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Gove’s remarks about experts have aged well
At the time of the Brexit referendum, Michael Gove (in)famously declared that people had 'had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong'. Critics of Gove - I was one (!) - accused him of embracing anti-intellectualism, indicting the wider Brexit movement. Louise Richardson, the Oxford vice-chancellor, expressed embarrassment that Gove was an alumnus!
Six years later, re-evaluation of Gove’s comments sheds light on our changing political and intellectual conditions. In retrospect, Gove’s remarks seem prescient. Since 2016, there has been a crisis of confidence in academic findings. Problems emerged at the time of the replication crisis – a crisis, beginning in psychology, in which large amounts of academic papers could not be replicated – yet recent developments have confirmed this trend. Single datasets seem to show ambiguous findings. In a recent paper, 73 expert teams used a single dataset to analyze whether immigration eroded support for the welfare state, the researchers coming to radically different results. Other studies suggest that researchers overestimate the effect of variables.
Gove scarcely foresaw all of this – no one could have done (!) – yet deserves credit for articulating this phenomenon. Revisiting certain Brexit controversies, Gove’s remarks seem wise. For example, a key debate concerned the effects of Central and Eastern European (CEE) immigration on UK wages. Remainers tended to dismiss concerns, citing studies which suggested that effects were non-existent or minimal; I remember doing this! Six years later, I have less confidence in such conclusions. There were limited studies – more than ever, the volume of work is a key consideration - and, as the recent paper on welfare shows, replication is a serious problem.
Admittedly, one can overemphasize the prescience of Gove’s comments. Undeniably, academic consensuses still exist; for example, few scholars would dispute the associations between religiosity and happiness or education and liberal attitudes, considerable research demonstrating these. On Brexit, the consensus of economists demands respect, overwhelming majorities predicting that Brexit would be economically harmful and recent trends vindicating this.
I was furious when I heard Gove’s comments - at the time, I was campaigning with Wales Stronger in Europe (!) - yet ask myself whether subsequent developments would change my position on the referendum. Certainly, I would be more sceptical of expert opinion. As we have seen, verdicts in areas such as immigration now appear provisional. Consensuses on economic effects remain impressive, yet I would be more wary of these.
But the question of risk is a separate one. Rather than merely dismissing expertise, Brexiters asserted that this justified rupture with established institutions. On this Substack, I have argued against this, asserting that declining epistemic confidence enhances arguments for the status quo. This is consistent with Burkean arguments about the integrity of established institutions.
Whilst this is not a clinching argument – in a podcast on this Substack, the Burke expert and former Conservative minister Jesse Norman asserted that Remainers and Leavers might appeal to Burke – it confirms my own opposition to Brexit, albeit from a conservative perspective.
Gove deserves credit for discerning the changing atmosphere. Recent developments do not necessitate support for Brexit, Burke or any other position, yet raise key questions about expertise. Pronounced confidence in experts, common among liberals during the referendum, is increasingly unviable.
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