July 2016 newsletter – The public trusts academic economists but the media are losing interest

Simon Wren-Lewis,1  looks at the declining ability of academic economists to make an impact in important public debates and argues for an urgent collective effort to reverse this trend.

On 18th May IPSOS published a poll that looked at beliefs about Brexit. A clear majority thought the UK would be worse off over the next five years, perhaps because of the reaction of sterling to possible Brexit, and the warning from the Bank of England a week earlier. In contrast, a slight majority thought we would be better off over the next ten to twenty years if we left the EU.

Where did this popular belief that we would be better off in the longer term come from? The Chancellor George Osborne had given considerable publicity to a Treasury study that concluded that each household would be over £4000 worse off each year by 2030. Perhaps voters were naturally suspicious of these estimates, but figures of the same order of magnitude had been produced by researchers at the LSE, OECD and NIESR. However, eight economists calling themselves ‘Economists for Brexit’ supported a study suggesting the UK would be much better off leaving. Most of the tabloid media propagandised for Brexit. With no further guidance, perhaps voters had simply assumed that once again economists were hopelessly divided.

With this in mind, Tony Yates, Paul Levine and I organised a short and simple letter. Those signing it agreed that ‘numbers calculated by the LSE’s Centre for Economic Policy, the OECD and the Treasury describe a plausible range for the scale of [Brexit costs].2 ' With little effort we gained 196 signatures from economists, most of which were UK academics.3  It was published in the Times, with a good write up from them, but the letter was largely ignored by the rest of the media. In contrast, when 300 business leaders backed Brexit in a letter to the Telegraph a few days later, it was covered by the FT, BBC, Sky, the Guardian as well as some of the pro-Brexit newspapers. A week or so later the Guardian published a poll of economists which confirmed an overwhelming consensus that Brexit would harm the economy, but this received almost as little attention in other media as our letter.

The obvious conclusion to draw is that the public are not that interested in what academic economists think, and find the views of business leaders more persuasive. Yet polling evidence suggests exactly the opposite. When asked who they trusted on issues related to the referendum, academics were trusted much more than business leaders, and were trusted almost as much as friends and family.

Nor is it the case that these economic issues were regarded as unimportant by the public. Polling evidence suggested that if voters could be sure there were long term economic costs to Brexit, a significant number would change their mind.

This is not the first time the views of academic economists seem to have been ignored by the media. David Cobham, in an article in this Newsletter noted that some economists had been quite active producing information during the 2015 election, but they too had been largely ignored. I was one of those David mentions. I wrote many blogs and articles about how the dominant meme of the coalition government — that they had to ‘clear up the mess Labour had left’ and that this was the cause of austerity — was simply wrong. John Van Reenen at the Centre for Economic Policy produced similar analysis, but what he wrote also had little impact.

David Cobham suggested three possible explanations. Two were specific to that election, and his third was that faith in economics and economists had been badly hit by the financial crisis. Yet the polling evidence on trust noted above suggests otherwise. (As the poll specifically referred to Brexit, it seems likely responders had academic economists in mind.) What is more there are good, objective reasons why academic economists should be trusted more than others.

A mistake often made here is to ignore the autonomous role of the media in disseminating information. It is wrong to assume that lack of media interest is indicative of a lack of public interest. I fear this treats the media in the same way as many (not all) macroeconomists treated the financial sector before the crisis. The media does not just pass on information: it filters, selects, packages and presents information according to rules and conventions. Indeed economists are beginning to analyse the impact the media has, something media studies departments and other social scientists have done for some time.4

The days when journalists typically had time to research stories in any depth have long gone. They will typically not come to academics for information. Another important change over the last few decades has been the proliferation of think tanks and of City economists who are partly paid to respond quickly to media requests. Some think tanks do a good job of using academic knowledge to inform policy decisions, but others have a clear (and generally right wing) ideological position to promote. City economists are great if you want a story (and it is a story) about day to day currency movements, but their understanding of macroeconomic policy and even financial economics can be pretty weak or idiosyncratic (and tends to have a right wing bias). Academics know this, but a great many journalists do not. The days when being an academic gave the information you had to convey a privileged position are long gone. In addition because think tanks and City economists know how to play the media (it is a key part of their job), their influence often dominates that of academics.

The way the media increasingly treats facts, particular economic facts, should also worry us. Paul Krugman and other US economist bloggers have long complained about a style of reporting where, if a mainstream political party declared that the earth was flat, the media would report this as ‘shape of the earth: views differ’. This style of reporting was particularly evident in the EU referendum campaign, where the £350 million a week figure was reported as ‘contested’, even after the UK Statistics Authority declared it incorrect.

There is a corollary to this style of reporting, which I have called the politicisation of truth. (It could be one aspect of what sociologist Ralph Keyes calls the 'post truth era.') If one political side continuously repeats a statement, and it is not challenged by the other side, then the statement begins to be treated as a fact by the media. The idea that the last Labour government’s fiscal profligacy, rather than the global financial crisis, caused the recession and austerity is an obvious example. But there is another rather closer to home.

After the 1981 Budget 364 economists wrote to the Times voicing their disapproval. (See a recent RES article by Robert Neild and also later responses) It seems to me that any reasonable person should agree that whether it was right or wrong is debatable. Yet as Steve Nickell has noted, the Institute of Economic Affairs has gone to considerable lengths to suggest that the letter was clearly proved wrong by subsequent events. What is more, with the help of sympathetic politicians, they have succeeded, such that a BBC journalist now has no qualms in simply stating that the 364 were wrong. So not only are letters from economists ignored today, but letters from a time when they were not ignored are trashed. 

A typical response within universities to all this is to try and make academics more outward looking and better at dealing with the media. And as David Cobham shows, many academics do put considerable effort into getting their knowledge across. But to imagine that most academics will go further and learn the arts of PR or start cultivating relationships with journalists is naive. Academics will always focus on their own research and the research of others (scholarship), which after all is why their views should be valued in the first place5.

Getting individual economists to be better at PR is not going to solve this problem. To be frank, we will never be as good at managing the media as thinks tanks or City economists, and in the eyes of most journalists we have nothing to compensate for this inadequacy. Economists through organisations like the RES need to do more to get their collective view across. Rather than waiting for a newspaper to organise polls of economists on key issues, why not organise them ourselves? (The CFM survey in the UK, or the IGM survey in the US, are examples of what can be done, but both are selective in those sampled.) Perhaps we need some chairs in the public understanding of social science? There are probably other and better answers than this, but we really need to find them to help improve the public debate on economic issues.


1. Simon Wren-Lewis is Professor of Economic Policy, Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University. He writes the ‘mainly macro’ blog at: https://mainlymacro.blogspot.co.uk/

2. The NIESR analysis was not published at that time.

3. After publication the number signing rose to over 280.

4. For examples of economists work on the media, see Bates medal winner Matthew Gentzkow or the Handbook of Media Economics (North Holland, 2015)

5. Journalists should also worry that the individual academic they talk to may not reflect the consensus.