The use of expertise in the Scottish referendum debate: build them up to knock them down?
Photo of Edinburgh, Scotland, with the Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh Castle, and the Scott Monument visible in the skyline.

By Christina Boswell

In a wonderfully perceptive article from 1999, German sociologist Peter Weingart identifies two paradoxes surrounding the use of science in political debate (and we can apply this to expertise more generally). First, late modern societies show an unprecedented dependence on expert knowledge to assess the risks and consequences of political action. Politics becomes ‘scientised’. But at the same time, science has also become politicised, thus undermining the authority of scientific claims in public debate. The second paradox is that rather than leading to the marginalisation of expertise in political debate, political actors continue to rely on it to bolster their claims. They may be sceptical about the validity of research findings; nonetheless, they are committed to the (often ritualistic) deployment of knowledge claims. Science is still considered necessary to underpin rational debate and decision-making.

The first paradox is certainly manifest in the debate on Scottish independence. From the outset, the media have emphasised the importance of impartial, independent, expert advice to guide voting decisions. And political parties have been keen to substantiate their positions with evidence and expertise. Indeed, expert knowledge has been attributed far more weight than is the case in most political campaigns. Throughout much of the campaign, public debate has taken a largely technocratic form, with constant appeals to academics and experts to weigh in with assessments about different post-referendum scenarios. The apparent deference to experts can be partly explained by the high degree of uncertainty in predicting the outcome of a yes vote. And since most of the contention has revolved around what would happen if Scotland were independent, it’s not surprising that expertise is considered especially relevant. Standard elections revolve largely around assessments of the record of incumbents – claims which may be contested, but at least there are multiple and fairly reliable sources of knowledge for making such assessments. By contrast, when predicting the future, the rationalist impulse is to look to more abstract forms of modelling or extrapolation from relevantly similar cases. And such forms of reasoning are, of course, the trademark of academics.

But as we reach the final stages of the campaign, such contributions are turning out to have limited traction or credibility. Lo and behold, the media finds that experts don’t agree in their assessments. The ‘science’ must be flawed. Rival protagonists are exposed to be partisan, or at least their arguments are being mobilised to substantiate partisan views. Either way, science becomes politicised. Expertise become exposed as yet another weapon in the arsenal of politicians and loses its authority.

The interesting feature of this debate, though, is that Weingart’s second paradox is not in evidence, or at least not in this final stage of the campaign. Rather than sustaining the ritual of technocratic contestation, the debate appears to have been increasingly stripped back to its raw, identity-driven essentials. And it begins finally to resemble an authentic debate about self-determination or unity. Of course, rival claims about the economy, health, or pensions are still being asserted and may still influence voting. But what might be seen as the charade of technocratic decision-making has been exposed. Long live the visceral politics of identity and belonging?


Cover Picture: Alex Azabache on Unsplash.