Being the most prestigious university in the English-speaking world comes with its drawbacks. While the rolls of alumni are littered with famous names, not every Oxonian puts their formidable talents towards good. Even the most cursory glance will tell you that it’s not particularly surprising to learn that vice-chancellor Louise Richardson is 'embarrassed' about the behaviour of one particular graduate. Aung San Suu Kyi has, after all, been explaining to The Hague that Myanmar has not been engaged in genocide, merely killing large numbers of an ethnic group that her government did not acknowledge exists.
Fortunately for Suu Kyi, she has escaped the ire of the university on this occasion. Instead, Oxford is ashamed to have educated Michael Gove, and not on the basis of his endearingly dad-ish dancing. The stated cause of the ire is his claim back in 2016 that the public was somewhat fed up with experts. A less acknowledged reason might be the suspicion that he wasn’t entirely wrong.
Richardson tells us that 'with the vaccine, it seems like the public can’t get enough of experts'. It's true that there’s a lot of respect for scientists who produce measurable outcomes where we can see the tangible benefits of their work. They are broadly trusted, and academic scientists particularly so. What I’m less sure about is whether this tells us how people feel about ‘experts’ in general.
Balliol College — Boris Johnson’s alma mater — claims in its guidebooks that it is 'not only arguably the oldest but arguably the leading intellectual college in Oxford — and therefore in the world'. This charming self-assuredness should be able to withstand a bruising aside about the value of experts, so long as it is genuinely confident.
If, however, a community of experts were to feel its status was built less on a reputation for genuine excellence clearly recognisable to the outside world and more on strange games played between academic institutions, then that status would be built on sand. And enough people of prominence noting that the professor has no gown could cause trouble.
Michael Gove's observation that the public 'have had quite enough of experts' is not a statement that should shake a confident institution, particularly when it is remembered that he never really made the strong claim so often attributed to him: the second, less famous part of the quote continues 'from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong'. It’s obviously disputable, but I doubt many economists would say with hand over heart that the public unreservedly respects our profession; I certainly wouldn’t, and the data backs me on this.
Instead, if Richardson is genuinely concerned that the public image of experts has slipped I would suggest she redirects attention to perceived partisanship as a potential cause. It would be significantly easier to place trust in experts if they didn’t spend their time using their technical expertise to assert their superiority in fundamentally moral decisions.
One thing that economists are generally aware of is the distinction between positive and normative statements — between statements of fact (disputable and testable) and opinion (arguments about morality or what should be done). This certainly doesn’t stop economists, even very good ones, from leaping freely from the first from the second. But they are at least aware of when they’re venturing onto political ground.
Public health professionals, on the other hand, I have my doubts about. In Britain this is partly the government’s fault. Pushing the idea that policy is 'guided by the science' results in the practice of delegating decision-making to panels that are meant to advise on what will happen if a policy is followed, rather than which should be chosen. This does not, however, explain the curious phenomenon through which outdoor gatherings, supposedly serious transmission risks, briefly stopped being so for the period of the Black Lives Matter protests — and then reverted once American Football returned and stadiums filled with joyful students enjoying a return to normality
It’s this sort of behaviour from experts that threatens their reputation more than anything Michael Gove might say. What’s confusing is that Richardson seems to understand this; in the same event she addresses a need for 'more ideological diversity' to 'foster more open debate of controversial subjects' and to 'engage civilly in reasoned debate with people with whom you disagree'.
This is a laudable aim. But quite how a one-sided portrayal of Gove’s comments is supposed to assist in building this diversity — or indeed encourage conservatives or leavers on campus to feel like they are respected and valued members of the academic community — is not clear to me. If the purpose of a university education is to learn and interrogate thinkers — and in many cases, thinkers far outside the western liberal tradition — how precisely are students meant to engage seriously with these ideas when someone as milquetoast as Michael Gove is considered beyond the pale? To study an ideology as a form of heresy, an interesting deviation from the true faith, rather than as a school of thought in their own right?
Oxford should not be embarrassed to have educated Michael Gove, but it should be ashamed that it finds him embarrassing.