Published on July 27, 2017

On technocrats, the public and red herrings

Citizens & science

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

The economist and BBC presenter Tim Harford wrote an article earlier in the year called, Some things are best left to the technocrats. I stumbled across it again today and this time I have a little time to write a response.

Harford is a good writer and compelling story teller. He has a knack of evoking images that stick in the mind, “Technocrats make mistakes, it’s true — many mistakes. Brain surgeons also make mistakes. That does not mean I’d be better off handing the scalpel to Boris Johnson. Better a flawed expert than a flawed amateur.

This idea is echoed in a cartoon, produced in response to the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election, which is circulating far and wide on social media. 

The trouble is that this kind of argument should immediately evoke something different: the image of a red herring. Of course, no-one wants Boris Johnson to do any job he isn’t qualified to do, and the thought of an untrained passenger being elected to pilot the plane is, indeed, funny.

The implication of both Harford’s quip about Boris Johnson and the cartoon is that we either hand over control to the experts or they disappear from public life. But it’s not an either-or situation. Experts are absolutely vital for public debate, but only when involved at the right time and way. In the same way, the public are also absolutely critical if we as a society are to make good decisions, but again only if their skills, knowledge and experience are used effectively.

To be fair to Harford, he acknowledges a role for the public, and a big one too:

Any democracy must debate the big political issues: how much we protect the vulnerable, the appropriate size of the state, the importance of individual freedom. But technical matters are different. How safe is the MMR vaccine? Are humans changing the climate? Does fiscal stimulus work with interest rates at the zero lower bound? Once these questions become chew toys for political attack dogs, there’s no easy way out.

However, he again sets up a false dichotomy by saying that the big political issues and the technical issues are distinct and should be dealt with accordingly. In fact, the technical questions about the causes of climate change are, to pick one of his questions, completely tied up with the larger political debates; I’ve not heard anyone seriously claiming that the technical issues should be dealt with democratically and to suggest that this is the case is evoking the red herring again.

For example, once we know that humans are causing climate change (a technical question), we need to decide whether or not we should do anything about it. Answering this requires addressing a new set of questions, some of which are technical in nature and some of which are political, for example:

  • Which technical solutions are feasible and will be effective?
  • Which of these feasible solutions are cost effective?
  • Given that each of the feasible and cost effective solutions will impact on different groups in society differently, how do we spread the benefits and costs?

The first two questions fall firmly within technical domains, science and economics respectively. The last is political and falls in within the domain of politicians and the public. To reiterate, the questions are not distinct and to be treated accordingly. They are inexplicably linked; politics will help to determine the research that is needed to inform the public debate, and the technical answers from that research determine the boundaries of the public debate.

The reason that Harford’s post and the cartoon both resonate is because too often scientists, economists and experts from a wide variety of disciplines stray from answering questions in the technical domain, and instead start to try to claim (implicitly or explicitly) that their expertise qualifies them to also answer the political questions. I’ve written more about this here.

It is in this context that the public are more likely to distrust experts.

No serious public policy decision should ever be left to the technocrats, but by the same token, none should be left to the public alone either. Both are needed if we are to solve the biggest challenges our society faces.

Photo credit: wanderin_weeta

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