Thursday, January 05, 2017
Why Have People “Had Enough of Experts”?
One of the defining moments of the EU referendum campaign was Michael Gove’s remark – directed at all the professional economists predicting a Brexit vote would produce economic disaster – that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. This is now seen to have initiated a terrible era of “post-truth” politics. For the experts themselves – many of them, my fellow academics – this is deeply disturbing, signalling the inexorable rise of irrational, fact-free political debate. But what people have had enough of is not experts or expertise, per se; rather, it is the automatic, assumed authority that experts wield over non-experts.
The rise of “experts” to positions of authority in public life is intimately connected with the decline in popular political participation over the last few decades. Society has always needed technical experts to provide advice and implement policies, but increasingly “experts” have taken a central place in decision-making itself. A burgeoning array of issues have been removed from the domain of democratic contestation and handed over to unelected technical experts to decide. In many jurisdictions, legal changes have locked in this turn to “evidence-based policymaking”.
The obvious example is the rise of independent central banks. Populated by professional economists, these now control monetary policy – once a matter of intense political contestation between forces favouring inflation control (typically, capital) and those favouring full employment at the expense of some inflation (typically, organised labour).
More generally, the rise of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (“quangos”), judicialised bodies, and various commissions and inquiries since the 1980s marks the depoliticisation of many areas of public policy, and the growing authority of technocrats – people whose power derives not from their popular support but their technical expertise. These technocrats have also started coordinating their work across borders, forming transnational governance networks even more remote from popular democratic control. The European Union is only the most obvious example.
There has always been a strong class basis to this shift. Relocating decision-making from representative bodies to technocratic agencies reduces popular control over policymaking while endowing skilled professionals with unprecedented authority. As David Runciman recently argued, increasing evidence of political division between highly- and poorly-educated citizens reflects this divide, with the authority-wielding professions increasingly confined to an ever-narrowing social elite. The shared social background and values of technocrats and those they often seek to regulate – and the increasingly obvious “revolving door” between them – also helps bias governance outcomes in favour of the already wealthy and powerful, rather than serving the public interest.
In short, there is nothing neutral about the political rise of experts, despite its frequent presentation as such. Part of the backlash against the attack on “experts” is this class seeking to defend its own power and authority. It also reflects a Remainer fantasy that if only the public were more educated, Remain would have won – as if more mind-numbing courses on the institutional structures on the European Union could somehow magically erase all of society’s social, political and economic contradictions and conflicts.
However, this reaction is overblown: it is not the case that ordinary people have lost all faith in experts, nor have they irrationally embraced “post-truth” politics. What they are revolting against is the automatic, assumed authority of experts. Due to the long decline of political contestation, many experts have become far too accustomed to being listened to with extreme deference; they expect their expertise to translate automatically into authority. It is this assumed authority that rankles with the non-expert: the presumption that, simply because someone has a PhD in a given area, no one else is permitted to voice an opinion. The expert does not even have to explain themselves: the mere invocation of their qualifications should apparently suffice to quell all dissent.
Examples of this abound, but one recent case is the widely-reported Twitter spat between UKIP funder Aaron Banks and historian Mary Beard over whether the Roman Empire was “destroyed by immigration”. Beard slapped him down: “you all need to do a bit more reading… Facts guys! … you guys don’t know Roman history… this might be a subject on which to listen to experts!” Banks defended his view, and was quickly vilified for trying to “mansplain” Rome to the noted female classicist. But his most notable comment was: “Where’s all your counter arguments & facts then?” Notably, Beard supplied none – she just dismissed him as ignorant and asserted her expertise. As the Huffington Post aptly summarised, his crime was failure to “defer to a respected historian’s perspective”.
But why should anyone defer to experts? There are many reasons to think they should not. Most obviously, experts are very often wrong – sometimes disastrously so.
Winston Churchill’s “personal technocrat”, Dr Frederick Lindemann, advised the British government that the 1943 Bengal famine was due to overpopulation, counselling against sending relief. Six to seven million Bengalis starved to death.
In the 1960s and 1970s, educational psychologist Sir Cyril Burt told the government that black children were genetically less intelligent than whites, holding back the shift to non-selective schooling.
In the 1990s, government scientist Dr Robert Lacey warned that, by 1997, a third of the British population would have contracted Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease from eating beef contaminated with “mad cow disease”.
