Passing Bull 283 – Madness driven by dogma

Nick Cater is executive director of a think tank called the Menzies Research Centre.  Their dogma are congenial to the commercial taste of Rupert Murdoch – so he gets a regular piece in The Australian.  One recent piece commenced:

The expert class turned out in force last week with pessimistic predictions about the nightmare soon to be visited upon British hospitals and mortuaries because of the Prime Minister’s latest folly.

He referred to a letter to The Lancet signed by‘100 medical experts’ and continued:

Johnson’s courage in defying the experts is a virtue that should be emulated by political leaders closer to home.  In Britain, Johnson revives the Dunkirk spirit, fighting Covid-19 on the beaches, landing grounds, fields and in the streets.  In Australia, premiers call on their subjugated citizens to fight the virus from their couches.

So, in defying in ‘defying the experts,’ Johnson shows courage. 

A doctor advises a man that he will be dead within a month unless he has the recommended surgery.  An engineer advises a builder that if it proceeds to build a bridge as designed, it will fall over and kill many people.  A lawyer advises a businessman that if he proceeds with a tax avoidance scheme, he could be charged and jailed for breaking the law.  A handwriting expert advises the police that a blackmail demand was not written by the accused.  A vulcanologist advises the inhabitants of a town on a Japanese island that its volcano is likely to erupt and that they should evacuate immediately.  An engineer on a jet carrying 400 people advises the pilot that engine problems will prevent the plane from getting to its destination and that they should turn back immediately, or else they will crash.  On the eve of D-day, meteorologists advise Dwight D Eisenhower that doing the best they can to predict weather, it is likely that adverse weather will badly affect the invasion fleet to the point that it will probably fail to effect a landing. 

If the people getting such advice rejected it, would we say that they showed courage?

An expert knows much more about a subject than I do.  Since at least the time of Einstein, a lot of science has got well beyond the reach of most of us.  We have to take a lot on trust.  In the first lockdown, I did an online Oxford course on astronomy.  A lot of it went clean over my head, but what I did learn is that the universe is big – incomprehensibly, unimaginably big; as big as God – incomprehensibly and unimaginably. 

Even a simple but sound process like carbon dating is beyond my understanding.  But that process demonstratesthat the biblical account of creation is physically impossible.  That is not a matter of theory or faith – it is a matter of fact, as certain as the fact that the sun rose this morning.  (The word science comes from the Latin word scire, to know.  It builds knowledge with testable propositions about the universe.  The OED begins ‘The state or fact of knowing’.) 

On some issues, we should stop talking about science and talk about facts.  The floodingin Germany and China is a matter of fact.  As someone in the FT remarked, we no longer call such catastrophes acts of God.  The fact is that the laws of physics state that the hotter the air, the more moisture it carries.  Courage is not the word we apply to those who decline to draw the relevant inferences from such facts.

So, although we may test opinions by experts, there must come a point where they pass our understanding and we have to determine whether we accept their advice.  Then we have to decide if we will act upon it.  Since that advice is likely to involve predicting the future, which is the province of God and the gamblers, we are then talking about the unknown.  Lawyers know all about this.  If someone asks me ‘Who will win this case?’ my first response is ‘Why not ask me who will win the Melbourne Cup?’  You do your best to assess the prospects, but the longer you are at it, the more you know that fate can be both very fickle and cruel.  You acquire caution through pain, but you must retain the courage to form an opinion and to act on it.

And the expert just gives the opinion – the final decision is that of the punter, the person getting the advice.  Lawyers might recall the common law about the role of experts.  They gave their opinion, but not on the ultimate issue before the court.  A psychiatrist could give an opinion about whether the accused knew what he was doing or that it was wrong – but not point blank if the accused was insane.  That is a finding to be made by the jury based on all the evidence before it.  That rule has been affected by statute, but its rationale is obvious.

Now, in the examples given, the answer looks so obvious that it would be perverse, at best, for the person getting the advice not to accept it and act on it.  And those giving the advice would likely have a professional obligation to do their best to get subject to act on it sensibly.  (My own faith in free will has declined with age – I have seen too many punters hit the fence through stupidity, malice, or plain greed.)

How, then, do otherwise apparently sensible people allow political dogma to overrule common sense in dealing with expert advice, as Mr Cater appears to do?  He deals with casualties by statistics, which is no comfort to the families of the dead, and expresses the view that lockdowns are also injurious to health.

Still, the decision-makers remain in splendid isolation, pursuing their zero-case strategy with an almost fanatical zeal.  They remain impassive at the loss of dignity and income being endured by those stuck in lockdown world, incapable of weighing the balance between benefits and risks.  They have become snookered by their own exaggerated rhetoric.  Having insisted that the last three weeks of pain were unavoidable in the face of the apocalypse, it is only human that they should discount the mounting evidence that they have made an error of judgment.

Let us put to one side the gratuitous insults that flow from this exaggerated rhetoric.  In the end, Mr Cater knows as much about this illness and the way to treat it as I do – Sweet Fanny Adams.  He does not know what he is talking about.  We all know about power without responsibility, but what drives political gun-slingers to be so cavalier?

Well, some on Fox or Sky talk rubbish because it sells.  Take Tucker Carlson on the vaccine.  I will not name the leading Australian exponents of this business model because some are trigger happy; especially those who bang on about freedom of speech.  This is not the case with people like the Menzies Research Centre or the IPA.  They have been conditioned or programmed to act in a certain way. 

Before becoming a Labour MP in England, Nick Raynsford had been a local councillor and adviser on housing issues for twenty years.  He fell out with the Blair government.  He thought ministers should know what they were talking about.  He disliked ‘rent-a-mouths.’

The danger is the trivialisation of politics.  And it’s associated with the kind of culture of spin and soundbite, where some politicians have felt it was enough to learn the official line and then repeat it.  Well I regard that as very unsatisfactory, and I think it increasingly shows where people haven’t got a deep understanding of the subject, but they’re simply parroting pre-prepared lines to take.  But that of course will earn them more brownie points than people who genuinely try to give a serious answer.  Because usually serious answers have shades of grey within them, rather than absolute black and white.  And party managers rather prefer black and white.

That looks to me to fit Mr Cater – and the Prime Minister.  

There are two more matters.  Some people dislike experts because experts are smarter and more useful than them.  They are jealous of experts – who make them feel intellectually or professionally naked.  Such people might even refer to the ‘expert class.’

And you notice that Mr Cater gives his final serve to ‘decision-makers’.  This too looks like jealousy.  Those who front think tanks do not make real life decisions affecting the lives of others.  They just comment on decisions made by decision-makers.  Mr Cater does not say what he would do if he were in the position of Gladys Berejiklian or Dan Andrews.  Good grief – that way you might not just get your hands dirty – you might wind up with blood on them.

It might remind you of an acerbic remark of George Bernard Shaw.  ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’.  If you substitute ‘preach’ for ‘teach,’ you have the think tanks’ boys and girls.  When I was a boy, there was a commercial on the wireless that had meaning for my position in life back then:

Boys and girls come out to play,

Happy and well, the Laxettes way.

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