Feature Interview: Dame Minouche Shafik

For our issue 13.2 on International Relations in a Post-Factual World,
STAIR Theme Editors Ivo Bantel, Anna Klose, and Katherine T.
Tyson
, sat down with the economist and current Director of the
London School of Economics (LSE), Dame Minouche Shafik. Their
conversation focuses on the role of experts in a world increasingly
structured by a lack of trust towards them. Looking towards the
future, Dame Shafik argues that there has to be a short-term,
and a long-term, solution to the rise of post-truth politics. In the
short-term, we need to get public discourse to a better place. In
the long-term, we have to understand the underlying issues of why
people are dissatisfied and how experts lost credibility.
 

An economist by training, Dame Shafik has spent most of her
career straddling the worlds of public policy and academia. Her
early research focused on the determinants of investment, the
environment and economic growth, the economies of the Middle
East and North Africa, and trade and migration. During her 15 years
at the World Bank, she became the youngest vice-president in the
organization's history at age 36. She returned to the UK in 2004
and rose to become the Permanent Secretary at the Department
of International Development. Dame Shafik subsequently joined
the International Monetary Fund in 2011 as Deputy Managing
Editor. From 2014-2017, she was Deputy Governor of the Bank
of England and sat on all of the Bank's major policy committees.
Dame Shafik took up the post of Director of the LSE in September
2017.

 

STAIR: Thank you for having us, Dame Shafik. We are very glad to be able to hold this interview with you. Due to your extensive experience as an expert advising in international institutions and now being the Director of the London School of Economics (LSE), you can provide us with some unique insights on the post-truth politics debate. What role do you believe experts play in international relations today, and how have we got to where we are today?

DS: In all the organizations I've worked for, experts have played a very critical role. They are there to pull together the facts, to synthesize knowledge, and to provide the best advice based on the current academic literature to inform decision-making. In all the organizations I have worked in there have also been very clear boundaries between what experts are supposed to do and what political actors are meant to do. In the civil service the rule of thumb is that civil servants advise and Ministers decide. At the World Bank and at the IMF, the expert staff are international civil servants and their job is to provide independent, rigorous advice based on global evidence. Their recommendations then go to a board consisting of political representatives from the 188 countries that were members of those organizations.  They did not always have to follow expert opinion because their job was to make a political judgement, but they had to at least listen to the expert opinion. To me, that distinction between the role of experts and the role of politicians is vital for making good policy that is both informed by evidence, but is at the same time democratically legitimate.

Where it often has gone wrong is when those boundaries got blurred: when experts tried to be politicians, and when politicians tried to be experts. There has been more blurring in recent years for a variety of reasons.

 

STAIR: What impact did this blurring of boundaries have on the relationship between experts and the public?

DS: It had a considerable impact: When experts try to behave like politicians, they undermine their own credibility since they are then seen to have an agenda as opposed to being objective and independent. However, experts rarely all agree on issues. In most fields, there are large areas with consensus among experts, but there are also areas of diverging views. Those divisions exist because people have analysed evidence and have come to different conclusions. It is not true that good academics do not have their own prejudices and biases, but allowing the blurring between being a politician and an expert has undermined credibility.

 

STAIR: Why do you think that post truth politics are on the rise, and are there specific technological or cultural roots that you see facilitating them?

DS: There have always been elements of post truth politics in history, so is not a completely new phenomenon. Yet today we witness this on a different scale due to social media and technology, and the degree to which it can spread globally. In the past, people had one local newspaper, and that's all they read. One could argue that currently, with the internet, people have access to a much wider array of information. Therefore, I don't think access to information is the issue. The problem is the algorithmic funnelling of people to information that confirms their own prejudices, and the manipulation of that information by vested interests. While this is not entirely new, this is again enabled by technology on a different scale than before.

 

STAIR: With that asymmetric information contributing to “echo-chambers,” what prospects do you see for liberal democracies with rising post-truth politics?

DS: Post-truth politics is a huge challenge for democracy. Most people increasingly get their news from social media platforms and the internet in general. In order to protect democracy, I expect attempts to regulate the way social media and platforms operate. One step in that direction is making online platforms take responsibility for the information they publish, just like more conventional publishers. Whether that happens through self-regulation or legal regulation is still uncertain, but the status quo is not tenable. I am convinced that democracies cannot tolerate the current degree of risk and manipulation of the democratic process. Some of the platforms have understood this, and they are exploring different solutions, which is a good start.

 

As an example, consider fact checkers. Fact checking is similar to peer review in academia—an independent person checks to make sure that your data is good, your analysis is correct. However, while fact checking is a step in the right direction, the scale of the problem is very difficult to manage: fact checkers can't keep up with the volume of information out there. Another development is that you can now choose to be exposed to alternative views on Facebook, so that you're not channelled to those that coincide with yours, which is great and also part of the solution. Nevertheless, I suspect more will have to happen to protect the democratic process, and this issue will become particularly acute around elections in the future.