The much-touted rise of “evidence-based policymaking” in the 1990s – reflecting the growing depoliticisation of public life – produced swathes of “quack policy”, justifying burgeoning state interference in private decision-making in the name of “public health” or “happiness”. Policies on passive smoking, alcohol pricing, sugar taxation and so on have all been adopted following scientist-backed campaigning – despite the fact that the evidence base is often extremely weak and the policies have often failed. As an IEA review comments, “evidence-based policymaking” has often been less about scientific rigour than a “mechanism for academic elites to impose their own values on society as a whole, showing contempt for the wishes of the public.”
This clearly extends to research around the EU referendum, where expert authorities have projected their value judgements as truth. The International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, and virtually every professional economist, made bleak predictions about the immediate economic impact of a Brexit vote, which have already been proven badly mistaken.
Likewise, a study by Imran Awan of Birmingham City University and Irene Zempi of Nottingham Trent University, released by the charity Hope Not Hate, was found to have vastly exaggerated the positive reaction to the shooting of Labour MP Jo Cox during the referendum campaign.
TCM has exposed similar exaggerations or distortions around Brexit by the Electoral Reform Society and #PostRefRacism, both of which had academic input. Other “research” is just openly spiteful, like the UEA academic who discovered a correlation between Leave voting and obesity (not-very-sub-text: Leave voters are stupid and fat).
Unsurprisingly, then, experts are not immune from value judgements that can powerfully shape their pronouncements. Moreover, even when they strive for objectivity, their knowledge is only ever partial. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, everything but the most basic facts is contested, because there are always many ways to interpret data. All real “experts” know this; indeed, many academics (especially those influenced by post-structuralism) have been preaching for decades that there is no such thing as objective truth – only a set of competing “truth-claims”. But many nonetheless splutter with outrage when a non-expert dares to challenge their particular truth-claim.
This is arguably the nub of the issue: the growing political inequality between the “experts” and the masses. Some clearly believe that experts do not even need to justify or explain their perspective to the less-educated; the gap between their credentials should short-circuit the need for any discussion.
But in a democracy, citizens are equal. Credentials do not entitle one to a greater say or, as some now openly fantasise about, more heavily weighted votes; and nor should they. Ironically, many “experts” involved in educating students would agree that a good citizen needs to think critically, to not accept received wisdom unquestioningly, and to exercise discriminating judgement. A citizen who fails to do this is evading their responsibility, simply casting their vote on the say-so of authorities, rather than on the basis of their own reason. An expert who denies a fellow citizen the possibility of discussion and debate, and thus proper understanding of issues, therefore corrodes democracy itself.
What non-experts are rightly reasserting, then, after a long period of tightening technocracy, is their equality as political subjects. Experts still have a political role to play – but as citizens informing and participating in debate, not as automatic authorities to whom mere mortals should automatically defer.
Artwork Depicting Cops as Pigs in the US Capitol
How about some artwork depicting Muslims as pigs? Would that be OK too?
There currently hangs in the United States Capitol building a painting that depicts police officers as anthropomorphic pigs.
Yes, you read that correctly. The painting actually depicts police officers as gun-wielding pigs. And yes, it is hanging in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.
The Capitol building contains, among the obvious two houses of Congress, multiple historically significant works of art, statues of our nation’s greatest heroes, innovators, and civic leaders, and is capped by a rotunda graced by Constantino Brumidi’s famed fresco “The Apotheosis of Washington.”
And alongside all of this beauty now hangs a divisive and insulting painting ostensibly meant to highlight social injustice. How could such a humiliating work of “art” make its way into such a prestigious place?
No, Colin Kaepernick did not sneak into the Capitol and hang the painting while no one was looking. Its placement in the Capitol can actually be credited to Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo.
Clay selected the artwork, named “Untitled #1,” as his district’s winner in the 32nd Annual Congressional Art Competition. As such, “Untitled #1” now proudly hangs in the Capitol alongside other winners of the competition.
Its unseemly content has not gone unnoticed. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., a former police officer, told the Independent Journal Review, “Unfortunately, many people of influence have taken part in promoting offensive and inaccurate caricatures of the very people who do the most to protect our families.”
He added, “While I understand in some neighborhoods trust between police and communities has all but deteriorated, we must work on rebuilding these relationships and focus on our shared goals of peace and civility.”
Clay, however, seems to have no qualms about the divisive nature of “Untitled #1.” He described the work as “the most creative expression that I’ve witnessed over the last 16 years” and added that it “portrays a colorful landscape of symbolic characters representing social injustice.”
