Wednesday, 19 October 2016
Some Thoughts on Experts
There is a good chance that I shall be unable to offer my usual coverage of PMQs this week owing to a medical issue. I shall not trouble you with the unpleasant and painful details. I am therefore writing this post the night before, during my sleepless hours while I await the opportunity to see my doctor and await his or her verdict and chosen course of action. I know what is wrong with me. So do my doctors. We just don't know what to do about it other than the liberal use of painkillers, various tests (some most painful and embarrassing) and much head scratching over difficult and invidious choices.
This brings to mind the issue of expertise.
Experts have been in the news a lot recently as you will likely have noticed. There is said to be a rising up of peoples against the experts. This of course is a travesty of the truth. There has not been a rising up of people against most experts. Neither are people, as Michael Gove famously opined, rather sick of experts. But it does rather depend on what you mean by experts.
There are, after all, experts and there are experts. A doctor is an expert in medicine and in human health. But some doctors become more expert even than other doctors in certain fields while others remain generalists. Still others become experts in research. Others prefer not to study proper medicine at all and waste their time in psychology, but that's a different story.
But I assume that you take my meaning. Expertise is relative.
One can be an expert in weather and yet one can get the weather forecast wrong. And I'm sure I don't need to remind you of what has been happening recently to economic experts and their predictions. Indeed it seems to have been happening to economic experts since economics became a field of inexpertise. Forecasts about how economies are going to perform a peculiarly pointless activity. They are always wrong. On the rare occasions that they are right then it is usually more to do with luck than any actual expertise.
Science in general is not actually very good at predicting things. Think about it. Even in the well known fields of medicine a doctor cannot tell you whether or not you will contract a disease, she can only tell you that you have it once you have it. They cannot tell you with any precision what exactly will be your symptoms and how long it will take you to recover.
Think of how many times you have read stories about how surprised and thrilled scientists are by a new discovery. This is particularly the case in planetary science. Look at how surprising our journey to the outer solar system has been. We have glimpsed things that scientists had never considered a possibility, from volcanoes in the moons of Jupiter to startling revelations about Pluto that everybody had dismissed as an uninteresting frozen planetoid.
Then there is climate science. Next time you hear them tell you that it is all settled science just remember that so is medical science and yet medical science cannot tell you if and when you will catch a cold and how long you will have it for. It cannot even tell you if this year's flu immunisation will prevent you catching the disease. It probably will, but probable isn't definite is it. Look at how successful the various predictions about climate change have been in recent years. Remember, that by now the Arctic should have been ice free and a whole generation of children should have grown up without seeing snow in large parts of Britain.
And don't get me started on the social sciences. There is no evidence, we keep being told, that grammar schools aid social mobility. That is because that is a clear example of them asking the wrong question and of having all the wrong kind of data with which to answer it. It is a clear example of the so called experts starting off with an answer they want to find and then conducting the study they need to provide the proof. And anyway, as anyone knows, an absence of evidence is not proof of anything. Education is not something that is conducive to the scientific method in its purest form as it would be almost impossible to create a fair and objective experiment to prove the effectiveness of grammar schools at aiding social mobility. How would that work exactly. What we can safely conclude is that grammar schools are very good at educating children. Just don't expect the experts to admit that. They prefer to muddy the waters. Which makes us wonder why they should be seen as experts at all.
And look at the mess that the so called experts of the world's banks are making of the economy of the entire planet. Emergency measures brought in after the crisis of 2008 are still with us nearly a decade later. They are creating the next crisis as we watch. You don't have to be an expert to see that zero or minus interest rates and money printing are damaging our economies, are destabilising economies, sucking money out of productive investment and into destructive borrowing and creating a crisis that we may well find it impossible to extricate ourselves from. We could be heading for a depression or even worse. It could be a depression that leads to protectionism and to political instability or political extremism. It will be a crisis that will have been created by experts.
The trouble with experts then is that, though they may have an expertise they remain human beings like the rest of us and prey to the same weaknesses, the same partialities, the same need or desire for approbation, remuneration or other social rewards. Politicians like to claim that they have experts on their side because it means that they cease having to make an argument. If you can claim that science and scientists are on your side then why bother with a convincing argument? Except there is no such thing as settled science. Science, by its nature, is never settled. Science is a constant state of flux. What modern scientists think is settled now may one day be regarded as laughable and backward by generations to come. We laugh now at people who thought that the Earth was flat or at the centre of universe. Now we accept that Earth is a minor planet in a solar system of billions and that we all came about thanks to a big bang about 13.7 billions years ago. Except even that is probably wrong. It's just that, for once, the experts in cosmology, have not yet reached a consensus about what new theory should replace it.