 

STAIR: Is there a problem with the way experts currently address the public and communicate their findings?

DS: Yes, there is a problem with the way experts communicate. Expertise is often defined around exclusion: to prove that you are an expert, you must have a certain degree or qualification, publish in certain kinds of journals, or sometimes have to be a member of a particular society or professional body. Thus, proving and earning your expertise is about excluding others. A major part of this is also using language that is exclusive to your discipline and that only other experts can understand. Of course, this adds further barriers for the public at large.

Thus, it is vital that experts  better engage with the public and explain what they do. There are great examples of how this has been done. For example, a study at the Bank of England highlighted how Dr. Seuss books are accessible to a wide audience because of their very low linguistic complexity—his objective was to encourage children to read. By contrast, Bank of England reports required an education of at least 13 years, which meant that more than half of the UK population could not understand our publications. If you are producing documents that are meant for public consumption, you must do a better job at using clear and simple language. By this, I do not mean dumbing it down. On the contrary, people who really know what they are talking about can explain things in very simple language.

Experts can also work with good storytellers who can help provide a bridge between experts and the public. For example, consider the contribution David Attenborough has made to environmental awareness. He has translated clear, rigorous thinking around the environment and the natural world, and has made it accessible to millions and millions of people.

 

STAIR: In your 2017 interview at the Hay Festival, you highlighted the difference between information and knowledge as crucial. Could you just perhaps elaborate a bit more on this distinction for us, and how it relates to politics as well?

DS: We are in an era of infinite information, yet knowledge is more elusive than ever. The challenge is sifting, sorting and digesting through tons of information, which can be difficult and time consuming. We all need better intermediaries who can do this for us. That is where experts need to find their niche, if they are to be seen as trustworthy. We must give people better tools to help them differentiate between genuine experts and charlatans. Consider the example of think tanks that digest information and put it in the public domain. Think tanks should be forced to publish who funds them, so that at least the public knows who is paying for these views. We need transparency, so that citizens can make informed judgments about who to trust and whose views to accept as credible.

 

STAIR: Moving on to discuss the spread of post-truth politics and responses to it: most of the debate on post-truth politics is centred on the western world, or at least the OECD. How do you think the post-truth movement has affected the global south?

DS: This is an interesting question. I don't know the answer, and I do not want to be an expert pretending to know what I do not know. I can think of examples, however, such as the Arab Spring, where social media played a big role in galvanizing and organizing, but there were also elements of post-truth: false rumours were spread, spurred by different political interests.

 

STAIR: With that example, would you say there could be a correlation of the proliferation of technologies with the rise of post-truth?

DS: We may have seen more cases of post truth-politics recently in advanced countries because internet access is greater, and social media platforms have higher penetration rates. However, access to technology is so widespread now, and I have no reason to believe that over time it would be that different in other countries.  

 

STAIR: How has the democratization of knowledge with the internet changed our views of experts?

DS: I sometimes use the example of restaurant reviews to illustrate this. In the past, you would buy a book by a restaurant critic to choose where to eat. Today, you can go on TripAdvisor and read the restaurant reviews of thousands of your peers, and then aggregate those to decide what restaurant to pick. The democratization of knowledge means you do not need to listen to one expert who spent his or her life eating at good restaurants, but you can consult the views of thousands of people. For many, this is also seen as a more legitimate, reliable source of knowledge than the expert alone. I think this is a very big change, enabled by social media and the internet, but it has also changed the way people see experts: the wisdom of crowds is seen as just as credible as someone who has spent their life studying a particular issue.

 

STAIR: Looking into the future, how can experts still carve out a space for themselves with the seeming “oversupply” of facts?

DS: Experts need to be the voice of rigour and reason in the cacophony. They need to be humble about how much they know and resist media pressure to be simplistic and aim for headlines that are attention-grabbing but may be inaccurate. Their role is to be independent and to be conscious that they are speaking in the name of their expertise, rather than in the interest of any particular group or body or institution. They also need—and this is a particularly important role for universities—to be open about the possibility of different viewpoints on a given issue, and that they can all have legitimacy as long as they come to different judgements based on evidence and rigorous analysis. Being independent, humble, and being open to evidence-based debate is the niche that experts need to occupy.

 

STAIR: What do you think of the idea that the current post-factual backlash is a reaction to the idea of “no alternative” that has been used by some policy circles to justify policies that have hurt many poor and disenfranchised?

DS: This is an example of a case when, as an expert, you have to be frank that in most policy areas, there is always an alternative. The alternatives just have different costs and benefits. So, for politics this means there are genuine choices to be made. The idea of “no alternative” is just not true. And presenting evidence of a policy alternative can be a valuable part of the policy-making process. It may make messages more complicated but, in the long run, it is better for experts to be honest that there are trade-offs in any set of policies. When I said that part of the problem is the blurring of boundaries between experts and politicians, experts arguing that there is no alternative and only one answer to a problem is an example of this. That is a very dangerous approach since, in the end, you undermine credibility of expertise by being too simplistic.

