The populist wave of 2016 saw politicians pushing back against experts, both during the Brexit debate and the U.S. presidential campaign. Economists in particular saw their views repudiated as voters and parties turned their backs on many central tenets of mainstream economics, particularly the benefits of free trade.
This backlash against intellectuals poses a question: When should the public place its trust in expert opinion? It might be that we trust experts when they have reached a policy-relevant consensus. For example, support for policies to address climate change is based on a broad consensus among the experts that global warming is the result of greenhouse gas emissions.
Another possibility is that we might trust professional opinion when it is independent of party and ideology. Experts are also citizens, and they may not distinguish between their political views and their expert knowledge when addressing policy questions. If political ideology influences professional opinion, it is unclear that experts have any special claim to the public’s trust. So is the economics profession dominated by consensus or ideology?
One source of data on these questions is the Economic Experts Panel run by the Initiative on Global Markets at the University of Chicago. Since 2011, a small group of economists from elite universities have responded to questions about current policy issues. In a paper published in the American Economic Review, the economists Roger Gordon and Gordon Dahl argued that the panel supported both points: Panelists showed overwhelming consensus, and the remaining disagreements showed no evidence of ideological “polarization.” This result surprised economists like Paul Krugman and Noah Smith accustomed to seeing their field as divided into “factions” or “warring camps.”
As sociologists, my co-authors and I suspected that terms like “faction” and “polarization” do not really capture ideological debates among economists. We used a method better suited to identifying what we call ideological alignment: the intuitive idea that some people are on the far left, some in the middle, others on the moderate right, and so on. We tested this idea in a recently published paper and found that there is more evidence of ideology than previously claimed.