Apparently, depicting police officers as pigs—an image long understood to be derogatory and insulting to the entire law enforcement profession—is justifiable since they are merely “symbolic characters representing social injustice.”
It’s a shame that Clay, like so many others, seemingly has no issue with broadly disparaging an entire profession of men and women, from all backgrounds and walks of life, who literally risk their lives on a daily basis to provide safe and secure communities.
Although they would never say so—surely out of pride and the honor with which they uphold their profession—but the men and women of the United States Capitol Police, working merely yards from this piece of art, must be disheartened at how some in society, and apparently at least one member of Congress, holds them in such disregard.
The young artist who created “Untitled #1” no doubt meant for his work to be provocative and thought-provoking. In that regard, he was certainly successful, but for the wrong reasons.
Rather than elicit a thoughtful response on community strife and social injustice, “Untitled #1” divides and separates observers. If your desire is to help a community heal and overcome division, then purposely and unnecessarily playing to people’s prejudices is not the way to go.
Artwork in any form is certainly subjective, but “Untitled #1” is objectively insulting and has no place hanging within the halls of the United States Capitol. Lawmakers should demonstrate their respect for law enforcement by having this image promptly removed.
The last hurrah for Castro worship
The retrospectives on Fidel Castro continue, even as the entombment of the Cuban dictator has passed. New photographic essays, retrospectives and interviews appear on our computer screens. So symbolic has this figure proved that I expect to see apologias and indictments into the New Year, if only because the former necessitate the latter.
Ponder the inability in some quarters to name unpleasant facts. President Obama never quite could bring himself to say “radical Islam” or to tell us what the “extremists” of which he spoke instead were extreme about. Here, he went a step further, silent on the ideology that animated Castro as well as the crimes to which they gave rise.
Indeed, the language deployed by some world leaders has been no more honest or creditable than that heaped upon Castro by veteran KGB stooges and communist fellow-travelers. Note the common resort to the purposely evasive, syrupy valedictory language normally reserved for the passing of a pioneering CEO or a charismatic motivational speaker — “powerful emotions” for someone who “altered the course of individual lives” (President Obama), “deep sorrow” for “a larger than life figure” (Canada’s Justin Trudeau), a “beacon of light,” an “absolute giant of the 20th century” (Marxist former London mayor Ken Livingstone), “a really great man” who “controlled things very firmly” (KGB agent of influence historian Richard Gott).
Note, too, the substitution of real or imagined successes to the exclusion of the dread, deadly deeds dispositive of the lives hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Nothing here of the show trials, the mass executions, the forced labor camps or the decades-long confinement of dissidents to windowless cells. Nothing of the 5,300 people killed resisting Castro’s forces; the one-fifth of Cubans who voted with their feet to escape totalitarian oppression; the lives of the still less fortunate 78,000 Cubans, lost in shark-infested waters fleeing in horror the only home they had known; the 14,000 Cubans killed in Castro’s wars abroad; the 6,800 politically motivated assassinations; the gulag of labor camps, known by their Spanish acronym UMAPs, holding tens of thousands for infractions as arbitrary as being gay, a Jehovah’s Witness or a Seven Day Adventist.
Indeed, the destruction of the lives of opponents was raised to a new virtue and the very concept of law explicitly subordinated to the enforcement of control through brute force. As Castro’s executioner, Che Guevara, put it, “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution. And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.” These were not the aberrant words of a maverick henchman. Castro himself put it no less forcefully: “revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction.”
Few more eloquent testimonies exist to the avoidable misery and wastage to which Castro subjected Cuba than the fact that, by the mid-1900s, the 2 million-strong Cuban-American émigré community Castro’s tyranny had created were generating eleven times the gross domestic product of the island they had fled.
In short, Castro’s human rights record amounted to the diametric opposite of the middle class-backed restoration of constitutionality, free elections, free enterprise, anti-nationalization, and anti-communism which Castro rode into power. Yet, the man who vehemently denied communist tendencies and who famously told the New York Times’ Herbert Matthews, that “power does not interest me. After victory I want to go back to my village and just be a lawyer again,” turned Cuba into a Moscow satellite and never held an election. As Mona Charen notes wryly, “Castro promised free elections within 18 months. That was 708 months ago.” Biology, not constitutionality, determined his reign as Máximo Líder. As constitutional lawyer Augusto Zimmerman mordantly observes, “‘Freedom with bread and without Terror’ was the original slogan of the Cuban Revolution. ‘Terror without freedom and with insufficient bread’ was the final solution arrived at by Castro’s brutal dictatorship.”
