Experience, Not Expertise.

Hugh Burling explains why we should pay less attention to economic crystal ball-gazing and more attention to our grandparents’ wisdom.


Michael Gove’s oft-quoted remark from the campaign for UK independence keeps being repeated in comment on the events of 2016. So I won’t repeat it here. The remarks I’ll repeat instead are some quotes from the mannered young graduates who comprise my crowd on social media, spoken in the alleys of the Zuckerberg Commune on the morning of June 24th last year. I won’t credit them, for obvious reasons:

“The Old People have caused Brexit. And now they must pay for it. Fuck you, grandma: I’m having your winter fuel allowance, your pension, and your bus pass.”

“Reminder: Old people are petty and racist and ruining everything.”

“All those thick old people who voted Brexit never did a damn thing in their lives.”

There is a symmetry between the hatred of our elders – should they dare to disagree with us – by our demographic, and the distrust of credentials and qualifications by the other lot.

On the one hand, people who have held down jobs for decades, raised children, and built and maintained the systems we have flourished by, are regarded as incapable of weighing evidence and goods and making a wise decision.

On the other, people who have worked hard and focussed their attention to master a specific, complex field, like law or economics, are treated as though they can’t be trusted to report a fair judgment, but are slaves to their vested interests. (Of course, it is just false that experts in law and economics were unanimous Remainers.)

Some of us trust experience more than expertise, and vice-versa.

Let’s not rehearse arguments for trusting expertise. Most of us still believe contemporary economics has some predictive power, and is properly taught and practised in the relevant institutions. Most of us believe that legal training and argument still involves appeals to common, fair, precisely developed principles.

But here’s an argument for the relevance and importance of life experience when making major political decisions.

Remember that most of us only get to make very simple electoral choices. When we make our judgments we must squeeze a lot of evaluation and information through the narrow funnel of the ballot box.

First, there are competing goods. When we make decisions affecting how communities will be structured, should we privilege shared experiences and attitudes between neighbours, or the chance to learn from different perspectives? When we make decisions about structuring employment and training, should we privilege economic security for people at the bottom, or the chance for the talented to innovate?  Should we privilege the deep, dependable relationships of the family, or the entertaining, dispersed friendships of the mobile single life? Less experience means less first-hand knowledge of the goods at stake in political decisions, and so the less informed those decisions.

That narrow slit of the ballot box, which voters have to fit so much through, also means that shared ‘facts’ must be interpreted based on assumptions about human nature. How are we motivated? How far is it safe to centralise political power? To delegate it? Spread it? How cautious should we be about risking growth to spread wealth? About social and cultural change?


After three years of pretending to know what they’re talking about as students, graduates from expensive universities can pretend to know what they’re talking about with a piece of paper to help them get away with it. (Photo by OM285, used under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Only experience, not lectures or books, can teach the practical knowledge of human nature which we use to answer such questions.

Some believe that experimental psychology, or even economics, might be candidates for ‘teachable’ sources of this kind of knowledge of human nature. The trouble with psychology is that the only good experimental evidence concerns very basic cognitive habits, which have to be creatively extrapolated from before they’re relevant to politics. The trouble with economics is that it models our behaviour using simplified ideal agents, not actual people. These fictional simplifications get tweaked a little when a model gets badly embarrassed by its predictive failures – but those tweaks are just more auxiliary hypotheses to be tested, not realistic adjustments based on anything we know about humans.

What psychology does teach us is that we are subject to biases in the way we collect and interpret evidence. This might give us a reason to distrust experience. Perhaps the longer someone has lived, the more time they have had for biases to mislead them.

The difficulty is that these reasons for distrusting the experience of the old apply even more strongly to people with advanced qualifications and institutional pulpits. Questions of the kind voters have to consider are almost always much broader in scope than any expert’s sub-field. So in order for us to use their expertise, we must ask those experts for all-round, practical judgments.

These sorts of judgments are where cognitive biases kick in, and they kick in worse for experts than for ordinary people, whose livelihood and social status is independent of their opinions. If, like those in the credentialed professions, your next appointment depends on your reputation, and your reputation is based on what you’ve said in public, then you’d better say the right things. And if you want to be honest, you’d better persuade yourself that what you say is true. And since you’re being asked to make broad, sweeping judgments about broad, sweeping questions, your expertise in your field won’t be able to reign in your biases.

Knowledge is valuable in democracy as a tool for making good decisions. But there are different kinds of knowledge, and different kinds of decisions. Expert knowledge of a technical subject is great for policymakers to use in government departments. But in the polling station, the right tool is the knowledge of human nature which comes only from a life well-lived.

Hugh Burling is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

Enjoyed this article? Subscribe to the Quad. The featured artwork is “La lección de geografía”, by Alfredo Valenzuela Puelma.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s