his assertion has put politicians and the research community on the defensive. It expressed the feeling of being cut adrift by the electorate, which surged through government, the civil service and professional bodies following the referendum result. It has now spiralled into a debate about how to better appeal to “post-truth” citizens, as though they are baffling and lack reason. In fact those citizens could say the same of the discussions about immigration, public spending and why we were having a referendum in the first place, all of which the politicians did not confront.
Anyway, are the public really sick of experts? Given the provenance of that claim, shouldn’t somebody with sense have checked it before we all set to trying to work out how to handle it?
Fortunately someone has. The Institute for Government (IfG) has released a poll, conducted by Populus, which suggests that 85% of people want politicians to consult professionals and experts when making difficult decisions, and 83% want government to make decisions based on objective evidence. Trust in experts and confidence in government have both increased since a similar poll in 2014 and people who voted leave and remain share much the same view.
This unequivocal finding must now chase the debate. The rush to believe that facts and evidence aren’t what people want is already streaming through policy and professional circles and influencing a rethink of how to communicate with the public. A post-Brexit New Scientist editorial proposed communicators of science use more emotion. Civil servants who, pre-referendum, were embracing the demand to share more of the evidence behind policy are now talking as if it were subversive – “now’s not a good time to raise this with the minister”.
No doubt some election 2020 Svengali is right now writing the plans for how to win over a post-truth electorate – more statements on buses. Someone at an event I attended last week declared that while experts are trusted by “people in this room”, ie professionals, the public out there doesn’t have the same respect for expertise. They don’t use it in their daily lives. He clearly doesn’t have a subscription to Sky Sports, where an hour’s viewing guarantees multiple encounters with statistics, unlike the passage of many bills through parliament.
This is, however, all a counsel of unnecessary despair and the IfG poll couldn’t make that clearer.
So why is a post-truth, evidence-rejecting public so beguiling? Because, I’m afraid, it flatters timidity and easy populism. Big decisions are hard. Policymaking is not straightforward. There are always trade-offs, mitigating factors and politics to contend with and these are difficult to communicate. Facts and evidence are disruptive too. They don’t always fit easily with scoring points or appealing to prejudices in debates about immigration, drugs or prison sentences. Sometimes they’re just hard work to explain. The idea of a post-truth public is an excuse to run from all this.
Yes, people respond to slogans and emotion. Most of us do, but politicians and communicators who insist this means the public doesn’t want to be informed risk driving us to a two-tier society – one in which evidence is discussed in corridors of power, senior common rooms and private members clubs, while publicly leaders just play to the gallery or hide.
Such doublespeak is not an appeal to the public and its priorities. It’s elitist and obnoxious. It means that the account of the world that decision-makers work from goes unscrutinised and fewer of us get to consider the world as it really is. It is the stuff of the 1950s, when what authorities knew privately on subjects including homosexuality and abortion didn’t appear in the public domain. For a healthy society we must insist that we discuss what we know about all aspects of it openly, in public.