Put Down the Graphs, Wonks and Pick up the Megaphones – WonkyTips in the Guardian

There was a time when the focus of posts on the Preston Institute was craziness and nonsense from the press gallery. Indeed, the absurdity of Mark Kenny praising Tony Abbott’s foreign relations skills could receive such analysis – but it’s a piece that’s so beyond reason that it could almost be a satirical version of Abbott press gallery love. However, there was a Comment is Free piece in the Guardian by Jason Wilson that I found quite strange in what it was advocating – for experts to put their graph making equipment and pick up their megaphones. As ever, the original in italics.

Graphs are no longer enough: it’s time wonks and experts joined the fight

Thomas Piketty. Neil Degrasse Tyson. Ezra Klein. Celebrity wonks are everywhere. Their popularity coincides with increasing attacks on scientists and experts – here’s why

“Celebrity wonks”. Ok.  Sounds like a bit of a joke being attempted there. But here’s Wilson’s words

Political deference to experts is disappearing. Economists are popularly derided for their role in the 2007-2008 financial crisis, that resulted in huge wealth transfers to the rich. Scientists who warn about climate change are accused by denialists of outright political conspiracy. The claims of public health experts on the effects of cigarette smoking are contested by lobbyists and PR shills, and by columnists in the pages of respectable newspapers .

IS disappearing.  Not appears. May the virtually unsupported assertions begin (and quoting from the Australian is not exactly proof of very much).  Hence the central tenet of the article begins – that dispassionate, academic experts in various fields are being ignored by politics and decision makers – that a respect for their papers and views that used to be there is disappearing and not coming back.   The rest of the article then deals with a phenomenon that, for some on Twitter and in the media, perhaps these academics are being listened to. Such as…

The rise of celebrity experts might seem to run counter to this. In economics, Krugmania has given way to Piketty-mania. Fact-checks and explainers are everywhere. “Quants” and “wonks”, like Nate Silver andEzra Klein, are new media rock stars. Pop science communicators likeNeil Degrasse Tyson have become pin-ups.

Celebrities! Pin Ups! Media rock stars!  Maybe they are to people who are frequent Twitter users or frequent media consumers.  That certainly seems to be the audience for this piece.  As a twitter user who doesn’t generally exist in the same circle as the author, most of these “rock stars” are a bit of a mystery to me – as they would probably be to most people in the community.  Again, they aren’t the audience of this piece, who are probably Twitter insiders.  I know of Silver because of his prediction of the US election result and various sport results.  The rest, not really.  I am still yet to see someone actually provide an explanation of Piketty, for example, that didn’t involve some kind of agenda proving didacticism being held by the writer. But perhaps the twitter circles in which the author exists considers that Pikettymania is actually a “thing”.  Even this piece in the Guardian, which calls Piketty a “rock star” doing “sell out gigs” in theatres that contain 1000 people doesn’t do an explanation of what he’s talking about. (1000! Economics wonks! Wow!)  What I do sense, however, amongst people who mention Piketty is a strong whiff of jealousy that perhaps they aren’t a “wonk rock star” either.  To call Piketty a “celebrity” due to the best selling nature of his books is to attempt to belittle that success and liken him to figures in our community who are generally considered celebrities, like the members of One Direction.  Being best selling doesn’t make one a celebrity – it makes one with ideas people want to read.  But back to Wilson, who think that this whole “rock star thing” really isn’t a sustained trend towards people being interested in those who analyse economics and culture.

Far from representing the triumph of disinterested expertise, the success of the wonk-industrial complex is a sign that their affluent audience is resisting the messy return of politics. The veneration of the graph-makers is no more than a spasm of nostalgia.

“Resisting the messy return of politics”. “Nostalgia”.  These assertions raise a number of questions. The Return of politics?  Did it ever go away?  Is nostalgia people wanting to hear new ideas?  That’s a curious concept.  It reminds me of the American music professor who said young American servicemen who enjoyed listening to Rachmaninov for the first time were being “nostalgic”.  It said more about the modern music biases of the music professor than it did about the music. The idea of people actually liking things because they are interesting and well supported by graphs is not exactly new or “nostalgic”. It’s people who like new ideas supported by evidence. But let’s go on with a truncated political history lesson.

Credentialled experts started taking on a central role in politics from the late nineteenth century. In America, a new kind of urban, middle class activist began marching under the banners of expertise and efficiency. The progressive movement were appalled by the inequalities, unrestrained capitalism, and corrupt politics of the guilded age of the 1870s. Equally, they were terrified by radical working class politics.

Progressives sought to tame politics by subordinating it to professional, scientific expertise— the kind that the urban middle classes were themselves best placed to offer. Like their contemporaries in Britain, the Fabians, they carried their reformist program forward in a political alliance with other social movements, including moderate elements of organised labour.

Their ideas were new and not at all natural when they were introduced. They depended on a fundamental separation between the domains of factual, objective, scientific social knowledge and the kind that was seen to be tainted by subjective or political values.

This separation of expertise from mere politics by the progressives became common sense throughout the developed world after it was institutionalised. Management, public administration and universities became professional, and the social sciences more quantitative. They were entrenched more deeply when journalism — once a disreputable condition — itself became a profession.

