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In experts we trust…but who’s an expert?

01 May 2020

By Alistair Kellie, Managing Partner in Corporate Reputation

Back in June 2016, the Washington Post ran an article “9 out of 10 experts agree: Britain doesn’t trust the experts on Brexit” stating how PM David Cameron was only minutes into a final push to persuade the public to vote remain in the European Union when he invoked the e-word: experts.

How times have changed.  Every day we now see a government Minister flanked by two experts associated with the area of focus for that day.  People such Professor Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England and the UK government's Chief Medical Adviser are now widely recognised figures.  On top of that, who knew that SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) even existed and who expected to have any understanding of the ‘R’ rate?

So what’s changed?  If we cast our mind back to the EU Referendum campaign we were hearing from a range of experts in economics, international relations and global security who were all claiming that leaving the European Union would be disastrous for the UK.  On the other hand, the Leave campaign (led by a certain Boris Johnson) revelled in an anti-expert mood, with some claiming that these experts were part of an elitist or establishment stitch-up.  However, many Leavers also argue that ‘their’ experts were barred from sharing their opinion…but enough on Brexit!

All of this raises a couple of questions.  First, what is an expert?  The second, which experts should we trust?

An expert is defined as a person who’s ‘very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area’.  Well that seems fairly clear.  I reckon I’m an expert in rugby as I know a decent amount about it.  Clearly not, I’m an armchair pundit…at best!

As we all know, somebody having an opinion on a topic does not make them an expert.  Granted, it could be an informed opinion based on a high level of research and some knowledge, but that doesn’t automatically make somebody an expert.  Experts need to have a combination of experience, depth of subject knowledge, authenticity and rigour. The likes of Professors Whitty and Vallance are, without question, world class experts in their fields. 

So then the matter of which experts can we trust?  The government has rightly been very careful to say that it is making decisions based on the evidence and guidance provided by experts from SAGE and other relevant bodies.  It is crucial to the credibility of these forums that they are seen to be (and genuinely are) free from political interference, hence questions being asked about Dominic Cummings attendance at some SAGE meetings.  What’s clear is that there will be plenty of enquiries in years to come around the information provided to the government and the subsequent decisions taken.

So looking to the post CV-19 world, what does the future hold for experts in the next economy?  I think those of us with arts degrees who might have mocked our friends and colleagues who played around with teat pipettes and Bunsen burners at university will have new found respect for anyone who can explain the inner workings of a virus. 

Perhaps we can expect business advisory firms and management consultancies to establish ‘Anti-viral’ or ‘Bio-resilience’ teams?  I imagine we’ll see a few moves from the public to private sector in the months and years ahead.

Now that a global crisis event has exposed some of the weaknesses of many of our current socio-economic systems and business practices, will the government’s current appetite for listening to experts spill over into ESG…remember that?  Hopefully we’ll see businesses transform and put in place greater protections against the far greater existential threat of global climate change.

Both Brexit and CV-19 have shown that there is enormous appetite from the media and the wider public for data and coherent analysis of this data.  This is only set to continue so firms and their advisers need to ensure that they have the necessary tools and platforms to share this data.

Finally, what this has shown is that experts are now back in favour…for now.  But it’s important that, particularly in the case of those with the unenviable task of shaping the decisions during this health crisis, they are given the space to act and inform based on their experience and without any undue political or media influence. Transparency is crucial.  Yes they all have their bad days but we should trust (yet still challenge) our doctors, scientists, economists, military, politicians…and ahem, even the communications advisers from time time-to-time!