Must-Read: Jonathan Portes: What’s the role of experts in the public debate?

Must-Read: Intellectual garbage disposal from Jonathan Portes on BREXIT and Michael Gove:

Jonathan Portes: What’s the role of experts in the public debate?: “We have three really important functions…

…To explain our basic concepts and most important insights in plain English…. Second is to call bullshit.  Recently, Change Britain supposedly a “thinktank backed by Michael Gove” claimed that leaving the customs union–and concluding new free trade deals with countries ranging from India to Korea–could “create 400,000 new jobs”, because of the projected increase in UK exports. Michael was quoted in the Telegraph as saying that the report showed how new trade deals would create hundreds of thousands of jobs…. Change Britain took some estimates from the European Commission of the potential boost to both exports and imports…. They translated the increased exports into extra jobs. They forgot to translate the increased imports into fewer jobs. Now, a moderately intelligent 12 year old could understand the problem here…. For better or worse, a large part of my job is in fact intellectual garbage disposal….

Perhaps most difficult… is in synthesising… a difficult topic… putting it in context, and explaining why it does, or doesn’t, matter. And this is perhaps where politicians and the public need us most…. The text for today’s debate is Michael Gove’s famous interview with Faisal Islam. I know Michael insists that he’s been taken out of context, so I’ll give the quote in full:

I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong…

The problem is that Michael is entirely happy to quote exactly those experts from exactly those acronyms when it suits him. Just 3 weeks before the referendum, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, in a joint statement, said:

The Bank of England has said that a ten per cent rise in the proportion of new people coming here is associated with a two per cent cut in pay for working people…

The Bank of England was precisely one of the organisations with acronyms that Faisal Islam had cited and that Michael was ridiculing. But it’s much worse than that.  Michael’s… interpretation… was from the Daily Express, not from actual experts. Had he wanted to get it right, he would have asked an expert… [who would have said] quite a different story. Nor does Michael have to take my word for this. He can just ask Steve Nickell… one of the authors… [who] expressed his regret that he couldn’t complain during the campaign about the way his paper was being distorted by people like Michael…. Michael and Boris didn’t think it was enough to simply assert their point without evidence. On the contrary, they wanted to appeal to the authority of experts–indeed, the authority of the very experts at the Bank of England who Michael then claimed the people have had enough of…. Michael believes that the question of whether free movement is good or bad, and whether it does indeed drive down wages, is an empirical one, and that you should look at the empirical evidence, analysed by experts, before making up your mind.

So the question I have for Michael–apart from suggesting he might want to apologise to Steve–is whether, now that he knows the empirical evidence says almost the exact opposite of what he thought it said, whether  that changes his mind in any way about free movement?  In other words, are his beliefs on this topic–and by extension on other topics–faith-based or evidence-based? If they are in fact faith based… he should tell the voters that. If… he’s claiming to rely on evidence, then he has a duty to listen to… that evidence…


Brad DeLong


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