Articles Reflections on Brexit and the evidence ecosystem

Reflections on Brexit and the evidence ecosystem

In a round up of some of the best post-referendum blogs, maintaining trust, integrity and independence in the evidence ecosystem in the wake of the EU referendum campaign is vital, writes Helen Cunningham, Wales lead for the Alliance for Useful Evidence.

The EU referendum campaign and its aftermath spell momentous shifts in British politics. Those shifts will play out for some time yet and “what’s next” has never felt so uncertain.

Since the referendum result there’s been in some excellent post-mortem analysis and blogs, brought together here. We can’t know the full implications of the No vote yet. What we do know is that it has thrown up some pertinent questions for the Alliance.

Why did people feel so able to ignore the experts on key subjects like the economy? Yes, the long term economic impact remains to be seen, but the weight of expert opinion was tipped in the Remain campaign’s favour on that particular issue.  What happened to Bill Clinton’s famous (and successful) campaign mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid”?

Simon Wren-Lewis made some candid observations about how academics could have been smarter about getting their evidence to land, something the Alliance looked at in our recent report with the Wellcome Trust; “The Science of Using Science”. Although that cannot explain the result, is does force us to confront some uncomfortable truths about how experts are perceived.

David Walker dug deeper in his post-mortem on Brexit and noted that despite the elbow grease put in by academics, many of whom engaged in public debate in a way they never had before, they are seen as “part of the despised “elite””.

So is the public mistrust of politicians spilling over into other realms, including the evidence ecosystem? Ironically it was politician Michael Gove who indicated that it could be, with his pronouncement that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. In an impassioned piece, John Van Reenen wrote about being derided as an expert and economist, attributing some of the national mood to slow economic recovery from crisis and a media insufficiently prepared to challenge campaign claims.

And then there’s the polls. Arguably it was taken as given that polls would be viewed with a skepticism following the 2015 general election predictions. As John Curtice pointed out, a one-off referendum was always going to be a challenge for pollsters, but collectively the got it wrong in underestimating the strength of support for Leave. From a different perspective though, Roger Scully reminds us that the polls reflected accurately the divergence in how four nations of the UK would vote.

Julia Shaw’s neat analysis of the psychology of why people are prepared to set aside the weight of expert opinion when deciding provides fascinating reading. Shaw suggests that it is difficult to use logic once emotions take over. This reminds me of a conversation I had with a remain campaigner; “We’ve got stats coming out of our ears on this, but we’ve got to make the emotional appeal”.

But to reflect that the referendum campaign needed more politics and less experts is wrongheaded. Indeed, thinkers such as Onora O’Neill argue that expert organisations like the Office for National Statistics who could have made an important contribution to the debate were effectively stymied when they were put into purdah. If they had added to the public discourse though, their reputations may have simply been questioned, possibly disparagingly, in the way other organisations like the Bank of England’s and International Monetary Fund’s were.

Experts have to perform a balancing act. A balancing act between maintaining their reputation for independent, sensible, rigorous thought, while making timely, topical and meaningful contributions to public discourse that also have impact.

The referendum result didn’t happen because experts failed. The reasons are much more complex and manifold. But the aftermath will mean that those of us in the evidence ecosystem must reflect on how we remain credible, relevant and dare I say, trustworthy, at a time when a healthy evidence ecosystem might just be needed now more than ever.

That balancing act appears to have got harder.

The best of Brexit Blogs

It’s still the economy, stupid… Iain Begg

EU referendum – how the polls got it wrong again. John Curtice

Thoughts on the sociology of Brexit. Will Davies

The four challenges of Brexit: why we need wonks. David Morris

Why we lost the referendum: a derided expert writes. John Van Reenen

The EU Referendum: The Welsh Verdict. Roger Scully

Brexit and Trump: when fear triumphs over evidence. Julia Shaw

A post-mortem reflection: The impact of the social sciences on the Brexit referendum outcome. David Walker

Why is the academic consensus on the cost of Brexit being ignored? Simon Wren-Lewis