The reign of expertise also ushered in an unprecedented era of ideological convergence throughout the west. Governments around the world adopted similar programmes throughout the 20th century, seeking to constrain the power of capital, mount campaigns for public health reform, respond to calls for women’s suffrage and racial equality, and implement plans for food and territorial security. The interventionist state and newly-credentialised knowledge professions legitimated one another. The language of the social sciences — in particular economics — merged with the language of policy.

This part was interesting as a history lesson.  It makes a number of assertions that would have support in one of Wilson’s academic pieces but we don’t see here. In this context, it’s being used to support his assertions about the relationship between experts and government.  It is difficult to see, however, where these ideas apply specifically to various nations that have wide variations in the relationships they have developed between experts from universities and the pragmatism of politics.  There are some in the community, for example, who would like to think that Australia has developed a kind of unity between ideas and politics that the West Wing so enthusiastically spins about the US.  Though, there would be many who would suspect that the West Wing is as accurate about the core realities of US politics as House of Cards.  But let’s go on.

This form of political life, pervasive in the west for much of the 20th century, is now coming apart. Growing inequality is one factor that has led to questions about who benefits from expert economic consensus. It has also fed into a growing polarisation of political views. (Comment threads and social media give us plenty more evidence of that.) Political parties are also cutting experts adrift, crafting policies not for rational median voters, but for micro-targeted constituencies – or bypassing rational processes altogether with neuromarketing. Amid these changes, expertise has been re-politicised.

Growing polarisation? Repoliticised? This assumes that polarisation of political visions is new, which would news to the political historians of the Australia of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, for example.  The same goes for expertise being politicised by warriors of a bipolar political framework. None of this is new. Nothing that Abbott is doing at the moment, is new. It’s going back to the practices of reactionaries of eras past because it serves their purposes. The idea of governments having pet house academics and ignoring the rebel ones outside the gate is older than any of us.  For a more recent example, does anyone remember Keith Windschuttle?

On the centre-left, many are bewildered that expert policy prescriptions are no longer accepted as authoritative. The political campaign against an overwhelming consensus on climate change has frustrated scientific experts and their supporters alike. On the other hand, experts still have trouble getting their hands dirty. Thomas Piketty offers a more rigorous, wonkish version of the criticisms made by the Occupy movement but stops short of explicitly recommending radical solutions. The mystery of how democracy can reassert itself against capital is left unsolved, and his book will never persuade those who think inequality is a feature (or even a benefit) of capitalism, rather than a bug.

If people are bewildered, it’s because they have spent most of their lives duped into believing that expertise that spoke against the status quo or whatever agenda held by a political group was being observed and respected by all political parties and governments.  People bewildered by our current climate change denialist government, for example, should have a look at the views of the man who ensured Abbott was made the leader of the Liberal Party – Nick Minchin and realise how much Abbott and his government are in step with Minchin’s philosophy.  The actions hence should therefore not surprise anyone.  As for whether Thomas Piketty should “get his hands dirty” and suggest changes in society – that’s not the job of a dispassionate expert in any field. Their job is to gather material, analyse and present conclusions as a result of the analysis.  To suggest otherwise is to have academics just becoming the same kind of partisan warriors that Wilson is criticising for not listening to experts.  It is the job for those listening to Piketty, reading his work, to apply that work to various contexts and explain his work in a way that is easily consumed by a wider audience.   Maybe by people like Wilson. But let’s go on…

The graphs, data visualisations and statistical modelling that now proliferate across new media outlets can enrich the arguments we can bring to public debates, but they can no longer resolve them. Whether we like it or not, the raiments of disinterested expertise have been spattered with the mud of politics. More and more frequently, expert knowledge is read as being situated and framed by particular assumptions or interests. It would be senseless to say that expertise is empty, or without value. But it may be that the social and natural sciences need to be more open about their political entanglements, and more comfortable with signalling them.

“Spattered with the mud of politics” – if that is happening to the work of experts, it’s not the fault of the experts, it’s an inevitable part of being in the world where politics tends to seep into everything.  Again, it’s not the job of experts creating analyses to resolve political situations – that’s the job of people in the community, political groups, whoever it is that in our polity.  We don’t need dispassionate experts to become yet another compromised partisan, just speaking to one side to attack the other.

Tom Bentley argued recently in The Guardian Australia that the work of wonks at the “independent centre” of our political life needs to be supplemented by new voices, and a renaissance of civil society. The moment for this may have passed. In Australia, and other polarising liberal democracies, there is not much centre ground left to stand on. Experts might instead need to pick a side, join the fight, and accept that their claims to knowledge and authority will always and everywhere be contested.

May have passed? This is one of the more extraordinary claims in this piece, that there’s not much centre left ground to stand on – for whom? Where?  This seems to be an assertion based on the observations of Wilson of Twitter, news blogs, whatever it is he watches, whoever it is he engages with. We don’t know – we are left to guess at this point.  This leads Wilson to suggest that those in the centre of political life should leave behind their dispassion and “join the fight”, “pick a side”, like anyone on the playground or the sporting field.  He may have well said “get on the megaphones and shout”. It’s a strange suggestion for experts to stop patiently analysing and remaining removed from the minutiae of daily partisan battle and just becoming one of the crowd.  We need experts to continue to be removed, so they can provide conclusions that challenge the status quo that someone, somewhere, may pick up on and use at some stage.  We need people in universities and other places to be removed, also, from the daily chatter of people on social media getting caught up in the daily spin cycle.  Otherwise society just becomes an endless sporting contest, both inside and outside of wonkish circles.