“People in this country have had enough of experts,” declared Michael Gove last week.
I don’t know much about Michael Gove, but he was certainly speaking for me. Because I’ve had more than enough of “experts”. Whenever I read that “experts say…”, I can almost feel my hackles rise.
But having spoken to packed public meetings up and down the country, we can categorically state that he’s wrong: rarely in British politics has independent, impartial analysis been so necessary. And there’s hard evidence to back this up: a recent Ipsos Mori survey showed that academics come behind only “friends and family” (57%, compared to 72%) in terms of whom people trust on issues related to the referendum. Politicians, such as Gove, came in at 11%. A separate Survation poll for British Future even found that 63% thought economists could be trusted.
Is an opinion poll “hard evidence”? And is really about “trust”? Should we all simply trust the experts?
I keep a quote from Richard Feynman at the very bottom of the right margin of this blog, which goes: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” And it must be, because it’s only through questioning current dogmatic beliefs that any scientific progress is ever made. If you believe that the experts already know everything, you’re never going to question their pronouncements, and you’re never going to come up with an alternative point of view.
And it seems to me that in a great many ways, a lot of the great issues of our times boil down to whether you believe the experts or not. For example with Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), most believers trust the experts: they listen to Climate Scientists. And they say things like “97% of climate scientists agree.” And climate sceptics tend to be people who don’t trust the experts, who don’t trust the climate scientists.
It’s the same with smoking and smoking bans. Most people trust the experts. They trust the doctors who tell them that smoking causes lung cancer. But people like me, who don’t trust experts, also don’t trust doctors. Or at least not all of them.
For I don’t think that we should place our trust in self-appointed experts (and let’s face it, they are largely self-appointed) in anything. I don’t think that we should place our complete trust in doctors, scientists, economists, politicians, or any other so-called experts. I wouldn’t even place my trust in Richard Feynman.
For the way I see it is that we humans don’t really know very much about anything. Our doctors may be bit better than the doctors we had a few centuries ago. So also our scientists. And our economists. But they most certainly don’t know everything about everything. And so we really ought to have a healthy scepticism about what they say, bearing in mind that a lot of what they know now is something that they didn’t know 10 years ago or 100 years ago. What else is there that they still don’t know today? Rather a lot, I suspect.
And this sort of distrust of “experts” has many historical precursors. The division of Christianity that began in the 16th century was really one between the Catholic true believers in the the papal authorities in Rome, and the sceptical Protestant disbelievers who didn’t automatically accept whatever the Pope said. The papal authorities in Rome were the experts of their day. They knew everything about God, angels, demons. heaven, hell, saints, and all the rest of it. And back then, that’s what people were fretting about, just like today they’re fretting about global warming and cigarette smoke.
And the fundamental nature of the debate back then was exactly the same as the debates today: do you place your trust in “experts” (the Pope, Climate Scientists, Doctors, etc) or do you listen to different opinions, and try to judge for yourself (by reading the Bible, building your own climate model, questioning the experts)?
For if you believe everything that you’re told by “experts”, then you’re as credulous and superstitious as any Catholic in the 16th century. You’ll be very easily led by the cardinals and bishops (and these days increasingly the Inquisition) of Climate Science or Tobacco Control. And if you say that “97% of climate scientists agree about X”, that’s exactly like saying “97% of the cardinals and bishops in the Vatican agree about Y.” All it says of you is that you’re a good Catholic, and you’ll believe whatever the experts tell you, and you think they’re as infallible as the Pope.
In the same vein, Jeremy Warner in the Telegraph:
In a process of reductio ad absurdum, Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, told The Daily Telegraph’s Michael Deacon that he had taken up smoking again because he had made up his mind “about all this; I think the doctors have got it wrong about smoking”. I’m hoping this was just a joke, for not even Donald Trump, to my knowledge, has gone that far. Next up must surely be Darwin’s Origin of the Species; wrong then, wrong now. I exaggerate only to make the point.
Something similar seems to be happening to voters in the referendum. They’ve been warned by the economic establishment that a vote to Leave would be an act of economic self harm, but in growing numbers, they refuse to believe it.
Good for them. And good for Nigel. It shows they have some independence of mind. And since when has Darwin’s Origin of the Species become yet another Holy Book which cannot be questioned without impiety? For Darwin has now been elevated to the status of a modern prophet. But I for one have spent some years bashing Darwin and the Darwinists. I’m not going to worship them either.
If we leave everything to the experts – which is what we’re being asked to do -, then we effectively re-create a sort of new Roman Catholic Church, with its own elaborate set of unquestionable doctrines. And in fact, isn’t Political Correctness exactly that: an elaborate set of unquestionable modern doctrines, denial of any of which invites prosecution for heresy? We need some new Protestant Luthers and Calvins and Wesleys to start hammering a modern set of 95 Theses into the door of the Wittenberg church.