Brexit and the ‘Real World Impact’ Debate: Reflections on the Role of Social Sciences

Since becoming Director of the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University in 2017, the UK’s first ever research centre devoted to the study of all things Brexit, I have found it challenging to keep my academic hat of “objective aloofness” on.

After all, Brexit strikes to the heart of the future trajectory of the UK’s economic and social relationship to Europe and the rest of the world.

And of course, we cannot forget the comment by Michael Gove during the lead-up to the referendum in June 2016 about how he thought the country had “had enough of experts”.

Such comments might seem throw-away at the time, but they have a habit of staying around and haunting any subsequent discourse on the matter.

This is despite the fact that the “predictions” that the UK would “hold all the cards” in negotiating with the EU put forward by Gove and his contemporaries in 2016 have not come to pass and that the UK has since had to seek extensions to its stated withdrawal date of March 29th 2019.

Even now, nearly three years after the June 23rd 2016 referendum, it appears we are no closer to getting any clarity on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Remain, leave with a deal or leave with no deal are all still on the table.

However, to revisit Gove’s statement on “experts”, I say this because they strike right at the heart of the role of the academic in matters relating to economic and social issues.

In other words, to what extent do our values impact on our judgments and hence “lines of argument” in conducting academic research?

For academics, Brexit (for whom the vast majority appear to have voted against[1]) brings up difficult issues in terms of whether one’s role is merely to observe and comment on the process as it unfolds, or to explicitly argue for or against.

As such, their viewpoints (or underlying values, the study of which is referred to as axiology) pierce right to the heart of to what extent academic judgments in the social sciences can ever be value-free? Of course, for Mr. Gove to utter his comment on “experts” only exposed his own value-laden judgments, but that is beside the point.

What the “debate” on “experts” has highlighted is questions of trust by the wider public in “facts” and “arguments” put forward to analyse the impact of Brexit in a so-called “post-truth” world where opposing views are labelled by protagonists as “fake news”.

The current climate is also characterised by a sham debate whereby hate groups seek to use the discourse of democracy and “freedom of speech” to canvass views that would ordinarily be regarded as “racist” but are put forward as “alternative opinions”.

Such groups typically use the language of attacking what they state as “political correctness” to deflect criticism of their own (lack of evidence-based) opinions by trying to dismiss their interlocutors as would-be Thought Police.

For me, it comes down to basic integrity in calling things as I see them, and using evidence to shape and inform my views, even if this challenges any preconceived notions on my part.

Or as Howard Becker put it in 1967 (“Whose side are we on?”) that “[o]ur problem is to make sure that, whatever point of view we take, our research meets the standards of good scientific work, that our unavoidable sympathies do not render our results invalid.”[2]

This does indeed rely on a modicum of trust that data in the public domain is indeed “factual” and not just “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

However, to abandon this trust is to put us back into a whirlwind where basic prejudices and unfounded beliefs could be passed off as “reasonable” because they are derived from the premise that the only knowledge deemed valuable would be that filtered through the lens of one’s own direct experience (e.g., that the world is flat because when I look at the horizon it is flat).

In this context, academics have a number of techniques whereby they seek to assess the validity and reliability of their findings; not least through submitting their work to critical review as part of the process of publication. They can also make their data available to others as such to see whether their findings are reproducible.

However, historically, the task of explaining ideas to the lay person has been somewhat lacking. With notable exceptions, academics could be criticised for only talking to each other rather than engaging with the wider public.

The shift towards demonstrating research “impact” is in part a response to these criticisms, and I would argue absolutely necessary when the objectivity and relevance of academic work has come under sustained attack from various quarters in a like not seen in liberal democracies since the 1930s.

In a climate where facts are denigrated and trust in public institutions such as universities is eroded, thoughts that “outrage one’s conscience”, as George Orwell in his famous 1945 essay, “The Prevention of Literature”[3] once characterised a heretic as rebelling against, could become legitimate, and thus lead to a situation where perversions of thought become part of the mainstream.

It is thus the job of the academic, he or she being paid to sift “fact” from opinion, to guard against this, and to engage with the wider layperson to explain ideas clearly and cogently.


[1] For example, see a YouGov poll of academic staff, in which 81% of respondents voted “Remain”. Accessed at https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/8436/YouGov-Brexit-HE-bill-survey/pdf/YouGov_survey_Brexit_HE_Bill.pdf

[2] https://www.scribd.com/document/246422228/Howard-Becker-Whose-Side-Are-We-On

[3] http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/prevention/english/e_plit

Article Details
Author:

Professor Alex De Ruyter,
Director, Centre for Brexit Studies, Birmingham City University

Date Published:

April 17th, 2019

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