Michael Gove’s claim that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ was one of the most astonishing of the entire Leave campaign. In one short sentence, he single-handedly silenced voices of authority, whether they agreed with him or not. By this rubric, it no longer matters whether the experts in question are right or wrong. The point is, nobody cares either way. Their opinion is irrelevant.
This leaves academics in a tricky position. What else are experts for other than to advise — and to be taken notice of — in complicated situations such as these? While University of Liverpool’s Professor Dougan’s video on EU law circulated widely on social media, this was clearly not enough to counter Gove’s pithy rejection of university expertise in general. Those speaking for caution found themselves out-manoeuvred after being thrown into an unexpected popularity contest. ‘We’re not sure about any of the outcomes, but Brexit might well lead to a recession so we’d advise against it’ doesn’t quite stand up as a slogan when compared to ‘Take back control’.
Dismissing years of research as ‘fearmongering’ is a slippery slope for British politics, but there is a clear message for British universities to draw from the EU referendum. Whether supporting Leave or Remain, we are further up our ivory towers than we thought, and we need to climb down. Of course, that Gove’s rebuttal was taken seriously is the result of many years and multiple factors. But university communities need to take this as a loud call to attention, and redouble their efforts to engage in dialogue across university walls. This will undoubtedly be a long and complex process. Nonetheless, it’s a necessary one, and PhDs and Early Career Researchers in particular are in a good position to set this in motion, as they will be the academics coming in to permanent positions as Brexit comes into effect.
As a starting point I’d like to put forward some practical possibilities, and welcome any suggestions in the comments to expand on or disagree with these.
1. Stop denying platforms to selected speakers
This seems to be the single most important step towards both breaking out of university echo chambers, and building trust in academies. Universities are supposed to champion open debate, and be open to to voices from all walks of life — not just those they deem acceptable. There is quite a difference between inciting violence and hatred, and expressing an unpopular or contentious opinion. Recent actions against speakers, however, seem to have blurred the two beyond distinction, such as the campaign to no-platform Germaine Greer at Cardiff University for transphobia, or an abortion debate being stopped at Oxford University because it was hosted by a pro-life group and featured two male speakers. What kind of message does it send out if “experts” are unprepared to discuss views they don’t already agree with, but expect everybody else to respect theirs? This is a losing game. Furthermore, it does not equip students with the ability to sensibly and respectfully debate ideas, both listening to others and building the tools to persuasively convince others of their viewpoint. These are skills that both experts and leaders desperately need. As this referendum has clearly shown, opposing views don’t simply disappear when they are dismissed as “prejudice” or “bigotry”, on either the left or right wings of the political spectrum. Labelling views as such is an easy way to avoid the complexities of the very real concerns out of which opinions grow, and goes nowhere in terms of practicable solutions.
2. Invest in outreach
Reaching out beyond university borders, humanising research communities, and providing relatable role models is vital to combatting the idea that education is ‘not for you/me/us’. Education must be for all — in the wise words of Pixar’s Ratatouille, not everyone can be an expert, but experts can come from anywhere. But this means not just reaching out to future students, but also to teachers and parents, who are the strongest voices around teenagers deciding whether or where to apply for university. Inviting parents to workshops that clarify admissions processes might go some way towards reassuring any fears that a degree is a three-year wages drain rather than an investment in their child’s future. Many outreach teams already do formidable work with schools, particularly attending teacher’s conferences, and these interests need to be protected as universities face tough decisions when they lose their EU funding.
3. Hold writing classes
One of the most beautiful forms of human diversity is the range of vocabularies that we have to communicate with, tailored for different audiences and subjects. Within universities, highly specialised subject languages allow us to speak eloquently, clearly, and with greater specificity in our chosen area of expertise. But the inaccessibility of academic terminology is both blessing and curse. They also create miniature echo chambers, where only those who also speak that language can communicate with each other. If universities are seen as a small circle of elites who separate themselves from the rest of society, then subjects are further, smaller subsets within this.
That a political campaign can be run on an anti-expert platform and succeed shows that this must change. Academics have a responsibility to discuss their work with audiences outside universities, and be able to explain why it is interesting, why it matters, why anyone should care. Sure, keep academic languages. But also cultivate the skills to express your ideas in languages that others speak as well. Holding writing classes with an emphasis on accessibility, such as those currently being trialled in the US for sciences students, might be a productive way to help researchers develop more transferrable languages.
4. Campaign for change in media representation of experts
Academics have, in some sense, become a class of people who are ok to “other” in media representation. Frequently, media reporting refers to researchers as “eggheads”, “boffins”, “super brainboxes“, etc. This stereotypes academics in insidiously negative terms, and presents them as individuals who are decidedly separate and “other” from everybody else. Plus, when academics are wheeled in to provide expert opinion, this very rarely gives any idea of the hard work that goes in to research conclusions. When a scientific discovery is reported, it’s usually the outcome of years of work from dedicated teams who work long hours — hardly apparent when only conclusions are discussed, not methods or process. And this is before considering the humanities, whose more discursive formats don’t lend themselves to outcome-based reporting. If experts are to avoid the stigma of ‘never having done a day’s work in their lives’, to quote Nigel Farage in the EU chambers last week, their representation is important. An academic job is precisely that — and hard work goes into cultivating enough knowledge to be considered an “expert”. Their depiction as an out-of-reach community needs to change.
5. Get off the rationalist high-horse
People have emotions. They have feelings. Arguing that these are invalid because statistics prove emotional intuitions incorrect is more likely to generate resentment than make anyone listen to statistics. The frustration expressed over the referendum being won on “feelings not facts” points to what can be a very real gulf between how experts express themselves and model the world, and how a large majority of people function in reality. The heart and head are not two separate entities, and emotions need to be heard and understood if they are to be discussed respectfully and helpfully. From the opposite perspective, academics rarely admitting of their personal investment in their work can be alienating — if even you don’t care about it, why should anyone else? Personal experiences can be a powerful motivator for research, and sharing these can build a strong connection between academics and their various audiences. Expertise needs to be balanced with empathy if either are going to be listened to in future.