Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 7 April 2018

How do you access unbiased expertise: follow the money?

Anyone can claim to be an expert nowadays. How do we tell real experts from fake experts, and what does that even mean? And even with real experts, how do we tell which are the ones we can trust and which are telling you what they are paid to tell you? These are big questions, but I want to look at what seems like an increasingly popular method of judging whether expertise is biased, and that is to look at who funds the experts.

There are clearly occasions when this method makes sense. A medic who promotes a drug who receives income from the company that produces the drug, for example. You would also be right to be suspicious about any think tank that is not transparent about the sources of its funding, such as Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Policy Studies, Centre for Social Justice, Civitas, Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange or the TaxPayers’ Alliance. It is not clear to me why the broadcast media gives a platform to think tanks that do not disclose who funds them.

However when various academics and research institutions produced analysis suggesting negative long term effects from Brexit, some suggested that we should treat this finding with suspicion because they received EU research funds. I have also seen the IFS described as tainted by the fact that it receives some corporate income. In fact the IFS can be accused of being in hoc to all kinds of vested interests. When it published a report estimating that Brexit could lead to a increased budget deficit of £20-40bn, Vote Leave dismissed the IFS as a “paid-up propaganda arm of the European commission” because it received funding from the European Research Council (ERC). But it actually receives more funds from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which is funded by the UK government, so by the same logic it is a ‘paid up propaganda arm’ of the UK government.

The IFS example shows the danger of taking a naive approach to linking funding to positions taken. The idea that funding from the ERC or ESRC should influence the position taken by the IFS is absurd. Government research funding is dispersed through organisations like the ESRC in part to ensure that money is given to researchers on their merits (as judged by other academics) rather than because researchers might please the current government. Because the IFS is essentially an academic research institute there is no way that who funds any research (directly or indirectly) would influence the outcome of that research. If that started happening, the IFS would begin to lose its academic reputation and therefore its core funding from the ESRC.

This point is also true of academia as a whole. However being part of academia or a professional body does not preclude a pecuniary influence on any particular academic or groups of academic’s opinions, as our example of a medic funded by a drug company illustrates. When it comes to economics an even greater problem than money may be ideological or political bias. That means, unfortunately, that you cannot rely on every academic economist to give you a reasonable idea of where the consensus or plurality of opinion lies. And you cannot rely on finding some monetary link to indicate how much you can trust a particular academic economist.

So how do the public tell when views from economists can be trusted as genuine results of expertise and research untainted by bias due to money or ideology? It is a question that is increasingly asked, but I remain surprised that more people do not point to an obvious answer.

The solution to this problem is to use polls of experts to find out if a consensus on an issue exists. There are already some regular polls of selected academic economists (interest declaration: I am part of the CFM surveys of macroeconomists). Here is the latest IGM poll showing that not a single one of the 40+ panel members think imposing new US tariffs on steel and aluminum will improve Americans’ welfare. These polls are one reason I can claim that most economists do not support austerity. (Guess who was the only IGM panel member that did not think the Obama stimulus reduced unemployment.)

Invaluable though these polls are, they are selective, and a journalist or member of the public cannot be sure that the selection method did not bias the result. I have argued in the past that it would be in the profession’s interest for professional national bodies like the Royal Economics Society (RES) or AEA (American Economics Association) to conduct polls of its own members themselves. The pre-referendum Brexit poll is an excellent example of what could be done, but it was commissioned by the Observer newspaper and not the RES. I remain unclear whether this thought has occurred to either institution, and if it has why it has not led to action. Until it is done, the absence of such polls as a resource means academics cannot really complain when individual overworked journalists take insufficient account of true expertise. [1]

[1] An important caveat here. The existence of such polls is a necessary but not sufficient condition for journalists to acknowledge expertise: see the BBC's treatment of Patrick Minford's Brexit analysis, and ignoring the polls that already exist on issues like austerity and Brexit.  


  1. Whilst your suggestions are very sensible in their own terms, and certainly an improvement on what we see now,they miss out some other considerable factors.

    Within the context of Brexit it is implicit in your argument that the economics is important and even decisive but, if you look at what "ordinary" people have to say on the matter it is pretty clear that with many this is not the case. So the question is not simply how you can express a consensus on such an issue as Brexit sensibly and remove bias but what weighting should be given to expert opinion, because "expert" means knowledge of a "particular" subject and not the whole field of what may be considered.

    These things are still more slippery than you imply because, although you have indicated that you consider Brexit to be an economic issue many will disagree.

  2. Given that no expert can be entirely trusted, the only solution is to think for yourself. Or as J.P.Sartre put it, “Man is condemned to freedom".....:-)

  3. "First, Patrick Minford .... is a macroeconomist, who in his younger, less obviously political, days served as something of a role model for me. "

    Minford's work is and always was, highly political. His Liverpool model modelled the rational expectations/efficient market theories of Sargent et al - this is free market ideology on steroids. This stuff (which is still at the core of New 'Keynesian' models and marked a regressive return to pre-true-Keynesian macro-economics) has served the Thatcher and neo-liberal governments very well.


  4. Is Harvard known to have a right-leaning bias, as the only negative respondent in your link? As a Brit with no academic expertise on economics, I've always known Harvard as a US university of high repute, much like Oxford or Cambridge here.

  5. In other fields the fact-based practitioners have successfully separated themselves from the charlatans by changing the name of their practice (e.g. from alchemy to chemistry, astrology to astronomy). However, this success was based in large part on their ability to demonstrate reproducible practical results. Maybe "respectable" macroeconomics hasn't quite achieved that yet?

    Another problem for macro not shared by, for instance, early chemistry is that its "rational" results call for specific policies for which there will be winners and losers, and potential losers therefore have a strong interest in actively debasing any institution which purports to represent rational economics. I'm not saying the task is impossible but I think you are underestimating the difficulty.

  6. Another way would be for economists to write a synthesis report of what we understand and do not understand yet about (macro-)economics.

    That allows for more subtle answers than a questionnaire and everyone would be working on their area of expertise. It works like a charm in climatology: IPCC.


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