Thursday, 7 July 2016

Blair, Gove and the experts

A few years ago I went to a workplace training session. The the trainer decided to break the ice with a "joke" which started with a rhetorical question. It went like this:
Q: What is an expert?
A: "X" is an unknown factor and a "spurt" is a drip under pressure.
Because the alleged humour depends on sound, not spelling, it sounds better if you say it, but not much. To this day, I have no idea what it was supposed to mean, although I get the general impression that the trainer wasn't very impressed by experts and might have bonded with Michael “I think people in this country have had enough of experts" Gove.
"If you just stop listening to the so-called experts, you can make everything above average. And you really can do that, if you only wish hard enough, children."

If you're unimpressed by such expert-baiting, you might be tempted to quote Isaac Asimov at this point:
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
On the whole, I think Asimov's right and Gove's wrong. That should be an end to it, except that, like a stopped clock, Gove is - very occasionally - right. On the whole, knowledge is better than ignorance and expertise beats bodging, but experts are wrong just often enough to give Gove's mainly stupid position a tiny grain of truth.

Take medicine. In most cases it makes complete sense to trust your health and life to a qualified medical professional, rather than to some unqualified person you just happen to know. But you can't guarantee that a nurse or doctor will help, rather than harm you. You might be unlucky enough to end up under an over-tired junior doctor who makes a mistake after working a silly-number-of-hours shift. Very occasionally, doctors turn out to be generally incompetent - some do, after all, get struck off from time to time. In an absolute worst case scenario, you might find yourself in the medical care of the next Harold Shipman. It's still overwhelmingly more sensible to consult a medical expert in the case of any non-trivial illness or injury, but even experts are fallible.

And then you might ask yourself "What is an expert anyway?" To stick with medicine, you could entrust your health and wellbeing to a qualified homeopath. In this case, the problem wouldn't be that your designated expert hadn't learned about the subject, or gained a certain level of competence. A homeopath could be completely up to speed with the theory and practice of homeopathy and still be completely useless because homeopathy itself just doesn't work.

Gove is overwhelmingly wrong - on the whole, you should listen to people who probably know what they're talking about. But he's not completely wrong, which is why you can't just reverse his statement and argue that people should always do as experts advise, because even experts make mistakes and some branches of alleged expertise, like homeopathy, turn out to be sheer bullshit. Which brings me to Mary Beard's thoughtful post on the official Iraq post mortem:
But I simply cannot understand how [Tony Blair] can now be saying what he is saying about Iraq. For me, it just won't do to claim that the 'intelligence' misled the government. There were plenty of people saying loudly that the intelligence was not correct: Hans Blix for one and my local scientists for another. But in any case, it is the government's job to look critically at what MI6 and others say... not simply to take it as read. The idea that many people in the country correctly and for good reason distrusted the intelligence, while the government appears to have taken it on trust, is an indictment of our system and how it draws on expertise. 
"Critically" is the key word here, which is probably why she puts it in italics. If you're a Gove-level idiot, being critical of something means just rejecting it. But what it should mean is using your own judgement and knowlege to evalute it, to see if it fits the facts and seems more or less probable.

There's a horrible irony here - if you take Tony Blair's version of events at face value, you'd end up, like Michael Gove, mistrusting experts, because Blair insists that his intentions were honourable and his judgement was fine, but then he went and listened to experts who got it wrong. But that's not the picture I'm seeing here:
  • Judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction - or WMD - were presented with a certainty that was not justified 
  • Intelligence had "not established beyond doubt" that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons 
  • The Joint Intelligence Committee said Iraq has "continued to produce chemical and biological agents" and there had been "recent production". It said Iraq had the means to deliver chemical and biological weapons. But it did not say that Iraq had continued to produce weapons 
  • Policy on the Iraq invasion was made on the basis of flawed intelligence assessments. It was not challenged, and should have been [my italics]
It looks to me as though expert opinions went unchallenged, except where they contained inconvenient elements of nuance and doubt. This wasn't the experts simply getting it wrong, it was the experts presenting provisional and qualified conclusions, based in incomplete evidence. It was politicians who cherry picked the most sensational bits of the evidence in order to produce a PR campaign for a course of action they'd already decided on. And then shifted the blame onto the experts, because power is never having to say you're sorry.

Image credit