Waking up to Brexit, Democracy and Experts

By Matthew Ryan, Politics & International Relations

Friday morning’s announcement of a win for the leave vote in the European Union referendum provided a wake-up call for complacent ‘experts’ like myself.

I voted to remain. From a personal point of view, it was pretty clear that leaving would have uncertain ramifications for funding for research and free movement of students and scholars from the EU to the UK. Moreover, I grew up in a Europhile country before migrating to the UK. In university I studied the European Union in great detail. I learned about how the EU had improved and ensured equal treatment for women and workers in countries emerging from tyranny to join the union. I learned how the Commission and the European Court of Justice had ingeniously protected European consumers by taking on the controlling market tactics of the likes of United Brands and Michelin. Growing up in the Southwest of Ireland during the tiger years I saw many buildings built under large signage celebrating funding from the European Union. Just last week many of us enjoyed for the first time reasonable roaming tariffs as we roamed France in search of footballing glory. I knew what good the European Union was capable of. It may not have been uniquely capable of these feats but at least it had a track record I was aware of.

At some point pretty early on Friday morning the prospects for remaining became bleak. At first I was disappointed and felt a little guilty. I didn’t get around to campaigning much and I felt I might have done more to relay my experiences and knowledge to others. But at least I had participated in a democratic plebiscite and many many others had too. Watching the news unfold I became increasingly angered (frankly) by the number of talking heads, and acquaintances on social media (most are graduates) that began to bemoan the holding of a referendum on the grounds that the citizens that voted to leave were simply not competent enough to make the appropriate decision. The anger and disappointment of those who identify with, and have much invested in membership of the EU is understandable. But for many so-called experts I think the penny still has not dropped.

Debates about democracy and competence are as old as the study of politics itself. The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and later Thomas Jefferson, lamented pure forms of democracy as the worst form of mob rule.[1] Certainly we saw some of the worst elements of populism in the campaign. Many of us witnessed incitement to hatred. It is still hard to know what to say about the tragic murder of Jo Cox. Her family and friends have said it all.

There are though, I think three important points to be made about the state of democracy in the UK in reflection on the referendum campaigns and analysis of the result. First, this was not a mob vote. Opinion research will shed more light in the coming days and weeks, but it is clear that the leave vote was spread across many different constituencies of interest with different takes on immigration, trade and national identity. Despite a focus on working-class votes in the immediate analysis, leave voters were in the majority in rural middle-England, the (post-)industrial north, many parts of the Celtic fringe excluding Scotland, and large urban provincial towns in the South and East. Leave voters are the experts in what is best for them. They reasonably disagreed after a long campaign with remain voters. They were upwards of 17 million in number. Some TV vox pops will no doubt highlight individuals with spurious and racist justifications for their votes, but many reasonable people listened to arguments and agonised in good faith over how to vote until the very last minute.

The geographic concentration of remain votes was stark; much more-so than leave. Again, some have been quick to argue that reliance on a small majority for such a momentous and complex decision results in a ‘tyranny of the majority’. They argue that the referendum should have required a supermajority of 60% or more. This is a perversion of the tyranny argument. Tyranny over minorities occurs when the same groups of people are losing out almost all the time. A democracy is a form of rule where everyone has to lose out some of the time. Perversely, many of those crying tyranny are coming from groups that can be seen to have won out in almost every policy decision affecting life chances in the last 40 years. The key challenge for political leaders and the media now is to facilitate deliberation across these divides. That starts with allowing people to voice their concerns, engaging arguments on their merits and not demonising different worldviews. There is a vast body of academic research on how best to integrate citizen’s innate expertise with technical expertise but some people dismiss it and most have never heard of it – a point I return to below.

If the first reaction responds to arguments about voter competence the second responds to arguments that this was a protest vote that rejected the wrong government. So the argument went among some of the commentariat on Friday, that the EU was the fall guy for all the failures of national governments over the past 20 or more years – governments who have left vast swathes of the population behind. As above there is likely some truth in the protest vote theory. However, I have little enough sympathy for the EU here. The EU has been complacent in the face of repeated warnings that it is out of touch with the public it is supposed to represent. This is not the first referendum defeat of its kind and the EU did almost nothing to try and justify its response to the Greek crisis in democratic terms. Its efforts as a whole to respond to the democratic deficit, time and again have been either overly ambitious (an EU constitution) or tokenistic (running a few consultations with the usual suspects). One thing we did learn in the last few weeks is that despite the ‘us and them’ rhetoric of the extremist populists, there clearly is an appetite among publics to know about, celebrate and praise the best of politicians and politics. For those of us who remain in, the European leadership needs to reach out to its denizens in a more than tokenistic fashion. The EU and its supporters need to learn how to market and communicate its successes and reasonably justify its work to its denizens on a regular basis. And this needs to happen fast.

