Experts are back in fashion because of the coronavirus

Political leaders in the UK and US rarely appear alone to speak about the pandemic
epa08356410 President Donald J. Trump stands as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, listens during a Coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Washington, DC, USA, 10 April 2020.  EPA/KEVIN DIETSCH / POOL

It was one of those off-the-cuff remarks that sometimes come back to haunt government ministers, a clever response to a difficult question. During Britain's Brexit debate in 2016 the cabinet minister Michael Gove was challenged to name any leading economists who backed Britain leaving the European Union.

Mr Gove, whether you like his politics or not, is hard working and intelligent. He refused to name anyone, since most economics experts think Brexit is a daft idea, a kind of self-harm. Instead Mr Gove retorted that “people in this country have had enough of experts.”

Last year at Edinburgh Book Festival I was with a panel of experts including Anand Menon, Professor of European Politics at King's College London. He recounted a similar challenge to expertise.

He had been discussing with an audience how leaving the EU would undoubtedly make Britain poorer by reducing growth figures measured the usual way, by gross domestic product.

A heckler yelled out "that's your GDP." There was some wisdom in what the heckler had to say.

Experts may know about GDP figures going up or down, stock markets rising and falling, economic forecasts and so on – but for millions and millions of us these macro-economic measurements are gobbledygook with little relation to the lives we actually lead.

A few years ago I wrote a book about this phenomenon in the US. Every US newspaper I read had wonderful stories about how the Dow Jones index was up, productivity was up, Hollywood movies and US TV shows were conquering the world, America was the last great superpower – and yet so many ordinary Americans I talked with were angry about their own lives. They worked hard and were disappointed that, as they put it, they “couldn’t get ahead.”

Some of them compared their lives with their parents and claimed that things were better in the past. Then along came Donald Trump saying he would "Make America Great Again."

He hit exactly the right note with these hard working Americans, and like Michael Gove, Mr Trump is not much of an admirer of “experts”.

A handout image released by 10 Downing Street, shows Britain's Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove speaking during a remote press conference to update the nation on the Covid-19 pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street in central London on April 4, 2020. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / 10 DOWNING STREET / PIPPA FOWLES" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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But then came a big surprise: coronavirus. Suddenly experts – people who actually know things – are back in fashion. On both sides of the Atlantic politicians can’t get enough of them.

Political leaders rarely appear alone to take questions or to speak about the pandemic. They always have adult supervision, speaking alongside experts with medical degrees, PhDs and other impressive qualifications.

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What is striking is the way experts answer questions directly while politicians recite rehearsed lines, slogans and briefing notes

In the US Mr Trump is typically seen alongside Anthony Fauci from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In the UK prime minister Boris Johnson, before he took ill with the virus, and various UK government ministers who substitute for him, appear with British experts.

epa08356410 President Donald J. Trump stands as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, listens during a Coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Washington, DC, USA, 10 April 2020.  EPA/KEVIN DIETSCH / POOL

What is striking is the way experts answer questions directly while politicians recite rehearsed lines, slogans and briefing notes. Dominic Raab, for example, the British Foreign Secretary who has been filling in for Mr Johnson, said the prime minister would recover because he was a “fighter.” This hollow rhetoric provoked widespread criticism.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 09: Britain's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Dominic Raab applauds during the Clap For Our Carers campaign in support of the NHS, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues outside the Foreign Office on April 9, 2020 in London, England. There have been over 60,000 reported cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the United Kingdom and 7,000 deaths. The country is in its third week of lockdown measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. (Photo by Henry Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Roughly half of us will suffer from cancer at some time and everyone knows someone who has been through a serious illness. A letter in a British newspaper from a reader summed up the backlash: "I hope all the victims of this illness, including Boris Johnson, make a full recovery. But if they do it won't be due to some steely inner quality of theirs, but because of a combination of luck and excellent medical care. I am tired of politicians and commentators telling us Boris Johnson is a "fighter", "very determined" or "strong", as if all those who have succumbed, including medical and care staff, were victims of some personal weakness or absence of determination."

Medical experts, of course, would never use the language of being a “fighter” to overcome disease. Medical and other experts have another quality which many political leaders lack.

The experts know what they do not know – and freely admit when they cannot make a firm answer. Political leaders often pretend to know everything. In years of interviewing politicians on television I can think of only a handful of times when a political leader has surprised me by saying, "Sorry – that's a really difficult issue and I don't know the answer." Wouldn't it be refreshing if they admitted they don't know? Scientists do that all the time – that's why they carry out research, to find answers.

If anything positive can come from this pandemic, perhaps it could be that we treat experts with more respect. And perhaps we could also praise politicians who say “in all honesty I don’t have an answer to every question you may ask.” But maybe there’s no need.

One or two world leaders appear to know everything about everything and are experts in anything you can name.

It is just surprising that given their supposed genius they did not prepare their countries better for the global pandemic which real experts are now trying to stop. We really have not had enough of experts.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National