Experts have undermined their own credibility with politicised interventions in the EU debate

Experts have undermined their own credibility with politicised interventions in the EU debate

This week has seen yet another volte-face from a major organisation of international repute, to confirm that armageddon has indeed not arrived since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

The OECD was forecasting a “major negative shock”, the Treasury predicted a “self-inflicted recession” with up to 800,000 jobs at risk, the IMF warned of “severe” damage and forecast a bigger drop in GDP than that caused by the First World War.

Michael Gove was roundly vilified by Remain supporters from David Cameron to Brian Cox for his comment that “people have had enough of experts” during a TV debate in early June, accused of promoting anti-intellectualism without which the British electorate would not have been duped into making the mistake of voting for Brexit.

To some extent, his critics were right. Anti-intellectualism is rarely a force for good, and expertise built up over a lifetime of specialist endeavour is not to be taken lightly.

But knowledge and experience are not guarantees of being correct, particularly in the notoriously equivocal world of macroeconomic forecasts; nor are experts infallible or impartial, as much as they would wish to be – they are ultimately still humans like the rest of us and remain subject to the whims of their own prejudices and opinions, as well as the opinions of others around them, as any readers of Kuhn or Lakatos will be well aware.

Following a summer where the combined economic forecasts of the great and the good of the world’s economic elite have proved to be as accurate and reliable as the infamous weather forecasts preceding the 1987 hurricane, it is the assembled global experts who now face the entirely self-inflicted task of attempting to restore their damaged credibility.

Playing at politics is a dangerous game for such institutions and individuals to be indulging in when their authority and prestige stems in large part from their perceived impartiality and detachment from the froth of day-to-day politics, not to mention a basic level of accuracy in their output.

For the most part, international organisations wisely stay out of domestic politics, particularly during emotive times like national elections. Even if a strong consensus were to exist amongst economic observers about the relative merits of candidates in a domestic election, which would be factored accordingly into corporate balance sheets as political risk, it would nonetheless be unheard of for an organisation like the IMF or Bank of England to intervene in the way that they did during the referendum.

To have repeatedly and forcefully intervened in the referendum debate in such a partisan manner sets a highly concerning precedent. To have been so universally incorrect, and moreover, to have couched their warnings of economic catastrophe in the same alarmist terms of the Government’s Project Fear strategy (whilst all too often timing their releases to complement the Remain campaign’s media schedule) inevitably raises serious questions about their status both as independent and as experts in the eyes of the public.

People hadn’t had enough of experts, they had simply had enough of government alarmism and spin, where international bodies and “independent experts” had transparently been reduced to little more than blunt political weapons in the Remain campaign’s patronising and intellectually disingenuous referendum strategy.

If they can add the highly damaging experience of their ill-advised forays into partisan politics to their wealth of academic and technical experience, the experts may well be able to restore their damaged credibility over time. But if people really have had enough, then they only have themselves to blame.