Trump BrexitShaoni Bhattacharya AHHELogo-e1420559902593

This year has seen the anti-expert backlash in full swing. First there was the UK referendum’s vote for leaving the European Union, a Brexit, against much expert advice, and then there was the unexpected election of Donald Trump as the next US President. In both instances, professional polls were proved wrong.

For many in the academic community – be it science, humanities or arts – these seismic political ructions, backed by a large proportion of the public, seem hard to understand in the context of expert advice that warned against them.

The UK is currently in the throes of Brexit anxiety – Brexit may mean Brexit according to our politicians – but what exactly does that mean? And how will the will of the people be carried out?

As well as political consequences, Brexit has had deep social and economic ramifications. And the world is waiting to see what turmoil a Trump Presidency will likewise bring. With both events, stock markets tumbled the world over and planning for the future, whether at national or individual level has become harder overnight.

For the academic community – international and outward-looking, the implications may be worrying especially when it comes to the movement of talent across the globe. The science journal Nature’s news site noted that researchers are more than concerned about their academic positions and funding, with some foreign academics in the US considering returning to their home countries. If this is the case in higher education in STEM subjects, one can only speculate the situation that arts and humanities researchers find themselves in. And as racist incidents have increased after both events, some academics have found themselves at the receiving end of abuse in the UK.

In the wake of the referendum, the UK’s Russell Group of universities put out a statement to condemn xenophobic incidents and reassure the academic community:

“Now more than ever we should ensure our campuses are places where diversity is welcomed, cherished and respected,” said Professor Sir David Greenaway, at the University of Nottingham, and Chair of the Russell Group, and Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General and Chief Executive of the university group.

So why did the public in both countries vote the way they did? Is it down to the disenfranchised protesting at neglect from successive governments? It’s hard to understand in the UK, when Brexit will leave the average household £4,300 worse off a year by 2030 and every year thereafter. It’s difficult to see how Brexit will make already impoverished groups any better off – with fewer jobs in a falling economy, Brexit is likely to hurt the poorest most.

And how does Trump, the billionaire in the gilded Trump Tower, strike a chord with the ordinary, working man that he professes to represent? Harness people’s emotions, stir up their deepest fears. That’s how. Our brain neurology responds best to emotive pleas, not cold, hard facts. This is where the experts are getting it wrong. To reach people, to disseminate research and expert advice based on it, academics need to engage their passion.

That is at least, the message I learnt from a recently published book, Denying to the Grave: Why we ignore the facts that will save us by daughter and father duo, Sara and Jack Gorman. The focus of this book was not politics, but health. Why don’t we look after ourselves the way we should, or carry on with negative health behaviours in the face of good scientific evidence? Given Brexit could be the UK’s ultimate act of self-harm: might there be answers here too?

The book’s answers were complex but simple too – and much of it comes down to our basic evolutionary hardwiring. Charismatic leaders, as some might say Trump is, know how to tap into the primeval human mind. An emotive message switches on brain pathways that are hard to reverse with straightforward facts later. And us humans have a strong “confirmation bias”; that is, we don’t like changing our minds once made up. Add to that the power of groups – being persuaded that you are a member of any type of group – can cloud individual judgment, however smart you are, and it’s hard to overturn emotionally-seeded opinions.

So what next? 2017 is an unknown and unpredictable prospect. Experts, academics and higher education in general may need to fight their corner harder not to lose the gains made in terms of freedom of movement and valuing diversity. They might do well to employ some of the tactics (in a positive way) used by negative campaigns – that is, to use the fruits of higher education research and reach out to the public’s psyche, not just its reason.

Are you feeling concerned by the outcomes of the recent election in the US, and Brexit in the UK?

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