Experts and Real People: Three Lessons for Experts in the Age of Post-Truth Politics

Recently, I was invited to an interesting INET conference organized by the Young Scholars Initiative YSI. One interesting and recurrent topic that came up during the discussions was that even if economists show objectively that migration is not a real problem on objective grounds, people rarely believe this story. Instead the expert opinion sounds counter-intuitive in most people’s ears and hence necessarily wrong.

Ironically enough many experts and pundits have thus now diagnosed the end of policy making informed by expert opinions (e.g. here). The age of Brexit and populism is an age of post-truth politics, in which people cannot easily distinguish between facts and fiction any more.

Unfortunately, this makes the expert the lone hero, a prophet in the dessert which, if only listened to, would know how to fix all problems of humanity. This heroic stance is sometimes noble, but often very misleading. Instead, experts should ask themselves, if the problem lies on their side. The lessons to be learned from this recent crisis of expertise are more complicated than most experts admit. In my own work on the lump of labour idea I have realized that experts suffer from three different problems when dealing with what the public thinks.

First, experts routinely understate their own uncertainty about policy issues. Expertise creates tunnel vision, and experts very often prefer technical fixes over messy political solutions. They also overestimate their own predictive and analytical powers.

Just as an example, Paul Krugman was, for a long time, the champion of those who saw the dangerous potential of the lump of labour fallacy. For most economists the idea that our society runs out of jobs, and that jobs can only be created by taken them away from those who already have a job, is a fallacy. Krugman perhaps feared more the consequences of this belief – for instance a reemergence of protectionism – than the actual veracity of his opinion, but he recently jumped ship to some degree. In the wake of digitalization and automatization processes he recently admitted that problems of transition from job to job are greatly intensified by technological advances and that even very flexible labour markets have a limit in relocating millions of people in a short time span. While one has to applaud a scholar’s flexibility to change opinions, it is also a worrisome sign that scholars engage too much in the publicity game and form too strong positions which, one way or the other, turn out to be wrong.

Lesson 1 to be learned is hence, experts should never overstate their claims and understate the uncertainty around certain claims. They should be more humble.

Second, even if the lump of labour fallacy was a clear fallacy from the perspective of economic experts, ordinary people have every reason to see, perceive and realize the problem way differently. If workers become redundant, or fear that, once they lose their jobs they would have severe difficulties finding a new, similarly paid job, it is very easy for them to see the labour market as a zero sum game in which some workers take other workers’ jobs away. The business cycle, labour market institutions and other factors further enhance this impression.

Lesson 2 is hence that truth operates on very different levels of cognition and perception. It’s simply not enough if experts only focus on quite artificial ‘objective’ facts such as the ‘macro level’, the ‘long run’, or easily measurable outcomes.

Third, once experts acknowledge the uncertainty of their own opinions and the gap between their opinions and those of ‘ordinary’ people they need to develop a strategy for bridging this gap. As a political economist the simplest solution that comes to mind is paying off those who are (or think to be) losers of processes such as globalization, digitalization etc. But in times of severe budgetary problems this is not a feasible, and perhaps not even efficient strategy. For the better or worse, experts need to understand the psychology of public opinion better. In many instances, the real issue is not one of money, or only partly so. The psychological consequences of joblessness or similar seemingly existential threats are much deeper and lead to much hostile reactions against innocent bystanders (refugees, migrations, good citizens). Hence, in a deeper sense experts must learn how to convey a message of meaning to people who think they are losers. For instance, it is well known among psychologists that scarcity tremendously increases demand for something, much more than a market-driven price mechanism could handle. If our society (temporarily or permanently) runs out of jobs, people paradoxically value the remaining jobs much more highly, and enhance the already existing level of ‘objective’ competition. Instead, people need to learn how to cope with job scarcity in many ways, and they need to learn how to define alternative livelihoods not exclusively built around standard work arrangements.

Hence lesson 3 sounds somewhat esoteric, redefining the meaning of life, but it is essential for winning back the masses of disgruntled people.

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