The death of the expert in a post-truth world?

Business, Economy | Thu 5 Jan | Author – Business & Finance diane coyle bbc
Diane Coyle, founder of Enlightenment Economics and professor at the University of Manchester

Ruraidh Conlon O’Reilly talks to economist and former BBC trustee Diane Coyle about the role of experts in a post-truth world.

Fake Facebook news, Trump and Brexit earthquakes based on raw emotion rather than analysis, and the death of the expert: this is, we are told, a post-truth world – so much so the Oxford Dictionary has made it word of the year.

All these things are on UK economist Diane Coyle’s mind, and it’s partly why she was over at Kilkenomics recently once again, participating on a panel addressing Brexit’s implications for Ireland. The festival was fantastic fun with an eclectic range of speakers, and a good time was had by all. But elsewhere, she confirms that there is a move away from hard facts, and that experts are instinctively derided.

“It worries me,” she admits. “It means that we have to ask ourselves some hard questions, because I’m pretty confident, as are 90% of economists, that the Brexit vote will be damaging for the UK economy. Not immediately, but over the long term: less investment, less trade, fewer jobs, lower living standards.

“It’s a bit like the climate change situation ten years ago, when the great majority of climate scientists, biologists and other kinds of physical scientists were very clear on what they thought was happening but it took quite a long time for public opinion to move, and there are still people who really don’t agree.”

Coyle, a former trustee of the BBC, runs her own Enlightenment Economics consultancy, and is Professor of Economics at the University of Manchester. An expert, in other words. The good news is that in parallel to post-truth and a woeful 2016, there is paradoxically an unprecedented demand for economics and economists.

That’s obvious from the success of Kilkenomics, the Freakonomics stable of books, the popularity of figures such as Tim Harford – and Coyle even programmes her own Bristol Festival of Economics. It’s a tumultuous time in current affairs, and economists are putting their heads above the parapet to participate in events, write blogs and engage in social media.

GROSS DOMESTIC PROBLEM

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“… raw emotion rather than analysis”

Coyle is also the author of GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. Mention gross domestic product and Coyle chirps up: “My favourite subject!”

The problem is that GDP isn’t suitable for a digital, intangible, service-based economy: it was invented for the economic world of the 1940s, and hasn’t kept pace. It doesn’t take into account growth via pollution or natural resources, or complicated cross-border supply chains, for example.

I think the issue of post-truth will open people’s eyes to the importance of the Reithian mission

“So I think people like me and other economics colleagues have a lot of work to do on how we define and measure GDP,” she says.

This we should know in Ireland, where pharmaceutical and aircraft leasing deals can make a nonsense of our economic data.

“It isn’t just an Irish problem, although that aircraft leasing thing was very ostentatious, and obviously a tax structure in Ireland which is very controversial can have multinationals moving activity quite quickly,” she explains.

“All countries are measuring their trade statistics which go into GDP in quite an old-fashioned way without taking account of the bit that’s value-added in the country.” An advanced ‘dashboard’ of economic data would give a more useful overview, she says.

Coyle was also on the BBC Trust for eight years or so, and served as its acting chair. It’s an organisation that is under constant criticism over its independence, funding, administration and news reporting. There was a sense of threat and pressure while she was inside the tent, she recounts.

“It’s one of our most important cultural and civic institutions, so it was a great honour to be involved in it in that way, but in any non-executive position you have responsibility for things that you can’t control. And that was pretty uncomfortable in an entity that’s as high-profile as the BBC.”

It’s a bit like the climate change situation ten years ago, when the great majority … were very clear on what they thought was happening but it took quite a long time for public opinion to move

Coyle argues that it’s a much more efficient organisation than its critics will acknowledge, is a huge engine of economic activity, and a “cultural soft-power asset” on the world stage.

So will the ‘Reithian’ ethos of BBC public service journalism survive? “Yes, and I think the issue of post-truth will open people’s eyes to the importance of the Reithian mission. That’s obviously not straightforward, it is paternalistic, it does involve judgements being made by ‘elites’.

But the alternative looks really unattractive.” Sounds like rumours of the expert’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated.