I must come clean from the outset, this blog post is inspired by or, more accurately, provoked by the UK’s EU referendum. For those of you who are referendum-ed out please resist the urge to stop reading. The post will give no views on the pros and cons of remaining or leaving. As analysts of all things social, political and economic we have our views of course, but it is not our role to force them on our clients and wider network (though we will tell you if you ask).
The referendum has, however, thrust evidence, data and expertise centre stage. This is very much our bag. Every news bulletin carries a dispute about the evidence being used by both leave and remain. Countless vox pops show members of the public asking for more ‘evidence’.
As such, the debate is shedding a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, light on our relationship with evidence and the experts who generate it.
I’ve written in previous posts about how, as a society, we have a poor grasp of the evidence underpinning social policy (see also the excellent work by Bobby Duffy of Ipsos Mori on the Perils of Perception). We tend to have an exaggerated view of problems and challenges and we tend to only believe the evidence that confirms our own point of view.
The referendum coverage has gone further and put a focus on the experts themselves as well as the evidence they generate. As Michael Gove said on Sky News “people in this country have had enough of experts”. The accusation is that experts have a poor track record of producing accurate evidence, and an especially poor record of producing accurate forecasts.
As an expert social forecaster I take exception.
I would defend the merits of forecasting and future oriented thought against all comers. There is an inherent benefit in thinking about and anticipating the future, and using the best techniques and evidence to do so. You may not get things precisely right, but you will certainly get them less wrong.
All this brings to mind a trend that we used to call the ‘decline of deference’ back in the mid-1990s. At that time, the decline of deference was seen as a benign or welcome development. It meant that people were more questioning of authority figures and better able to hold them to account. Over the years the trajectory has been such that we can now accurately talk of the ‘death of deference’, rather than the decline of deference.
But in the referendum campaign we are not only being encouraged to be ‘undeferential’ towards experts, we are being invited to go a step further and actively disregard them. A step too far, surely? A once positive trend is mutating into something damaging.
I am writing this post on the morning after the murder of Jo Cox MP. There probably was a time when we were too deferential towards our MPs. That time is long gone.