In the midst of the EU referendum campaign last year, Michael Gove, then the Justice Secretary, declared in an interview with Sky that the British people “have had enough of experts”. Immediately he was ridiculed for making such an absurd claim, both on social media and in the news at large. How could it be that people had tired of well informed and scientific analysis? Many felt such a statement was the best example of the Leave campaigns relationship with the truth. Amongst all the incredulity and mocking however, nobody thought to check if Gove was right. He was.
It was in spite of the overwhelming body of evidence from all around the economic community, stark warnings from scientific bodies and grim predictions of all world leaders that the British people voted to leave the European Union last summer. Perhaps people simply didn’t care for the potential impact and just wanted to get out, admittedly a more dynamic option (being a swash-buckling brexiteer certainly sounds more fun than being a solid remainer) than simply maintaining the status quo, but this seems rather unlikely. There have, of course, been an innumerable number of articles and opinions on exactly why 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, a topic which should be addressed in both more breadth and length than this, not unrelated, issue.
The simple fact is that experts are not relied upon any more by a large proportion of the population to provide information, particularly in a political context. There has been a long running effort from figures such as the odious Nigel Farage, which has been picked up more recently by conventional politicians, such as Gove, to brand experts as “elites”, a label that carries an accusation of feeling aloof from the ordinary person and of acting against their interests. Unfortunately, this has been, to some extent successful. While scientists enjoy an 80% trust rating according to Ipsos MORI, a noted pollster, economists are distrusted by a majority of people, some 52% (coincidentally the exact proportion that voted leave).
One particularly interesting paper on the topic of trust in experts is by Eiser et al, a group of psychology researchers at Sheffield University. In the study they asked people how highly they trusted scientists and property developers to tell them about possible pollution risks on brownfield sites, on a scale of 1-5, 5 being absolute trust. Unsurprisingly, the scientists romped home here, with a mean of 4.06 to a measly 1.47 for the property developers. The researchers went on to ask a number of different questions about each group, such as whether they have the respondent’s interests at heart and how open about their beliefs each group would be.
Here is the real take away from the data: expertise was not the best predictor of trust. Instead the most important factor in trust was the degree to which the respondent felt the group had shared interests at heart. Illustrating this in the case of the scientists by splitting respondents into those who had high and low trust of them:
There is some difference between the perceived expertise if the scientists from people who said they had high and low trust in them, but even those who don’t trust them generally agree they are experts. A much starker difference can be seen when looking at the degree to which scientists are seen to have the respondent’s interests at heart:
This is certainly a clear indicator that shared values rather than expertise is the best predictor of whether or not people will trust certain groups. This relationship is mimicked in trust in family and friends, which stands at 3.62 in the study, reasonably similar to that of the scientists, despite this grouping having the lowest perceived expertise of the six groups; naturally family and friends are by far seen as the group with the most shared interests. This is what allows the family and friends grouping to ‘overcome’ its woeful expertise ranking to attain a high trust value. Of course this data cannot be generalised entirely to all situations due to the necessarily narrow focus of the research, but it still provides a telling insight.
So trust appears to be about whether or not people are perceived to have shared interests with the group dispensing the information. This goes some way to explaining why Gove was able to, for once, hit the nail on the head with regard to experts in politics. The political world is becoming rapidly more divisive, with both sides becoming more and more entrenched in their opinions and viewing the other with naught but contempt. This is not at all a good state of affairs and will be addressed at greater length separately. What this means in terms of trust is people will be far less ready to trust those who they see as belonging to a political camp other than their own. Experts are generally seen as belonging to status quo, as they normally work for some prominent institution that has been around for years, meaning they become a victim of the attack on ‘elites’. Indeed, the term elites is often substituted for establishment, or preceded by liberal, educated, metropolitan, or some other such horrific insult. Thus it would appear natural that trust in experts has fallen, as the ‘elite’ they are part of is vilified, leading to lower perceived shared interests.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons Michael Gove felt he had just cause to issue his infamous proclamation on experts. But this is far from a uniquely British phenomenon; it is Donald Trump’s America that has travelled farthest down this dark path. His apparent contempt for the establishment, and his image as a complete outsider and insurgent certainly contributed to his surprising election victory. In a similar vein, he has fired off criticism off toward scientific bodies and all those who dare use fundamental mathematics to suggest maybe fewer people attended his inauguration than his predecessors. The Trump administration’s disdain of experts is already well documented; at the time of writing Trump has declined to fill the position of Chair of Economic Council and rumours abound he may abolish it entirely. Further to that, scientists at various government agencies have been told not to speak to the press about their findings. Economic statistics, particularly the unemployment rate (which does not fit with Trump’s narrative on jobs), have been rubbished by all candidate, nomine and President Trump. Donald Trump is wilfully and intentionally undermining public trust of experts.
