Brexit and the real world impact debate: some reflections on the role of social sciences

For academics, Brexit 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 it, says Professor Alex De Ruyter, Director of the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University.

Since becoming Director of the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University – 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 will heavily influence 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.

Brexit will heavily influence the future trajectory of the UK’s economic and social relationship to Europe and the rest of the world

And I say this because they strike right at the heart of the role of the academic in matters relating to economic and social issues – that is, to what extent do our values impact on our judgments and hence ‘lines of argument’ in conducting academic research.

For academics, Brexit (which the vast majority of academics 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) are central to the question 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’.

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]

For academics, Brexit brings up difficult issues

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 cast us back into a maelstrom 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 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 once characterised a heretic as rebelling against in his famous 1945 essay, “The Prevention of Literature”[3] – 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 of the Centre for Brexit Studies, Birmingham City University

Date Published:

January 8th, 2018

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