Happening On Campus

The Political Limitations of Expertise

Professor Helen Thompson on the role of experts in politics.

The Institute for Policy and Engagement invited Professor Helen Thompson to speak in a lecture entitled ‘The Political Limits of Expertise’. Thompson gave an enduring account of her own background, her role as an expert in relation to Brexit and, within that context, the limitations to what her and other academics can contribute to the public sphere.

The lecture comes ahead of Michael Goves’ comment that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. However, in an era of unstable leadership, Brexit uncertainty and vast socio-economic insecurities, who should the public turn to?

Thompson emphasises a responsibility for academics to be clear about what questions they can engage with on the issue of Brexit – whether this be constitutional, economic, or about security. Specifically, academics can explain British constitutional history, why it is complex and, within that context, difficulties relating to the EU. Academics can go into excruciating detail on EU economic laws and shed light on the economic consequences of leaving the EU. But what are the limitations to expertise?

On the subject of objectivity in public engagement, Thompson commented,

“It’s difficult for academics doing public engagement to escape our sense of self… or who other people think we are”

Thompson highlighted an issue that some members of the public do not feel their reasons to vote in certain ways are represented by academics. Pessimistic narratives with a fixation on nationalistic interests diminish citizens’ agency to vote for reasons other than that end. Thompson highlighted a danger in creating a binary. She commented on the prejudices within public debate,

“If people think you are casting judgement on a construction of them, they will absolutely cast judgement on a construction of you back”

The talk ended on the note that academics can offer ‘clarity and precision’ in the face of complexity, as well as explaining what they cannot know.

Ellie Stainforth-Mallison

Featured image courtesy of University of Nottingham Institute for Policy and Engagement via eventbrite.

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