Nervous States

Improving public understanding of anti-expert politics.

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Research on the political uses of economics and statistics has benefitted policy-influencers, political analysts and public commentators by enabling them to better understand the power, and limits, of expertise in today’s world.

Professor Will Davies’ critically acclaimed book, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World (2018), has raised the public’s awareness of the populist challenge to expertise and stimulated debate about the weakening of economists’ and statisticians’ influence.

Davies’ first book, The Limits of Neoliberalism (2014) looked at how economic evidence is deployed by policy-makers to authorise different forms of regulations. Two ESRC-funded research projects followed, exploring how a statistical view of the world comes under strain and weakens the capacity of official economic facts to settle political disputes.

One of these projects was a response to a wave of Home Office immigration campaigns with strong emotional messaging intended to communicate ‘toughness’ and spread fear. Davies’ interviews with Home Office officials and other immigration policy advisors revealed that immigration was a topic where politicians had become wary of quantitative expertise, for fear that statistics could inflame controversies rather than alleviate them.

With Nervous States Davies sought to explain recent political upheavals such as Brexit in terms of a long-term decline of objective statistical accounts of society, and the rise of more emotionally-sensitive, real-time data that can be used as a tool of influence. The book and its related newspaper articles, podcasts and events made a vital contribution to public awareness of populism and the idea of a post-truth era.

Davies’ research has informed national newspaper columnists’ understanding of anti-expert politics, while influencing the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s communication and engagement strategy, analysts at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank; and the development of the Enlightenment 2.0 project run by the EU Science Hub.

The idea behind Nervous States (that we are relying increasingly on feeling rather than fact) as well as Davies’s London Review of Books article Weaponising paperwork, inspired artist Richard Whitby’s work, The Lost Ones, an award-winning installation at the Jerwood Space, London.

This research was submitted for REF 2021.