The head of Scotland’s oldest university has taken Michael Gove – a former student of hers – to task over the role of “experts” in public life.
Professor Sally Mapstone, the principal of St Andrews, told an audience at Holyrood last night it was wrong to view experts as “elites”.
It came in light of the Tory Cabinet minister’s now infamous claim that Britain has “had enough of experts” at the height of Brexit hostilities in last year’s EU referendum campaign. This came under the spotlight at Holyrood’s Festival of Politics last night as Prof Mapstone joined a panel to discuss the issue.
“In the interests of full transparency, I should probably say that Michael Gove read English at Oxford when I was tutoring,” she revealed.
“I worried for some time that his distaste for experts comes from having to sit through my Chaucer lectures.”
Mr Gove, a Brexiteer, issued his dismissal of “experts” as claim and counter claim raged during the Brexit campaign about the likely economic impact and how public services such as the NHS and universities would be hit by leaving the EU.
Prof Mapstone said her former student had characterised experts as “distanced” and that they “thought they knew best”.
But she voiced concern about viewing people with specialist knowledge as being part of “an elite group”.
“I don’t think that we should,” she said. “I would really want to resist the notion that just because you know a lot about a subject, that puts you into, if you like, some class-based elite. But I do think if you’ve got expertise you need to develop the capacity to explain it in a way that makes people feel engaged and involved and that they want to hear some of that.”
Prof Mapstone said the emergence of social media sites has allowed individuals to establish themselves as “dissenting voices” and draw “tremendous support”.
She said: “It is the responsibility of those who think they can counter those views, if those views are simply wrong, to get out there and actually deploy their expertise and their evidence and their data in a transparent and translatable way to counter those arguments.”
She pointed to the example of TV historian Professor Mary Beard as someone who has been able to put across her expertise in this area. “She’s maintained a very prominent presence on Twitter and social media in a way that many academics don’t,” the St Andrews principal added.
Prof Beard’s ability to withstand “the gender brickbats” was also praised.
“She’s a very interesting example of somebody who is really, if you like, drawing out what it is to be an expert in today’s world in terms of harnessing her extraordinary knowledge but making sure that through plain speaking she makes it relevant.”