 

STAIR: With that in mind, what role do you think experts will play in international politics following the post-truth politics? Not as politicians but needing to work with media to be able to get their information out there so it can be disseminated for the general public. How do you specifically envision that to happen in any given that academia is becoming increasingly specialised?

DS: Intermediaries are crucial, especially the responsible media that reflect different points of view, those that collect facts and research. We also need to educate people to make them better consumers of expert opinion. There is a very strong correlation between levels of education and engagement with post-truth politics. So both raising education levels in general, but also raising digital education and media awareness is necessary. A recent study with young people at various levels of education in the United States found that, when shown sponsored content, most of them were unable to see that the content was produced by a lobbying group, or to differentiate between a news story and an advertisement.  Better education can help empower people to make better judgements about the information they are getting.

 

STAIR: What role specifically should experts play outside of the media and the public with politicians sometimes deriding expert opinion?

DS: People who are genuine experts live and die on the integrity of their reputation. Experts and universities need to do what they have been traditionally doing even more rigorously: maintain academic standards, maintain rigorous peer review, insist on the transparency of data, identify any conflicts of interest. These are core principles of academic life, and are more important now than ever before.

 

STAIR: We now turn to specific recent examples, starting with Brexit. What is your view on Brexit in the context of post-truth politics?

DS: There was a lot of misinformation during the referendum. The best example is the famous NHS number of £350 million a week being paid to the EU that could go to the NHS. The head of the Office of National Statistics publicly refuted that number. And while this surely should have carried weight, the number was in the public domain, and so widely quoted that it had become accepted as fact. The lesson is that you must get out there very quickly to challenge false information. The Brexit referendum was not the finest hour for UK public debate. There was exaggeration taking place on all sides.

 

STAIR: Moving on to the EU, much of the anti-expert discussion in Europe is focused on the EU and so-called “technocrats” in Brussels. Does the push-back against Brussels reflect the failure of the EU to effectively communicate its role, or is there actually some truth to some of the critiques against technocrats?

DS: Part of it is the so-called democratic deficit problem, where people feel very disconnected from European institutions. Part of it is because politicians themselves have created the perception of the Eurocrats in Brussels imposing policies upon us. That is a very unhealthy dynamic. There have been many attempts to try close the democratic deficit by giving more power to the European Parliament, for example, but that has not created confidence among most citizens. I do think that Europe needs to think hard about how to enhance the democratic credibility of the European Union.

 

STAIR: The 2008 Financial Crisis has come up again and again as being the start of the backlash against experts. With the economics discipline having been in turmoil since the crisis, what is at stake here?

 

DS: I do not think the real issue at stake is that economists failed to predict the 2008 Financial Crisis.  Predicting the future is a very difficult business. Instead, what was really problematic is this: for many years much of the economics profession held the view that the policies in place pre-crisis would deliver prosperity and economic stability. However, the crisis revealed deep flaws in the way we regulated our financial system and in how the benefits of greater prosperity were being shared.

 

STAIR: In the last decade, has the elite managed to gain back some of the trust that was lost, or has the last decade worsened perceptions of the failure of the system as a whole?

DS: The jury is still out. In areas like financial regulation, we have gone some way to learning the lessons and putting in place better policies, although there is constant pressure from vested interests to reverse those.  However, we have yet to address the fundamental issues around what technology and globalisation have done to income distribution and the fear that many are being left behind. Those questions are still to be answered, and it is particularly worrying because we know more change is coming—automation will further disrupt labour markets, ageing populations will have to work for much longer in jobs that have not yet been invented. We also know that most countries have limited fiscal space to invest in the education and infrastructure to help people adjust to this new world. How we make our economic system work in a way that benefits everyone is still an open question.

 

STAIR: Thank you very much for the interview. Do you have any concluding remarks?

DS: There must be a short-term and a long-term solution to the rise of post-truth politics.  In the short term, we need to get public discourse to a better place by challenging falsehoods, regulating platforms, and giving people tools to differentiate fact from fiction. In the long-term, we need to understand why people are disgruntled and divided. At the LSE, we are trying to tackle this agenda under the banner of “Beveridge 2.0.” Seventy-five years ago, one of my predecessors as Director of LSE, William Beveridge, tackled the “five giants” of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness and created the modern welfare state.  Those giants have their modern day equivalents – poverty and inequality, health, education, urbanisation, and unemployment – but with very different implications in an era dominated by the digital revolution and globalisation. Over the course of this year, all of us at LSE will try to find answers to these challenges, and find ways to engage the public in that process as our contribution to making the world a better place.