The final point responds to arguments triggered by Michael Gove’s comment that people in this country have had enough of experts. I agree with many who have pointed out that the exact people they want to hear from in a scenario of uncertainty and complexity are experts. Expertise has a major role to play in advanced specialised societies. But I also find myself having much sympathy with Mr. Gove’s sentiments. Again the post-result response, in particular on the remain side, seemed to focus blame for their own failures on the insults, personality clashes and misinformation from many quarters that came to dominate the campaigns. Misinformation thrives not because people prefer blissful ignorance but because people prefer some form of explanation that they can understand. The experts didn’t provide real explanations, only superficial threats, because they assumed people would not understand the long-winded, abstract, caveat-laden language they deal in. They are right about the latter but the reality is that they could not help people understand. Experts refused, or did not have the skills to engage seriously in the most basic intellectual endeavour – explanation.

Despite recent efforts to combat the trend, the academic study of the social world seems increasingly on a one-way journey to withdraw to the relative comfort of the arcane. Academics are incentivised to write esoterically in journals which are not only unintelligible to most of the society they study, but also to many of their oh-so-clever friends. Ironically, journals dedicated to the study of politics; my chosen discipline and that which the ancients and many famous scientists throughout history have held in the highest regard; have some of the lowest impact factors (a measure of influence) among all disciplines. What is really striking though is that many academics in the social sciences only interact with people from outside their social circles as their subjects (with notable exceptions). We study people but we rarely take the opportunity to explain anything to them.

What we need now is an intellectual populism. We need to remember that the academic endeavour is after all merely the attempt to discover common sense; or at least to discover sense and then make it common. We aim to make the complex simple, without losing rigour. This is a challenge but one we are not stepping up to adequately (and I speak for myself if not my colleagues). Academic rigour requires critical distance and independent scientific analysis. But it also requires communication. Moreover, those of us who have had the privilege of making discoveries about our social world have the duty to help others make those discoveries too – and that goes beyond the small constituency who can afford to spend three or more years of their lives with us. All academics, researchers and graduates need to practice populism. The impetus needs to come from us not elsewhere. The public understanding of science and expertise is crucial for the reinvigoration of democracy.

[1] Aristotle was keener than Plato on rule by the many and the favoured form of rule he termed ‘Polity’ resembling more the constitutional democracy we know today, which is also much influenced by Jefferson’s thinking.


Making Academia A Bit More Relevant Requires Making ‘The Real World’ A Bit More Academic

By Matthew Ryan, Politics & International Relations

I have been interested to watch debates unfolding in the US prompted by Nicholas Kristof’s piece in the New York Times some weeks ago. The responses (see for example a recent column by Cass Sunstein) give visibility to important questions about the relevance of academic work (in particular the social sciences).

Academics have gradually become more worried about the lack of policy prescription in top political science journals and the impact of their work more generally; so much so indeed that they have had academic debates about it in academic journals. Now you might think that is a bit facetious. The articles in the linked journal are, I think, quite accessible and you should dabble in them if you get a chance. And that takes me to my modest contribution to the debate. Making academia relevant is as much about allowing more and more so-called ‘real/ordinary people’ to dabble in the ways of the academic as it is about academics, when acting in their capacity as academics, going out into the so-called ‘real world’ looking for trouble.*

The most welcome responses to questions of academic impact and relevance have asked political scientists to communicate more accessibly and appreciate the ways that others understand the problems they are trying to solve. I can’t argue with that. And when we have done a lot of research and come up with some robust and interesting findings, it makes plenty of sense that we ought to tell as many people as possible. But my worry is all parties will still focus too much on communicating the political and not enough on communicating the science.

How do non-academics use academic research? There are two ways that academic researchers can come up with findings and solutions that are valuable to policy-makers, civil society actors, practitioners and citizens. One is to do a heap of robust research and come up with the answers to solutions that the end-user of the research already valued before the research was done. Most of us like research that confirms our worldview. The other is to come to answers to political problems in a way that end-user can appreciate. It is not always easy but social scientists could do a lot more to help those for whom a research finding is relevant and has an impact upon them understand the underlying logics, the methods, and the standards of evidence that make judgements worth listening to.

The real tragedy of social science is that we so often see not only fellow citizens but often those influencing decisions, making public arguments that involve unsystematic comparison; referring to inconsistent reference populations; failing to recognise the bias in the selection of examples (cases and samples) they use; misunderstanding measures; and being unable to recognise and distinguish premises and conclusions. I could go on. I began to appreciate social science in a whole new way only when it forced me to change my mind about what I thought I knew. I didn’t do that until I understood the science part. We have summarily failed to help many of our fellow citizens understand why research and its findings are useful other than as currency to justify one’s own prejudices.

Citizens and those acting with democratically established authority should prescribe policy and academics qua** citizens may engage in this. Academics when acting in their capacity as academics should err on the side of prescribing knowledge first and foremost. Academics may at times have good reasons for being cautious about making policy recommendations and they can engage their peers in abstract jargon-heavy dialogue if they like. However they have no excuse for not improving non-academics understanding of academia and failing to make sure those they engage with understand how they know what they claim to know.

*Note that I did not use the word qua here and it didn’t hurt me much. Qua is the Latin way of saying ‘when acting in the capacity’ of. Academics do like to use a lot of Latin and/or German when writing in English. 

**Note that I used the word qua here and that those of you who read the last footnote know what it means if you did not before. I hope it didn’t hurt you to look at a footnote. The point is sharing between academic and lay language is not that hard.