The various acts of the Trump administration are again an issue for later discussion, but for now let’s make do with discussing why the global trend toward having enough of experts is bad for everyone.
It’s a reasonably simple argument in truth. Democracies rest upon the principles of open debate and discussion of ideas, in an attempt to convince people to vote for a particular party, or of members of government to vote for or against proposed actions. For a debate to be honest and worthwhile, it must be based on facts; there is little use in debating how effective a poverty reduction policy has been if nobody has any facts about the number of people in poverty for instance. Without bodies that are trusted to gather such data, or bodies whose data is dismissed, there can be not true debate, and thus democracy suffers. That’s never really a good thing.
So there it is. In a sense Michael Gove, in a most out of character move, actually got something very right; in a way people the world over actually have had enough of experts, but this is by no means something to celebrate. Instead it is symptomatic of the troubling times in which we live, and something that should be fought at every possible opportunity, to ensure that democracy does not give way to tyranny.
The referenced paper is written up as : Eiser, J. R., Stafford, T., Henneberry, J., & Catney, P. (2009). “Trust me, I’m a Scientist (Not a Developer)”: Perceived Expertise and Motives as Predictors of Trust in Assessment of Risk from Contaminated Land. Risk Analysis, 29(2), 288-297. The data and analysis for this post is available here.
Change in China
The story of China has been one of remarkable success since the 90s as foreign firms rushed to exploit the cheap labour force and take advantage of the mass privatisation ushered in under the paramount leadership of Xiaoping Deng.
This lead to a surge in the demand for energy and other commodities, with consequences including depletion of natural resources, pollution and an expansion of the PPF.
In turn, this triggered a surge in rural-urban migration, with millions of farmers moving to the cities in search of a greater standard of living, which many have found, as the Chinese Urban middle class grew from 0 to 87 million from 95-05, with this figure being projected to reach 854 million by 2030, which is expected to account for 93% of the urban population. This rapidly expanding middle class has led to:
Competition for status symbols
New services from abroad being demanded
Increasing social tension
Larger potential market
Stock market investment from inexperienced domestic citizens
Greater flow of investment
Increased retail demand
The complexion of China’s main trade has also changed dramatically accordingly:
Food and drink
High end retail
China’s rapid growth from the 90s continued as the millennium drew to a close with the nation taking up the fallen Soviet Union’s mantle as the dominant Communist nation in the world. Through much of the 00s, growth was rising continually, up to a staggering 14.2% in 2007. Even the GFC of 2008 only managed to pull this figure down to 9.2% in 2009. However, even after recovering to 10.6% in 2010, growth has been steadily decaying, slumping to 7.4% in 2014.
Of course, this can be explained away by statistical measurement – growth rate is after all a year on year percentage figure, so this may not indicate that the value increases in China’s GDP have been rising slower at all.
There have long been problems with statistical collection in China, dating from many years back right up to the present day with many economists said to be “profoundly uneasy” about China’s GDP figures. Part of this comes from provincial Party members massaging figures upwards to enhance their own standing. In fact, every single Chinese province was recorded to be growing at a rate above that of the national average, which is clearly nonsensical. Even the current Premier, Li Keqiang has privately admitted that the Chinese GDP statistics were "man-made" and "for reference only".
