Inequality and the anti-expert

A message from an expert: don't bring facts to a feelings fight. Or, you know, a Republican convention. Or Brexit referendum. Or Australian Senate election.

By Dr Will Grant
Friday, August 12, 2016

Like a train on fire crashing slowly into a Transylvanian village cemetery, 2016 seems to be a year in which the awful, awful gifts of politics just keep on coming.

In America, we’ve seen the rise of the runaway clown car that is Donald J Trump; in the UK, we've seen the vote to Brexit; and in Australia, we’ve witnessed the long-delayed reboot of the Pauline Hanson franchise into the Australian Senate. Indeed, throughout the West, 2016 has been marked by a clear emboldenment of the far right, with explicit assertions of authoritarianism, racism, misogyny and anti-expertise finding homes in a mainstream political discourse used to seeing such things somewhat more under the covers.

Out in the open

The rise of Trump, the vote to Brexit and the return of Hanson are, of course, disparate events, unique to the political contexts of each country. Brexiters aren’t identical — in either demography or desires — to Trump supporters in the US or Hanson voters in Australia. Hanson’s support is of a different order of magnitude to Trump’s, and the impact of a Trump victory would be of a radically different nature to Hanson’s capture of four senate seats in Australia.

But these marches of the far right do share similar boots.

Trump supporters, One Nation voters, and Brexiters are all suspicious of climate science and other products of the world of expertise. Trump himself has called climate change a scam invented by ‘the Chinese’. One Nation’s senate team includes Malcolm Roberts, who believes it a scam driven by ‘international bankers’. Brexit voters are more likely to be climate change deniers, and key leaders have questioned climate science.

Similarly, all have included strands of overt (or at least covert) racism. This has included a shared hostility to immigration, and to a range of cultural groups (Islam being the most/least popular). While Trump has explicitly proposed a wall between the US and Mexico, I can imagine a similar prospect to Australia’s north appealing to Hanson voters, or through the English Channel for Brexiters. Riven through all is a strong dose of anti-expertise. 

“People in this country have had enough of experts"
— Michael Gove, key spokesperson in the Leave movement of Brexit

The telling point about political 2016 is that the ideas of the extreme right — authoritarianism, racism, misogyny, and anti-expertise — have moved from fringe thinkers to a wider group of people. Older, whiter, less educated, less urban people throughout the western world are clearly rejecting the orthodoxies of ‘establishment’ politics. It’s no surprise really: these people have lost significant economic and social ground over the last few decades, and feel threatened by what's coming next.

Now we can argue, as many have done, that these movements represent fact-free ideologies, where people who know what they’re talking about aren’t welcome and an invented reality is preferred. We can laugh along with John Oliver at Newt Gingrich, who asserted that “liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are… as a political candidate I’ll go with how people feel, I’ll let you go with the theoreticians”. As Oliver noted, this is pretty much magical thinking. If candidates can create feelings, and feelings are the same as facts, then candidates can create facts.

But those of us that like experts — and the products experts provide — have to do more than assert the facts or laugh at the fact-free. In fact, I think it’s time we start asking some important questions about why so many prefer an invented reality to the facts we’ve provided.

Inequality at the heart of it

We experts in universities and government — and we’re associated strongly in many minds as voices of the establishment — have offered fact after fact that has increasingly hardened the world for many in the working classes. Yet at the same time we've done not enough to improve that world for them. We’ve opened the doors of university to diversity, yet stood by whilst economic inequality has gone on the march. We’ve offered a path out of the working class to a chosen few, yet done too little to maintain lives of quality and meaning for those that remain. Shouldn’t that be our purpose too?

I work in a centre at the ANU charged with improving the relationship between science and society — giving scientists the tools to better communicate with people outside the lab, and doing research to understand what contributes to the gap between science and society. Unequal access to knowledge is very much a problem, and one that universities must work on. There is much we need to do to make it so that experts are considered helpful guides to navigate a complex reality, rather than domineering and distant voices associated with making lives worse. But to achieve that we have to do more to use our expertise to reduce unequal access to the fruits of the modern economy.

The genie that has been uncorked this year is not going to go back into the bottle easily. Trump may well lose the presidential election, but his supporters — and others watching around the world — have seen each other. We can’t combat them just by showing where they’re wrong, or asserting expertise. We experts need to be part of a world that provides something better.

Dr Will J Grant is a Graduate Studies Convener at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University. Image: Peter