I begin my second installment with the invidious task of having to agree with Brian Cox on one detail more than Matt Ridley. But, as I said to one of my favourite fellow-tweeters the other day, about the controversial Brianna Wu
Louise Mensch had the grace to retweet that. We’ll both be in trouble with Delingpole no doubt. (A culture war thing, between two excellent sceptics, of not only euro but climate type. I expect we’ll come back to it. For now, like Vote Leave, we must focus.)
I was delighted to help set up Climate Scepticism the blog last year, though I chose to be silent during its early months, not least because I felt that Brexit had the potential to be a crucial milestone opening up exciting possibilities on the climate front. Which of my own initiatives am I most proud of in how CliScep turned out? Without question the strapline: joint ideas under construction. I hope to make some such connections in this series, despite my obvious limitations as a sociologist or any other kind of -ist. Let’s see.
Experts and the future
Matt Ridley made a point both simple and profound about experts last month, first in The Times, then his blog: these well-meaning folk typically aren’t any use on the future. Brian Cox meanwhile has been banging on down-under about Michael Gove’s famous dictum during the Brexit campaign that all experts are charlatan scum (or something to that effect, based on the principled contempt of the remoaner chorus I follow on Twitter).
Think for a moment how unpatriotic it was for Cox to suggest to the good-hearted, science-loving people of Oz, who would never wish to think ill of their esteemed mother country, that a significant segment of the UK have now turned against experts, without mentioning the qualification Gove added that we noted last time:
Michael Gove didn’t quite say that “the people of this country have had enough of experts” – the rest of his sentence was “from institutions with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong” (he was referring to the OECD and the IMF and their views on the euro).
Despite this Cox looked to his hero and mine, Richard Feynman, though strangely the TV star chose not to quote the most obvious aphorism, that science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. (A closet Goveist in 1966? Perish the thought!) Ridley on the other hand cited this very thing in The Times, a day or so after I had. But I felt the lukewarmist egghead was slightly over-interpreting:
“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” said the physicist Richard Feynman, reflecting on the tendency of research to explode complacency and embarrass experts who tell you what’s impossible.
Surely that’s Ridley’s (very good) point about the future, not Feynman’s. For that we can usefully turn to Cox:
“Richard Feynman, who won a Nobel Prize, once described science as a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance. You work to understand things always on the basis that your understanding may be shown to be wrong tomorrow. And when it is, you’re delighted because you’ve learnt something.
“The most valuable thing science can give to a society is not a load of facts, but the central idea that you can always be shown to be wrong.”
Expertise is always subject and subsidiary to the scientific method, in other words. And doesn’t that provide a valuable clue about the way climate scepticism may turn out to be different to euroscepticism? There’s something objective-truthy in the mix, that sceptic heroes like Steve McIntyre bring us back to.
Other famous Feynman sayings via climate sceptics on Twitter recently back this up:
The expert and the prophet
What then do we say of the precocious Emmanuel Todd?
He achieved some notoriety back in 1976 at the age of 26 with a short book predicting the downfall of the Soviet Union. His analysis was based, not on the political science of professional Kremlin watchers, but on first hand observation of life in Budapest and analysis of the meagre statistics available. Demographic data are difficult to falsify, since everyone has to be born and die sometime and somehow, and Todd noted that infant mortality, which had steadily declined, even in the worst days of Stalinism, had begun to rise under Brezhnev. To a demographer, an inability to keep newborn babies alive suggests a society in a very bad way, if not on the brink of collapse.
Compare this with a more celebrated expert two years before, who cast the gloom much wider than the dear old USSR:
Although I follow Max, founder of the invaluable OurWorldInData.org, which spells out so much good news about human well-being since 1970s, I noticed his plea only as it was retweeted by Matt Ridley. And who leaped to reply, pointing to a shockfest of expert pessimism? A veritable sceptical trinity of GWPF, Rupert Darwell and Jonathan Jones:
In Intellectuals and Society Thomas Sowell discusses gloomsters like Heilbroner and Ehrlich and how perverse the incentives in academia have to be, that such men are not only not laughed out of future intellectual contention but continuously lauded. Surely one of the deep wellsprings of today’s scepticism in matters climatic and euronic.
But this also got me thinking about similarities and differences between Todd and Sowell in 1970s. Here’s the older man’s story as I remember it. Sowell counted himself a Marxist during his undergraduate and graduate days, before studying for an economics PhD under Milton Friedman at Chicago. A spell working in government in 1960 had put paid to his faith in centralised solutions to society’s ills. He then found himself puzzling over a troubling aspect of the Soviet economy in 1970s and was reminded of a short paper on Friedman’s reading list years before: The Use of Knowledge in Society by Friedrich Hayek. This seemed to unlock the mystery, leading in due course to Sowell’s breakthrough first book, Knowledge and Decisions, published by neoconservative maven Midge Decter at Basic Books in 1980.
But for all that Sowell, like almost all intellectuals of the day, of left and right, did not foresee the collapse of the Soviet system just a few years hence. (I did of course, due to my experiences aged 22 at the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980. Hmm, quite topical. Might say a bit more about that before we’re done.)