Nevertheless, some of the statistical problems are genuine. The sheer size of China, not only as a country, but as an economy makes it very hard to accurately record anything. The recent nature of China’s rapid expansion has also prompted difficulties, with statisticians struggling to document the entire economy – a 2004 statistical adjustment added an extra 16.8% to the GDP figure. Small errors at the village and provincial level also get multiplied as they pass through the system, further distorting any final figure.
The IMF estimated in 2014 that China had managed to end the US’s 142 year stint as the largest economy in the world, with an economy estimated at $17.6tn, just above the US figure of $17.4tn. These figures were calculated using PPP, which threw the Chinese figure upwards from just $10.3tn. With a population of 1.36bn, it is only logical that China takes the top spot on the table.
Also, if you look at per capita spending power - the value of all goods and services produced within a nation in a given year divided by the average population for the same year - then, even adjusted for PPP, China ($11,868) is still lagging a long way behind not only the United States ($53,001) but also the likes of Turkmenistan ($12,863) and Suriname ($16,080).
But Chinese growth figures have far outstripped those of the US, with the IMF forecasting growth of 7.4% in China for 2014 and 7.1% in 2015, compared to US growth of 2.2% this year and 3.1% next year. This indicates that it is only a matter of time until China does, unarguably, become the largest economy in the world.
Yet this Chinese dominance may be relatively short lived, as long term financial estimates from the IMF show that India will surpass both China and the US by 2100.
Before the “Black Monday” of August 24th 2015, there were numerous warning signs that the Chinese market was in danger:
The Central Bank cut interest rates from 4.85% to 4.6%
The Central Bank bought up shares
The Yuan was devalued by the Central Bank
This cheap and easy funding inflated the market
Economic growth had been reported to slow
Exports fell by 5.5% in a year
Imports fell by 14.3% in the same year
Added into this mix is the relative youth of the Chinese stock market, which was only fully established in 1990, making it immature and subject to far more volatile movements than other world markets.
This volatility is due in part to the makeup of stock owners – the shares are owned almost entirely by domestic citizens, who have no experience in investing or playing the market. These “mom and pop” investors are a key factor in explaining the large and swift changes in the Chinese stock market.
When the Central Bank did not announce further policy change to prop up the stock market on the Friday before Black Monday, panic began to ripple through the market. This was then amplified by the sheer volatility of the Chinese market, as wave after wave of sales ensued, which caused the prices to plummet.
Blip or Bust?
However, it seems as if this is merely a correction of the over-inflated stock market, which had been pumped up by the ease of access to cheap funds for investment, as permitted by the Central Bank and encouraged by the Chinese leadership.
In a reaction to the stock market crash, the Central Bank did release the anticipated measures to prop up the market, and this did help to stabilise the situation, but this only sets China up for another crash in the near future. It is not a long term solution and it is certainly not sustainable, even for China.
More generally speaking, the slowdown in the rate of the growth of the economy seems to be setting in, with the governing body lowering the target rate from 10% to 8%, to adjust to the new situation.
Unquestionably, China has the possibility to become the largest economy in the world, with such a huge population and growing trade with Russia, as Russia looks to break its long standing history of trade with the West, a huge provider of oil and gas, which China gobbles up to fuel its own economic growth. The swift and effective nature of the reaction of the Chinese leadership also indicates that the economy is in good hands.
The recent market crisis may mark a significant turning point in China’s economic history, as its explosive growth begins to tail off as it maximises its scarce resources. Instead the country could expect to see growth rates decline toward that of the global average. Nevertheless, China will likely become the largest economy outright in the near future, becoming the dominant global force, determining the tune of the rest of the world’s economy. As Churchill once said “It is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Recently the true identity of the man who has appeared in several gruesome videos of executions of hostages released by the terrorist group Islamic State has been discovered. Previously known as "Jihadi John", due to his noticeable British accent when he spoke on camera he is now known to be called Mohammed Emwazi.
