No, Not All Opinions Are Equal—We Need Elites with Expert Knowledge

Evolutionary Biologist and Science Educator
You want expert pilots to fly your planes, top doctors to perform your surgeries, the finest musicians in your orchestra, and for the same reason, you should want experts leading the nation, says Richard Dawkins. There has been a backlash against expert knowledge amid the rising wave of populist politics, but Dawkins doesn't think elitism is the dirty word that people are implying. He contends that not all opinions are equal, and that the leaders of the UK were profoundly misguided in allowing a referendum on Brexit to occur. No average citizen—not even Dawkins himself—was fit to decide on whether to leave a federation of states with so much economic and political importance, and decades of complex history attached to it. And much like the 2016 US presidential election, it was a political movement fueled by misinformation. A representative democracy is one thing, where citizens entrust experts to make national and local decisions, but a referendum democracy seems to Dawkins extremely ill-advised, particularly given that the top Google search in the UK the day after the Brexit vote was 'What is the European Union?'. Dawkins isn't shy: he's an elitist, but a rational one. He affirms he would never want a world where your IQ determines how many votes you get, but he sees the clear benefit of making political decisions based on knowledge rather than emotion or misinformation, deliberate or otherwise. Richard Dawkins' newest book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.

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TRANSCRIPT

Richard Dawkins: Among the reasons that I heard for people wanting to vote for Brexit were, 'Well, it’s nice to have a change,' and, 'Well, I preferred the old blue passport to the European purple passport.' These are the kinds of reasons people were giving for voting for Brexit. The day after the referendum, the most Goggled question in Britain was: What is the European Union? 

During the Brexit campaign one of the leading politicians favoring Brexit, Michael Gove, said to the British people, “You are the experts. Don’t trust experts, you are the expert now.” So ordinary people who have absolutely no knowledge of economics or politics or history decided on a 50 percent majority to vote to Britain out of the European market, out of the European community, which was a very, very complicated, detailed, ramified structure that has been built up over decades. And so in one stroke the British people, who had no knowledge, no expertise, were given the opportunity by a reckless David Cameron to vote us out and they did, by a very narrow margin. This cult of everybody being an expert, all opinions being equally valid is, I think, dangerous and most unfortunate. Of course I have been accused of being an elitist because of this. And yes, when you’re about to have an operation you want an elite surgeon to cut you open, you want an elite anesthetist to put you under. When you’re about to fly you want an elite pilot to fly you. When you’re about to leave a federation of states, which has been built up over decades, you want an elite economist or politician or historian to advise you on it. You don’t want to take the view of just any old man in the street or woman in the street.

I pronounce myself profoundly ill-equipped to vote on the referendum about Brexit. I was ill-equipped and so was the vast majority of the British people ill-equipped. In that sense I think that elitist should stop being a dirty word and we should start to respect elites in whatever field we’re talking about. We want elite musicians to play in our orchestras, et cetera. 

I think it’s bad enough to ask non-experts like me to vote in direct referendums, but when we are also being fed false information, or it’s deliberately false information. The Trump administration is actually lying every day and more or less proud of it. In Britain the Brexit campaign had a bus—you may have read about this—they had a bus which had a great big slogan on the side, which said that every day or every week I think it was, some gigantic sum was being paid to the European Union, which if we left Europe would be available for the national health. Now that was an admitted lie, that’s quite simply false, and many people were probably swayed by that consideration to vote to leave the European Union.

So no, I do think we need to stick to democracy as it is, but I think it’s a representative democracy that we have. In Britain we have a parliamentary democracy, normally we don’t vote on actual issues we vote members of Parliament. Members of Parliament then go to the House of Commons and then they vote on our behalf. And we have cabinet government where the cabinet gets advice from civil servants who are expert. So no I’m not advocating that people with PhDs should get two votes or anything like that; I don’t want to be elitist to quite that extent. So let’s go for representative democracy but not referendum democracy. I think it’s worth adding that the precedent for not everybody having the same weighted vote is already well-established in the United States. When you think about voting for the United States Senate, where every state gets two senators. What that means is that a citizen of Wyoming has, I think, the equivalent of 60 votes compared to a citizen of California because if you look at the actual relative population sizes of Wyoming and California. So in a way that pass has already been sold, that we already see gross inequality. I mean sixtyfold inequalities, and the Senate, of course, is very important because the Senate does not only take hugely important decisions but also ratifies presidential nominees for the Supreme Court and that could be the most important single thing that a president ever does, is appoint members to the Supreme Court because they go on and on for decades, in some cases, after the president is gone.