Words like ‘fluke’ vie with ‘prophet’ as one considers Todd’s astounding achievement here. I’m inclined to take him very seriously as a result. Thanks Geoff Chambers and the developing CliScep French school.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall surely Brexit should have been easy. I can only say with hand on heart that I never publicly expressed belief – or resignation, as it would have been – that Leave would lose the vote. I knew I didn’t know – and for underdogs that demanded hopefulness – for reasons Iain Martin summarised well with thirteen days to go:
Will it mean defeat for Remain? I have no idea and anyone who tells you they know is lying, guessing or wittering. As we used to say in the west of Scotland during my youth: nobody has a Scooby (as in Scooby Do, clue). After the victories of Corbyn, Trump and the slip in the fortunes of the SNP recently, my trade has surely got over the daft idea that predictions are worth anything. The columnist as seer rather than observer and explainer of the chaos is a new and ultimately pointless invention. I speak as someone who has, foolishly, several times in recent years made such bold “calls” and been right sometimes and wrong sometimes.
For the truth is that this is a UK-wide contest without any precedent since 1975. Unlike in a general election, every vote counts – even in places where for years there has been no point voting. It cannot be plotted seat by seat. Turnout could [be] 60%. It could be 80%. There could be a shy Remain vote, as quiet conservatives swing it decisively for the status quo. Or the anecdotal stuff – that out there strange things are happening, forces have been unleashed – that win it for Leave. Yes, there is much data-mining going on in the campaigns, and whichever side wins will claim to have planned it all along with the help of tech wizards. The truth is that we don’t know and they don’t know. Millions of votes are swirling around. People are listening to the arguments and the voters will decide. Might this concept catch on?
I’d already noted the analysis entitled Phone polls have too high a percentage of graduates – YouGov’s online polls don’t a few weeks before. Todd’s interest in western graduate bias was it seems being played out in our backyard – except of course even YouGov didn’t correct for the effect anything like enough.
The only time I confessed to a friend that I thought Vote Leave had lost control (see what I did there?), and thus the result of the referendum, was the evening of the Friday of Jo Cox’s murder, six days before the vote, reportedly by a maniac shouting “Britain First”. But by next morning the hope was back. (Let’s talk another time about accusations of racism and use of “dog whistles” by the Brexit camp. All part of the complex tapestry.)
I’d greatly admired James Delingpole’s contribution to Brexit the Movie, including the segment chosen by Martin Durkin with James as the very first talking head – I think because of the sense of excitement and adventure he engendered as he explained “This vote is for keeps.” This though I would never have conceded:
For the reasons Iain Martin gave I felt we were in the dark – and in such a situation careless talk affecting the morale of all troops mattered. As indeed it does as we turn back to face the unreason of the climate Cassandras. So let’s replay this recent bit of hopefulness from our own Ben Pile:
“It’s all bollocks, mate” is a considered, and in fact sophisticated judgement. You prefer the ‘evolutionary’ explanation, in which we map ‘cultural entities’ to emotions, to speculate about what drives people, yet while you were still drawing, people voted Brexit, and the political trajectory of the entire country changed, the majority of the population demonstrating their contempt at having been treated in exactly that way, by political parties, their focus groups and image and PR consultants, all promising to find the ‘innate’ thing. It doesn’t exist.
The political trajectory of the entire country changed. Yes!
A sceptic meets some experts
My general practitioner (how does that translate Stateside?) explained about six weeks ago that he thought I might have cancer. That always leads to meeting some experts in fairly short order, within the NHS so beloved of Vote Leave, culminating in my case with one of those clever little cameras being fed inside me and the lady expert concerned having a good look for bad news.
I’d talked to someone else who’d had the same procedure earlier this year who said it was a trifle uncomfortable but my North Somerset pain-relief experts were having none of that – the worst of it was the needle going in to set up the drip. So I was able to enjoy the fascinating TV show. I’m a sucker for technology at all times. And what amazing times we live in, yes indeed Max Roser and his rightly optimistic friends.
The surgeon, if that’s what she was called, was pleased to report that I didn’t have the big C. I had the presence of mind to ask right away what then might explain my symptoms. Medication I’d been given for something else was highlighted as a possible culprit. On how to fix the problem, though, the experts seem united in their ignorance. I am of course very grateful that they’re trying.
Note the normal mixture, in the here and now, of expertise and ignorance. The verdict on cancer, in that part of my body at least, was totally clear. I wouldn’t have dreamed of being sceptical about it. (And lack of evidence of inflammation from blood tests would suggest a wider all-clear.) But the rest was clearly more tentative. I had to be a grown-up in my evaluation. Remind anyone of certain parts of an immature field of so-called science?
Having been given a reprieve from rapid demise one way I managed this Tuesday to get into a spot of bother in the west Mendip hills leading to me meeting some experts from the police, complete with helicopter and dog. I wouldn’t be showing disrespect – quite the opposite – in saying that from the moment the helpful guy in the ‘copter called my mobile the experts were having to improvise. Eventually I was guided to a way of escape and met John and his lovely tracker dog.
I followed the advice of the experts from above, modified by my own observations of the terrain. It seemed the only sensible way to proceed. As any good sceptic would.
John and I had an excellent chat as we came down from the heights to my car, now flanked by his. On hearing of my line of work he said that police software systems are crap – evidence for which had been present in the earlier part of the day. I spoke with real pride of the pioneering work of the Government Digital Service in putting such awful public service systems right – the NHS £9 billion black hole on patient records hopefully soon included. Then I asked him about his dogs. An expert who clearly loved his work. And gentle in his admonition of the idiot who’d got into trouble in the first place. Top marks.
To be continued …
WordPress seems to be struggling with the number of tweets I would like to embed in a single post. Expect more on Vote Leave and its critics, If Brexit then Clexit? and the rest of the excitement real soon.