way and shows no signs of slowing down.

In 1937, the future politician Douglas Jay wrote: “in the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves.” What a quaint thought. However, and whatever he thinks about experts, when Michael Gove sits at his desk in Whitehall, I bet he believes it.