Thus, prattle about “significant improvements to the education and healthcare” (Trudeau) “advances in the fields of education literacy and health” (UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon) are made to function as alibis for a brutal tyranny that is at most barely insinuated. (The customary anti-American voices were saying the same things about Saddam Hussein, who presided over a country rightly described by post-Saddam president Jalal Talabani as a “concentration camp above ground, and a mass grave beneath”).
The tortured rationalizations of Castro’s regime are also redolent of the old (largely false) exculpation of Mussolini that held him in honor because he had made the trains run on time. What are piles of corpses and overflowing prisons when weighed in the balance against the achievements of the Ferrovie dello Stato? In short, a propaganda fiction devised by his regime, much like Cuban agitprop retailed by Castro admirers about his alleged achievements in the realms of health care, education and social justice for blacks at home and abroad.
In point of fact, as National Review’s Jay Nordlinger once vividly elaborated, the much-vaunted Cuban health care in reality is a caste system that confines its excellence to the ruling elite and hard cash-paying foreigners. Ordinary Cubans are consigned to the vagaries of dilapidated, unsanitary hospitals and medical supplies so scarce that doctors have been known to reuse latex gloves. Even the still-respectable infant mortality rate, which was one of the world’s lowest when Castro seized power in 1959, is kept in check by such expedients as state-mandated abortions in the event of the smallest complications, producing in turn a black market of prenatal care struggling to conform to customary humanitarian standards.
The re-emergence over the years of tuberculosis, leprosy, and typhoid fever ought to be sufficient commentary on the state of health care in Cuba. So, too, should be a 2014 report from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting which found that in Cuban hospitals “the floors are stained and surgeries and wards are not disinfected. Doors do not have locks and their frames are coming off. Some bathrooms have no toilets or sinks, and the water supply is erratic. Bat droppings, cockroaches, mosquitoes and mice are all in evidence.”
The oft-heard claim that such abysmal conditions are due to America’s now-lifted embargo crumble with the recollection that Castro had no problem providing abundant medical resources to foreigners and “revolutionary” states that were charged lavishly for the privilege. Doctors who protest this state of affairs end up, like Oscar Élias Biscet, in prison, or like Hilda Molina Morejón, the country’s former chief neurosurgeon, subjected to mob violence and prohibited from practicing medicine. Little wonder that Castro’s health minister, José Ramón Balaguer, applauded Michael Moore’s audacious whitewash in his 2007 agitprop film, Sicko.
Yes, Cuban education, thanks to vast expropriations and munificent Soviet subsidies, ensured major advances, though these have proved unsustainable since the end of the Cold War and withdrawal of Moscow’s backing. In any case, the paradox of churning out credentialed young people into an economy utterly incapable for the most part of providing jobs remotely commensurate with their skills was bound to produce a reckoning, and so it has: a 30 percent university drop-out rate and an epidemic of teacher and student absenteeism. Like many a Western country in the age of cash-strapped downsizing, only with more urgency, Cuba’s universities now lavish their attention on foreign, full-fee paying students.
Was this any more than could have been guaranteed in a remotely democratic state? Or is it sound reason to recall the timeless reaction of Armando Valledaras, an early Castro supporter and later Cuban bureaucrat, jailed for 22 years by Castro (his troubles began when he refused to have a “I’m with Fidel’ slogan placed at his desk), to assertions of Castro’s achievements in a Q&A at Harvard: “It’s all untrue — a pack of lies. But even if it were true: Can’t a country have those things without dictatorship, without tyranny, without gulags, without torture — with freedom?”
And what of apartheid? Were the tens of thousands of deaths in Castro’s war in Angola worth the candle to pressure a racist system? Or did South Africa’s white minority government become amenable to change due to Western sanctions, especially in the realm of oil and energy? However, let it be conceded that even the armies of brutal dictators sometimes do some good. Julius Nyrere’s Tanzanian forces ousted Uganda’s psychopathic Idi Amin. Stalin’s Red Army drove out the Nazis from eastern Europe. But few have been bold enough to praise Stalinism. Apparently, however, Castroism can be widely excused on the Left on account of Cuban troops dispatched to Angola. This is tantamount to saying that causing abuses and misery in some places is excusable because it relieved it in other places. Indeed, even one of Castro’s admirers, who is still busy recycling the false claim that Castro instituted excellent health coverage for all Cubans, correctly noted that the “South Africans who hero-worship Castro [possess] anti-Western instincts [that] are stronger than their pro-democratic instincts.”
