The Role of Experts in an Age of Populism


Written by: Dagmara Franczak

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

A Talk Presented at Chatham House on January 23, 2018
Picture source:

“Can experts and populism co-exist?” – the panel starts off with a question posed by Professor Nichols, the author of a book, “The Death of Expertise”. Nichols argues that we are currently seeing the rise in narcissism, because “we spend a lot of time alone. We want to express all of our opinions on social media. But it would be a mistake to blame technology.” Nichols expected the problem of narcissism to be solely an American one but seeing that his book is now being translated into an 11th language might point otherwise. While he claims that in part the Internet is indeed to blame, there are other things going on.

The next panelist, Dr Davies, a reader in Politics and International Relations Department at Goldsmiths, explores these other issues as he points at the public’s low trust in media. He further argues that it correlates with the sympathy for populists. When asked if the panelists would go back to their smaller hometowns to connect with the public, to see where they gather their information from, how they connect with the world, Vogt, the editor of Foreign Affairs, says that “for rural Americans, there are no small-town newspapers anymore. There’s radio and there’s Fox.”

Continuing with the topics of modernization and the dynamic between experts and the public, Vogt claims that the rhetoric of expertise hasn’t adapted and that there are two main issues while communicating to the public: vagueness among policy makers and jargon among academics. Further, Professor Nichols says that “experts talk about the public as if they’re completely incapable of reasoning,” and reminds that experts needs to let people make poor decisions. Just because experts have facts to support their claims does not necessarily mean they can tell other people what to do or what not to do. The words do not reflect the acts as even being a part of the audience feels like we are being told what to do and how to access our media sources and how we should listen to experts.

What is the role of digital technologies? Is the rise in technocracy going to lead to the disconnect with the public? Dr Vinjamuri continues the discussion on the role of technology and its connect or rather disconnect with expertise nowadays and asks: “Have we all become ‘armchair experts’ on Trump and Brexit?” She claims that the Internet should be treated as a tool and we should be careful not to disregard it, in response to Professor Nichols argument that “the Internet creates a shortcut to the illusion of knowledge…if it’s not immediately findable by clicking, it’s not worth knowing.”

Overall, I left the panel feeling puzzled about whether the elitist approach to the age of populism is leading to a further disconnect between the public and the experts and thus leads to a rise in populism. My big criticism is also the panel’s huge focus on the US and the UK. Except for a brief mention of the rise of narcissism internationally, there was no mention of other parts of the world where populism has become more attractive to the public, like Hungary. As keeping Dr Davies’ question in mind of what is the role of universities now, while its original role was to discover the truth, I thought of the Hungarian populist government’s attempts at shutting down Central European University, a Budapest-based institution founded by George Soros, an America-based billionaire. I am further asking all of us university students not only what are the role of experts, or universities as institutions, but what is our role in the age of populism?

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