Who Knows Best?

During the EU referendum campaign of 2016, the cabinet minister, Michael Gove, made what can only be described as an infamous comment. During a television interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Gove declared that “people have had enough of experts”. The nation spluttered as one into its collective cup of coffee. Remainers expressed shock that even a Brexitier could say something so utterly stupid, and Brexitiers wished fervently that Gove was not among their number. We all agreed that it was a fatuous remark. After all, aren’t doctors, lawyers and accountants experts? Aren’t chefs, mechanics and pilots experts? Aren’t architects, cartographers and engineers experts?

But were we right to splutter and sneer? Or despite his ridiculous-sounding assertion, did Gove actually have a point?

There has certainly been a snobbish preference for the amateur for a very long time. Prior to 1995, all English rugby union players were amateurs. No professional cricketer captained the England team until 1952. Only amateurs – or “gentlemen” -had the privilege. Many of the county sides didn’t allow professionals to lead them until well into the 1960s. During the 1920s, the Royal Geographical Society felt that even the conquest of Mount Everest should have been lead by an amateur. And so, the fearless, enthusiastic amateur, George Mallory received both its moral and financial support.

But does it really matter whether or not a rugby plater, or a cricketer, or a mountaineer is paid? Possibly not. But they are not the only groups of amateurs who can claim great prizes.

One of the greatest strengths of any democracy, is that in theory, anyone can head the government. You or I could stand for Parliament, rise through the ranks of our chosen party, and gain the seat of power. One of the greatest weaknesses of any democracy, is that in theory, anyone can head the government. No particular academic qualifications are needed, and not much experience is needed either. One of the most successful chancellors of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, was a barrister, not an economist. He argued that that was an advantage, as he was not wedded to any economic dogma. There were also many economists at his disposal.

As a result of the pandemic, people have behaved as though they were experts in virology, immunology, interpretation of data, and the process of researching, developing, testing and marketing vaccines, and a whole host of other things they’d never even thought about before. Experts, on both sides of the scientific divide, were derided by many laypeople, and accused of being either pro government and big business, or weird lunatics.

And how did all of these amateurs become more expert than the experts? They read an article or two on the internet.

But possibly the most appalling display of people’s belief that the amateur is greater than the expert, has to be the tragic Nicola Bulley case. For three weeks, amateur reporters have been making ghoulish videos for their TikTok audiences, and amateur sleuths obsessed with “true crime” books, podcasts and Youtube videos, have been behaving as though they are Sherlock Holmes without the pipe. Both groups have been inconveniencing the locals, hampering the police, and adding to the considerable distress of the victim’s family. All for their own self-aggrandisement, and because they want to be more expert than the experts.

Of course economists, scientists and police officers should be questioned. That is perfectly right. But assuming, because we’ve read an article, or watched a documentary, that we laypeople know best, is wrong. It can make fools of people, or endanger people, or be cruel and insensitive.

So, is Michael Gove right? Have we had enough of experts? I don’t think so. I don’t think society ever had enough respect for experts to have had enough of them. Mind you, I’m no expert, so what do I know?

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