But it will be asserted, in the face of all these considerations, that it is unfair to hold Western leaders, never mind others, at the moment of Castro’s passing, to a standard of truth-telling unknown to diplomacy. This was, they will insist, the time for a diplomatic message of condolence, however reluctantly offered, to a nation with which these states had diplomatic relations. Putting aside the obvious lack of reluctance on display for example from Mr. Trudeau, the answer must be: Yes — and that is precisely what did not happen here. To have expressed condolences and noted Castro’s importance could have been done without unsavory euphemisms about his “larger than life” impact and the individual lives “altered.” President Ronald Reagan did as much (and no more) on the death of Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, leader of a hostile superpower.
The conclusion is inescapable: the language used disguised the reluctance of these leaders to recognize evil. Doubtless, political proclivities account for these in many a case, and a better insight into how they felt is provided by the communist fellow travelers who felt free to lavish their praise openly, fully aware of Castro’s crimes. Of such people, of their reluctance to name crimes, of their choice to identify with perpetrator rather than victim, let alone their refusal to welcome the passing of an evil man, one must conclude that justice cannot be their concern, however much the word featured in their apologias.
Dennis Prager put it well when observing the similar reluctance of some to note with satisfaction the death of Osama Bin Laden: “It seems to me that if one does not celebrate the death of a truly evil person, one is not celebrating the triumph of good over evil. I do not see how one can honestly say, ‘I celebrate that bin Laden can no longer murder men, women, and children, but I do not celebrate his death.’” Such people are guilty, as British historian Andrew Roberts noted on the same occasion, of a refusal “to obey the natural instincts of the free-born to celebrate the death of a tyrant.”
A large number of Christian and Jewish clergymen, of a leftist stripe, can be found eager to cite Proverbs 24:17 (“When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, let your heart not exult”), conveniently forgetting Proverbs 11:10 (“When the wicked perish, there is joyful song”), as also the fact that one’s personal enemy is not necessarily in the category of the wicked, making 24:17 inapplicable. But moral confusion is not a new condition and those who failed to take satisfaction in Castro’s death have told us more about themselves than anything else.
Those man-child migrants? Some were as old as 29
A 29-year-old is among the hundreds of adult asylum-seekers in Britain who lied to officials and posed as children, according to newly released official figures.
Official age assessments carried out by social workers across the country revealed that a staggering number of those claiming to be lone refugee children were far older than they pretended to be.
In some cases they were close to 30 and could have posed a risk to school pupils or foster families had they not been checked.
The revelation comes after concerns were raised that some of the refugees allowed into Britain from the Jungle camp in Calais were no longer teenagers.
Figures obtained by The Mail on Sunday from 50 local authorities across England show that social workers carried out 2,028 age tests between 2013-14 and 2015-16. Over these three years, almost one in four of the claimants – 465 – were found to be over 18.
Detailed figures provided under the Freedom of Information Act to this newspaper show that the eldest was found to be almost twice as old as he had claimed.
The man, assessed by Hampshire County Council in 2014-15, claimed to be 17 but was ‘assessed as 29’. In Portsmouth last year, a man claimed to be 17 but was assessed as being 26. And in Manchester in 2013-14, a woman said she was 17 but was also found to be 26.
In Hillingdon, West London, a man who said he was just 15 was assessed as being 25 – a full decade older. Another man was found to be 25, in Newcastle, although he claimed he was just 17. Astonishingly, in some areas almost every claimant considered turned out to be aged over 18.
Last night Tory backbench MP David Davies, who led calls for young asylum-seekers to undergo dental X-rays to determine their real age, said: ‘This backs up everything I’ve been saying and I make no apology for saying we need to have medical checks for people who appear to be over 18.
‘The alternative is that men in their late 20s end up being put in foster homes with vulnerable children and in classrooms, with all the risks that entails to children’s welfare.’
Overall, the number of people arriving in Britain and claiming to be lone refugee children has almost tripled in recent years, Home Office figures reveal, from 1,125 in 2012 to 3,253 in 2016.
The Home Office said it had transferred more than 750 lone children from France to the UK since October 2016 and all of them were age-assessed.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS and DISSECTING LEFTISM. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.