Tom Peterkin: Trump and Brexit bluster threatens to silence experts

Asked for evidence to back his claims at a Holyrood committee four years ago, Donald Trump responded: "I am the evidence!" Picture: Getty
Asked for evidence to back his claims at a Holyrood committee four years ago, Donald Trump responded: "I am the evidence!" Picture: Getty
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High-level contempt for qualified opinions creates a worrying challenge for politicians and academics writes Tom Peterkin

It was during an eccentric appearance in the Scottish Parliament that Donald Trump gave an insight into his attitude towards expert opinion.

Taking questions from Holyrood’s economy committee on renewable energy and green targets some four years ago, the billionaire claimed windfarms would “ruin” Scotland.

His crusade against Scottish windfarms was, of course, influenced by the battle he was fighting against turbines off the coast of his golf course on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire.

Trump was challenged by a committee member to provide “empirical evidence” that would demonstrate windfarms would result in the destruction of Scotland.

“I am the evidence,” thundered Trump. It was a memorable example of his bombast which led to the local wags remarking that not only was he The Donald - he was also apparently The Evidence.

But behind the quips was an glimpse into the Trump modus operandus. When engaged in a battle that he feels strongly about, he is only too happy to take cognizance of expert opinion provided it is his own and he is the expert.

The same attitude was to the fore in the US election.

Therefore when 121 members of the Republican national security community signed a public letter lambasting his thoughts on foreign policy, Trump was typically dismissive.

No matter that they thought him unfit for the White House and that his vision of American influence in the world was “wildly inconsistent” swinging from isolationism to military intervention in the space of one sentence.

Of course, a Presidential candidate has the right to defend himself from such attacks. But it was the manner of the Trump defence which was telling.

Rather than answer the criticism, he attacked the critics.

“So a lot of the people that you think are good because you know their name or because you see them on television, I don’t think are good,” Trump said. “Because look at the end result. The end result is our country is a mess.”

Similarly when faced with expert academic opinion on the dangers posed by climate change, Trump’s response is to dismiss it as a “hoax” dreamed up by the Chinese. These examples were typical of the anti-expert atmosphere that pervaded the Trump campaign.

But it is not just on the opposite side of the Atlantic that the denunciation of experts has become a successful political sport. A similar strategy was employed by Leave campaigners ahead of the Brexit vote.

“I think people in this country have had enough of experts,” Michael Gove said as the Leave campaign tuned into the public’s mistrust of what they perceive to be a self-serving establishment elite.

As events have shown, the anti-expert strategy has proved devastatingly effective. Both Trump and the Leave campaign proved adept at shouting down and disregarding critics no matter how well-observed their criticisms were.

There is a danger that this attitude takes root even further and it was interesting to see Professor Anton Muscatelli, Principal of Glasgow University, voice his own concerns yesterday.

Muscatelli is an example of an academic who has contributed much to public life. His contributions are too numerous to list in full but they range from the Calman Commission on devolution to advising the Treasury Select Committee and include his current and hugely influential position as the chair of Nicola Sturgeon’s Standing Council on Europe.

As one of Sturgeon’s key Brexit advisers, Muscatelli argued that expert academic opinion has never been more valuable or needed more when it comes to extracting the UK from the EU.

“Much commentary in the aftermath of the U.S. election has focused on the perceived disregard for expert opinion which swept across American politics – and it is the duty of politicians at all levels on this side of the Atlantic to ensure that this does not become the established norm in Scottish, UK or European politics,” he said. “Thus far, we have little insight into the strategy or even the overall goals of the UK Government in the Brexit process – but the recent ruling of the High Court should be seen as an opportunity for the UK Government, rather than a challenge to its authority.

“Not only does the process of parliamentary scrutiny have the potential to strengthen the UK Government’s eventual negotiating position – it should also provide the opportunity for experts in a range of fields to give their advice and the benefit of their expertise at all stages of the process. Throughout the process of leaving the EU, the UK Government will be faced with complex problems and competing demands – and it’s crucial that politicians have the greatest depth of expertise as possible to rely on.”

Muscatelli was speaking ahead of an event at Glasgow University this Friday hosted by The Conversation - the news website that provides a platform for accessible and topical articles by academics - and Policy Scotland. Muscatelli will be one of the panellists at the ‘Countdown to Brexit: where next for Europe?’ discussion. Events like this are helpful for shining a light on complex political problems. But it remains a daunting challenge to bridge the gap between voters swept along by angry political rhetoric and the importance of cool-headed, independent, expert opinion.