Brexit proves we need to restore public trust in expert opinion

Luigi Zingales | Jul 23, 2016

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Collections Brexit

One of the most important—and least discussed—aspects of the vote for Brexit has been the failure of most pollsters and newspapers to predict and understand the reasons for it. Even the betting market, generally much more reliable, got it wrong. This phenomenon is not unique to Brexit. Most pundits and pollsters missed the importance of Trump. Why?

What we have observed in Britain and what we are observing in the US with Trump is a growing mistrust toward experts. In the Brexit debate it was hard to find any economist justifying a departure from the EU. In fact, many were willing to make forecasts so pessimistic as to be accused of scaremongering. Not only did these forecasts fail to rally the vote for “Remain,” they probably contributed to the victory of “Leave.”

Some have lamented this phenomenon as an example of voters’ irrationality. I fear this has nothing to do with irrationality and has everything to do with mistrust, a mistrust that, while exaggerated, has a rational basis: the disconnect between the intellectual elite and the population at large.

Today wealth concentration allows a few rich individuals to singlehandedly fund think tanks, which have increasingly become loudspeakers of vested interests rather than centers for the elaboration of public policy. Campaign financing and future lobbying jobs are increasingly transforming elected officers from representatives of the people to “butlers of industrial interests,” to use a famous muckraking expression. Doctors are perceived to promote the medicines of the companies that sponsor their lunches; scientists to minimize the effect of pollutants produced by companies that fund their labs; economists to defend the interests of banks that pay them hefty consulting fees. Even journalists, when they are not perceived to promote the interest of their advertisers and owners, are accused at least of turning a blind eye to certain problems.

Fault does not lie with people who mistrust the experts. We need to rebuild that trust. It is not sufficient that most doctors, intellectuals, and journalists do a fine job. We should have transparency rules in place to ensure that they are all free from conflicts of interest. We should have admission rules that favor not just ethnic diversity but economic and social diversity. We should have campaign-financing rules that free our representatives from the yoke of vested interests.

We need to create the conditions to undermine this mistrust of experts. This is the most important lesson from Brexit.

Excerpted from “The Real Lesson from Brexit,” originally posted on Promarket.org.

For more from the Chicago Booth faculty on the fallout of the Brexit vote, visit our collection here.