There is an article published by unherd that has been making the rounds today, on the danger of overly trusting expertise. Michael Gove approvingly retweeted the article, saying it was ‘in praise of epistemic modesty’. The article itself makes some reasonable enough points about uncertainties in science, problems with economic knowledge and a particularly interesting example of a problem in biology that we will come back to later on. So far, so good. There are plenty of gaps in scientific knowledge, some fields (particularly in the social sciences) where there are big question marks about what kind of knowledge can be obtained, and plenty of reasons not to be overly deferential to the ranks and titles of the academic community. That isn’t to say that an entirely irreverent attitude to these things is warranted either. The fields of human expertise are so vast and in many cases the subject matter so difficult that we couldn’t do without taking a lot on trust. And we need markers like titles and institutional kudos, consensus (alongside our own background contextual knowledge) to know what claims to take seriously. Suffice to say that how much attention should be given to heterodox thinking is not a straightforward question.
It is important, however, to distinguish between a genuine call for irreverent, critical thought and what is a disguised excuse for, or an afterthought to anti-intellectualism as a political project. Genuine heterodox thinking might well challenge accepted ideas, but it also seeks to build new ways of understanding the world that is itself susceptible to scrutiny. It cannot completely distrust science or expertise per se, because it hopes that one day its results will be regarded as scientific expertise. When it raises doubts, it does so providing reasons for distrust and grounds for uncertainty. And it accepts that it is no good simply trusting common sense. Common sense is often wrong, and can be just another kind of dogma. It may even be the result of some old prevailing orthodoxy. As Keynes put it, “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any form of intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”. Moreover, even with a highly contested and uncertain field like economics, we simply have no choice but to best approximate knowledge, because the decisions it relates to are important.
Gove may like to talk about epistemic modesty, but at least in his political life (if not his personal) it is not what he practices. His infamous remark, that people have ‘had enough of experts’ was not part of an attempt to create some new, heterodox understanding of the economics of Brexit. The only serious attempt to do that was a widely discredited publication by PatrickMinford. Instead, it was part of a campaign strategy aimed at encouraging people to systemically disregard arguments of the opposing side. Vote Leave did not respond to arguments to remain in the EU, they merely labelled them ‘project fear’. In a debate with Jonathan Portes in 2016, Gove had all sorts of interesting things to say about the falsification principle and herd mentality in academia, but the political campaigns he has been part of have hardly been about fostering an attempt to further human knowledge. Dominic Cummings has similar things to say about the fads of the educated middle classes (he likes to quote Tolstoy on this) but his chief practical contribution to critical thought has been developing techniques used for mass disinformation.
To return full circle, the article originally mentioned in the introduction dedicates a large portion of its body to the discussion of an unusual species of crayfish. Two genetically identical crayfish, exposed to (almost) identical environmental stimuli nonetheless exhibit dramatically different features. The familiar dichotomy of nature vs nurture, or genetics vs environment, don’t seem to capture the full picture. Something else must be at work. One response is to try to understand what is going on, accepting the very real possibility that we may not be able to do so. But for some commentators the real message is a different one. It’s “screw the goddamn crayfish”.