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To get through this crisis, we must learn how to combine expertise with democracy

Everyone has a democratic right to contribute to a debate about decisions that affect us. Experts can inform our choices, but they cannot make them for us.

Christine Berry
18 March 2020
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance at a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on Coronavirus (COVID-19)
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Matt Dunham/PA Wire/PA Images

This week, Imperial College London released a paper confirming the central assumption behind the government’s coronavirus strategy was void. It will not be possible to reduce the peak of the epidemic to anything like a manageable level: the only option is to try and suppress it completely. Scientists from the editor of The Lancet to a former director of the World Health Organisation have been saying this for days, as it became increasingly obvious the UK was an international outlier.

Late last week, two hostile camps emerged on social media. On one side, the government’s supporters aggressively insisted that people should shut up and trust the experts. On the other, its critics began to peddle conspiracy theories about eugenics, suggesting the government was happy to cull economic ‘dependents’. To have a responsible public debate on the crisis – one that gets us through this horrifying period with the best possible chance of good decisions being made in the public interest – we urgently need to move beyond such immature positions. We need to learn how to combine expertise with democracy.

Commentators have been quick to pronounce the death of anti-expert populism: “people have actually not had enough of experts”. But it’s not this simple. In fact, this can be seen as a continuation of the politics of the past few years – highly polarised and characterised by widespread mistrust of authority – but with the roles reversed. Twitter trolls with Brexit Party avatars have told me to stop questioning things I don’t understand. Polls showed that older people and Leave voters were far more likely to think the government was handling the crisis well. Meanwhile, the left is suspicious both of those in power and their claims about the evidence.

Society remains divided into two hostile camps, and how you feel about the handling of the crisis seems deeply coloured by which of those camps you fall into. Older, right-wing Leave voters feel safe knowing their man is in charge. Young, left-leaning Remainers can’t think of anything worse. People’s attitudes to the government’s scientific advice are reverse-engineered to fit these positions. Unlike most other big issues of recent years – from climate change to Brexit – authoritarian-nationalist politics and a belief in British exceptionalism now lend themselves to appeals to scientific authority. But it does not follow that being anti-science is now a progressive position. Rather, both sides urgently need a more sophisticated approach to expertise.

This is not about ‘politicising’ the crisis – it’s about our democratic right and responsibility to contribute to a well-informed debate about decisions that affect us. Some might argue that a crisis situation demands decisive action, not democratic debate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bad decisions taken now could cost hundreds of thousands of lives: it is vital that they are properly scrutinised.

Exhortations to “trust the experts” reflect an extremely crude idea of experts’ role: to provide unchallengeable answers on tablets of stone, rather than to help us collectively navigate the messy and unpredictable world we find ourselves in. For one thing, experts can disagree – and in this case, they do, profoundly. It has not been hard to find epidemiologists who felt the government’s strategy was evidentially sound and those who felt it was madness. It’s also worth considering that, unless there is a truly extraordinary level of groupthink going on, there must have been debate within the government’s inner circle on its maverick approach. It’s likely some government advisors had concerns they could not voice publicly.

Of course, during a crisis the government must maintain a united front and give clear, consistent messages (although on this too, it has fared abysmally over the past week). But this only makes it more important to have robust scrutiny from outside that inner circle. Transparent and open debate between experts improves the state of knowledge and improves the chances of good decisions. This is especially true when a small group of key decision-makers and advisers are under immense stress and fatigue, working day and night, knowing that lives are hanging in the balance. It must be easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees, to put too much faith in one’s own models whilst failing to realise that real-world events are outpacing the assumptions of those models. Outside scrutiny acts as a vital counterweight to the possibility of groupthink and human error.

Moreover, the fact that decisions must be informed by complex evidence does not mean that only those with expertise have the right to an opinion. Both politicians and experts themselves are making judgements based on evidence: the answers do not simply follow neatly from the evidence itself. Expertise is always contested, and expert knowledge itself reflects the assumptions and blind spots of the person producing it. More fundamentally, political decisions always involve trade-offs and prioritisation. Evidence can tell you what those trade-offs might be, but it cannot tell you how to make them. That is where moral values and democratic deliberation come in. This is especially the case when – as is now sickeningly clear in this case – there is no ‘good’ solution. Every possible course of action will involve both large numbers of deaths and cataclysmic economic and social impacts.

If all this applies to the epidemiology, it applies in spades to a much more dubious ‘science’ that has too often been put on a pedestal: economics. Economics is deeply contested; the financial crisis exposed conventional economic models as hopelessly flawed; economic decisions reflect value judgements and create winners and losers on a massive scale. Yet for decades we’ve been told that economic policy should be left to experts, since it’s far too complex for ordinary citizens. Now, we are in uncharted waters; extraordinary measures will need to be taken to avert an economic as well as humanitarian catastrophe. We will all be affected by what is about to hit us, and we must all have the right to a voice on how we respond.

Over the coming months, our societies will be faced with impossible, terrible choices. Experts can inform those choices, but they cannot make them for us. In our relationship with expertise, as in so much else, we will need to grow up – fast.

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