Born in Kuwait in 1988, he came to the UK at the age of 6 where he is said to have been educated at the Quintin Kynaston Community Academy in North London before graduating from the University of Westminster with a degree in computing in 2009. Emwazi did in fact come to the attention of the British intelligence agency MI5, as well as other intelligence bodies who reportedly monitored suspected extremists that had been linked to fighters joining the terrorist group al-Shabab who operate in Somalia.
It is believed that Emwazi moved to the Middle East in order to fight against the West. He blames MI5 for the breakdown of his relationship with his girlfriend, due to the intelligence agency supposedly harassing him. He is featured in no fewer than 7 videos released by IS, many of which depict the apparent beheading of British, Japanese and American hostages.
But the problem of people leaving their country of residence to fight for extremist groups is far larger than one man. One other high profile example is the case of three young girls who left their families without their knowledge to travel across a continent to fight for the terrorist group. The current amount of foreign fighters in Syria is between 11,000 and 12,000, according to the Soufan Group and the Centre for the Study of Radicalization. Approximately 25% of this figure is thought to originate from the West, with most of the remainder coming from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
It remains important to remember though that the disgusting acts carried out by these extremists in the name of Islam do not at all represent the entirety of the 1.5 Billion Muslims around the world, the vast majority of who are moderate believers who would doubtless condemn the appalling actions of a tiny minority.
According to a report from the World Health Organization released on earlier this month, the death toll from the ongoing Ebola epidemic has officially passed 6,000, with over 17,145 people reportedly infected. Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Spain and the United States have seen person-to-person transmissions of the disease. Now entering its second year, the ongoing epidemic is the deadliest and most widespread outbreak of the Ebola virus on record.
With over 99 percent of infections and deaths, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia continue to be the epicenter of the Ebola epidemic. Whilst the number of newly reported cases has fallen significantly in Liberia and Guinea, with fewer than 600 new cases reported in the two countries combined in the last three weeks, the situation continues to be severe in Sierra Leone, where more than 1,400 new cases were reported in the same length of time.
The response of the rest of the world to the outbreak has been insufficient. Staffing of the newly constructed facilities has been left to a combination of non-governmental organisations, missionaries and local workers. The underfunded and corrupt national governments in West Africa are relying on NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF—Doctors Without Borders), which has provided volunteer doctors and nurses and employs thousands of local workers to undertake much of the most hazardous work, such as handling and burying the dead.
MSF released a statement on earlier this month, criticising the limited response to the crisis in West Africa by Western governments as “slow and uneven.” Dr. Joanne Liu, international director of MSF, condemned the decision to leave much of the direct response up to volunteers and untrained local workers. “It is extremely disappointing that states with biological-disaster response capacities have chosen not to utilize them,” she said. “How is it that the international community has left the response to Ebola—now a transnational threat—to doctors, nurses and charity workers?”
Working conditions for doctors, nurses, as well as other workers, are physically and mentally taxing and the risk of transmission of Ebola from patients to health care workers is high. Through the end of November a total of 622 health care workers have been infected with Ebola, and of these, 346 have died.
On November 25, burial workers in the city of Kenema in southeastern Sierra Leone went on strike and dumped 15 bodies around the local hospital in protest against the nonpayment of two months’ extra risk payments promised by the government. Earlier in the month, 400 health care workers at an Ebola treatment center in Bandajuma in eastern Sierra Leone went on strike over the same issue.
While the Ebola crisis continues to rage in West Africa still largely out of control, the issue has been all but been dropped by the media in the run up to the festive period.
Quite simply put, Ebola is still a huge problem in Western Africa, especially as these countries are relatively undeveloped. But really, the problem is that not enough is being done by those that are in a position to help those suffering, such as the governments, not only of the countries directly affected, but those spread around the rest of the world. This has to end, if the terrible plight of the people of Africa is to be stopped.