Week 1: Michaelmas 2016: experts in a world of post-truth politics

Apologies for the delay in getting the first blog uploaded. There seems to have been a bit of a snafu since various Cambridge Wordpress accounts had been attacked by hackers. Hopefully this is all sorted now.

The danger of writing about the current state of ‘post-truth politics‘ is the likelihood that as elites (students and faculty at Cambridge would have a hard time of defending themselves from the charge), we simply end up being an echo chamber that rails against these external forces. To simplify, ‘we’ are on the side of rationality and logic and evidence and ‘they’ are on the side of bread and circuses.

It was quite possible to live in Cambridge (or at least associated with the university) and never meet a living breathing person who voted Leave. Aside from philosophy or ideology, in part that is because of the potential disproportionate impact that leaving the EU will have on Cambridge. I imagine there are many pockets of America where that is similarly true of Trump or of Le Pen in France and treat them almost as a curiosity or object for an ethnographic study.

After many warnings from major multinationals, business leaders, economists, the International Monetary Fund, the head of the Bank of England, the prime minister, (arguably) all major party leaders, trade unions and other ‘opinion leaders’, the British public chose to vote to Leave the European Union. The Brexit debate had a memorable line from Michael Gove, the former Secretary of State for Education, who famously remarked that ‘the British public has had enough of experts‘. A recent study from the Institute for Government found that there was actually a strong belief in the need for experts, but it is manifestly true that simply invoking expertise did not convince any wavering voters.

Debates over left and right or communitarian versus libertarian are relatively comfortable and well-rehearsed arguments even if often contentious. Many have argued that increasingly the most fractious divide is not between right and left but between an open and closed view of the economy and society, there is even a view that increasingly political parties will need to realign. A related debate is over evidence and expertise, though it is hardly as novel as some would claim.

Feel free to tackle just one or two (of the many) questions raised by these debates:

  1. Are you concerned that such ‘post-truth politics’ is genuinely changing the role of expertise and evidence in debates over politics and policy or is this just what five years ago we would call ‘lies’ and is really no more of a threat to our political system than it has ever been?
  2. What role does social media play in changing the terms of political debate and discourse?
  3. How should scientists and engineers and other experts engage in a ‘post-truth world’ where expertise is called into question or dismissed?
  4. How (if at all) do such debates play out in your sector or area of interest? For example, some would argue that debates over climate change have presaged some of the tactics now used more widely to deny the validity of evidence.