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ESSAY: Can we still trust experts?

“I think people in this country have had enough of experts,” pro-Brexit campaigner Michael Gove said in the run up to the referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. It seems he was correct. Experts overwhelmingly warned against Brexit, yet over half the voters endorsed it.

The experts clearly got one thing badly wrong: they failed to anticipate how much much people distrusted experts.

In a world where the British public shook the establishment out of its complacency and Donald Trump has a non-imaginary chance of becoming the next president of the United States, does expert opinion still count for anything? (One anecdotal case supporting expert advice is Michael Gove himself, who, trusting his own political instincts, took a reckless political gamble and lost his job.)

Better science, not less science

It’s no mystery why ordinary people are fed up with the establishment. The financial crisis of 2008 seemed to come out of nowhere, and many ordinary people around the world are still suffering while bankers are again making fat profits.

Inequality is growing, globalisation has proved a mixed blessing, youth unemployment continues to run at crisis levels in many advanced economies and weak commodity prices are wreaking havoc in emerging markets. Do economists know anything?

A recent paper by Paul Romer is a frontal assault on economists’ scientific pretensions. Romer’s argument, to simplify, is that the highly sophisticated mathematical models favoured by the profession don’t actually tell us much about the real world.

Romer draws parallels to critiques of string theory in physics, which critics accuse of being a system of extremely elegant and complicated mathematical models floating free from reality that could never be shown false by experimental evidence; a body of knowledge that is ‘not even wrong’ in Wolfgang Pauli’s famous phrase.  

Not all economists will accept Romer’s argument, of course, and many physicists stand firmly behind string theory. We can leave the fascinating but extremely technical questions raised by these critiques to the economists and scientists. The important thing for interested observers to note is that these broad criticisms don’t question the value of expert science. On the contrary, the power of these criticisms is precisely that they accuse practitioners of moving away from the best practices of scientific method.

In other words, when expert scientific inquiry lets us down, the reason may be that the inquirers have become more enamoured of abstract models and elegant mathematics than the more mundane work of grounding variables in real-world conditions and experimentally testing data. (Of course, the point at which a model is ‘too abstract’ is itself a complex question beyond the pay grade of your correspondent.)

Respecting data

We can understand the point more clearly by taking a look at some other high-profile stories about the apparent failures of experts.

You’ve probably seen articles pointing out that many studies in psychology simply aren’t holding up. Researchers have attempted to reproduce the results of academic studies by running relevantly similar experiments, and are failing to get the same results. The phenomenon has become sufficiently widespread that commentators now refer to a replication crisis in academic psychology.

Does this mean that scientific investigation of the human mind is a waste of time? Again, if we look at the substance of the criticisms, we can see that that when studies fail, the failure can often be attributed to bad science (such as inadequate sample sizes and selective use of data) rather than some inherent limitation in the scientific method.

Data manipulation by pharmaceutical companies is another good example. Serious critics of big pharma point out the need for open data and transparent trials. Their concern is that pharmaceutical trials are not scientifically rigorous enough.

That’s a crucial point because of the way that people seize upon legitimate criticism of bad pharmaceutical practice to try and undermine the very idea of evidence-based medicine. That’s dangerous in a world where armchair intellectuals tell us vaccines lead to autism and HIV can’t cause AIDS.

The moral is that in times of uncertainty, we need more than ever to demand more scientific rigour from our researchers rather than recklessly search for answers that are not grounded in testable evidence. We need better science, not less science.

Modestly confident

It’s easy to say we need better science. Knowing what good science looks like is a never ending project.

Some theorists hold that our economic models just need a bit of tweaking. Some argue that national economies, and the world economic system, are too complex to model and we should leave them to sort themselves out. Others call for the whole system to be scrapped.

From outside the narrow economic discipline, historians, sociologists, geographers and other scholars offer perspectives that sometimes enhance, sometimes contradict the findings of orthodox economics.

We can choose to despair, or we can choose to embrace a wider horizon of knowledge, and learn to be modest about how much any field of study can tell us about our complex world.