Nobel winner: Attack on experts 'undermines science'

By Ian Katz & Warwick Harrington
Editor, BBC Newsnight

  • Published
Michael Gove and his wife Sarah Vine leave the polling station on the day of the EU referendumImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Michael Gove was one of the leading Vote Leave figures

One of the UK's leading scientists says Michael Gove's attack on experts during the EU referendum risked undermining science and scientific evidence.

Nobel prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse told BBC Newsnight experts "are being derided and pushed back".

Mr Gove says he had economists mostly in mind when he said "people in this country have had enough of experts".

But he admitted some people may have felt "licensed" by his remarks to challenge all forms of expertise.

Mr Gove made the controversial remarks in an interview with Sky's Faisal Islam three weeks before last year's EU referendum.

Michael Gove was justice secretary at the time and a leading figure in the Vote Leave campaign.

Critics claimed Mr Gove was whipping up an anti-intellectual mood with parallels to Donald Trump's assault on media and other sources of information.

Media caption,

Experts "are being derided and pushed back" argues Sir Paul Nurse

Mr Gove said his remarks were taken out of context because Mr Islam interrupted him before he was able to clarify that he was referring to "organizations with acronyms who had got things wrong in the past".

He told Newsnight he had failed to express himself more carefully because it was "a high profile, high intensity, high tension, high nervousness, encounter".

He insisted he did not regret using the word "expert" but added: "One of the things that is occasionally irritating is that people assume that what I was saying was a blanket rejection of facts, evidence, rigour - when in fact what I was trying to do was to say look let's simply not take arguments at face value, just because someone works for a prestigious organisation."

He conceded that some people may have felt encouraged by his comments to cast doubt on all forms of expertise. "It may be that there are some people out there who think that that I'm giving them licence to operate in that way. Who's to say?"

Media caption,

Michael Gove says his remarks on experts were taken out of context

He added: "I would hope that people looking at my career would say whatever that phrase may have encouraged or licensed, actually the man uttering it was someone who believed in more knowledge and more critical thinking - not less."

But Sir Paul, a former president of Britain's top scientific body, the Royal Society, said even if Mr Gove had meant to cast doubt primarily on economics, he had been "irresponsible" not to clarify his remarks.

He said the comment "spilled over into all sorts of other areas where experts have an enormous contribution to make to the proper running of society".

"The fact that experts have been derided in this way does have an effect in undermining science and scientific evidence."

Sir Paul said the British public still has high levels of trust in scientists but we are living in a period where "opinion is on the front foot".

"Those who are expert, who have the knowledge, who have the intellectual ability to dissect these difficult problems, are being derided and pushed back," he said.

"My view about this is that it cannot last for very long, because opinion is not built on firm foundations and it rapidly falls apart. And I think we're seeing that already with, for example, Mr Trump.

"Science is built to last. Opinions are not built to last."

Ian Katz was reporting for BBC Newsnight. Watch his full report on experts on the programme at 22:30 on BBC Two - are catch up afterwards on iPlayer.