It has been a bad couple of years for experts in the UK.
First the academics, polling companies and media talking heads called the 2015 general election wrongly. And then just a few months ago the academics, polling companies and media talking heads again called the EU Referendum vote wrongly.
To my knowledge, not a single social science department in the UK predicted either event remotely correctly. It invites the question ‘what are they for?’ And moreover, ‘why should students pay up to £9k/year plus living costs to receive a piece of paper from them?’
In the build up to the EU Referendum we were treated to a slew of disaster stories including and up to the start of World War Three as a result of a Brexit vote. Our own chancellor (at the time), who ostensibly is supposed to look out for the economic interests of the nation’s citizens even promised a ‘punishment budget’ if the demos opted to Brexit. And now here we are a few months later with the most influential international bodies more or less carrying out a complete volte face on the issue.
Again, I find myself asking – ‘what are they for?’
Now if one were to draw a Venn Diagram of those who fantasised over post Brexit catastrophes and those who indulge in similar for climate doom I suspect a very interesting cross section would be revealed. I contend that this cross section would be even larger if considering the people who persist in asserting the sky is going to fall in both cases in spite of the complete lack of reason to suppose impending calamity thus far. In fact I will add it to my list of fun projects to get around to – a sentiment analysis of the great and the good’s twitter output with this narrow remit could be quite interesting.
Other quarters have raised doubts recently about the competence of experts that bear significantly on both of these issues.
Nassim Taleb (of Black Swan fame) penned a piece last month that really struck a chord with me. Named “The Intellectual Yet Idiot”, Taleb takes aim at the intelligentsia who, whilst having some specific domain expertise in one area, feel they can hold forth on all areas. It is also clear from his piece that Taleb wonders about the value of the domain expertise in many cases too, and with good reason. Postnormalism, Postmodernism and regressive approaches generally continue to infest the academy and divert it further away from its historical foundational commitments to scholarly inquiry and scientific integrity. A full accounting of which is chronicled by ‘Real Peer Review‘ (full disclosure – I am one of the contributors to this).
Taleb’s piece is well worth reading in full, however I wanted to highlight two passages that seemed particularly apposite:
“The IYI [Intellectual Yet Idiot] pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote, with some equivalence for foreign elite schools and PhDs as these are needed in the club.”
Taleb references Brexit as his primary example here. Does it sound just a teensy bit familiar for another domain, however?
The other passage that caught my eye is even more interesting:
“The IYI has a copy of the first hardback edition of The Black Swan on his shelves, but mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence. He believes that GMOs are “science”, that the “technology” is not different from conventional breeding as a result of his readiness to confuse science with scientism.”
If there was a better way to summarise the circle of most hysterical prognosticators of doom who inexplicably continue to have their irresponsible, ill-thought out and often utterly unscientific proclamations tannoyed uncritically through the media than that last sentence, I’ve yet to see it. They confuse science with scientism. Perfect. Encapsulation.
The groups Taleb takes aim at here also have a predilection for refusing to countenance anything that has not passed through the digestive innards of the infallible and mighty peer review system. The system that is actually so awful for ensuring quality and integrity that one can only really appreciate how awful it is once one has actually gone through the process – on either end. Even Nature acknowledges its fundamentally unscientific character.
There’s certainly no ignoring how awful a quality control system it is now it has met its nemesis in the computing world. I have wondered, ever since discovering the Post-Modern Essay Generator how long it would be before my bot-writing peers would be able to imitate typical peer review comments on papers under consideration. And it’s not just that the bots can write them, it’s that they consistently fool the – er – ‘experts’ in one in four cases. Yes, you know, those people we continue inexplicably relying on even when they refuse to express humility regarding the depths of their ignorance (or in particular in climate science, uncertainty). An expert in one domain is an expert in all, doncha know – or didn’t you get the memo from Brian Cox?
The overall decline of the academy, with climate science one of its most noxious metastasizing influences, has paralleled the appearance and elevation of, and genuflection before, the ‘rock star’ scientist. Far from scientific integrity and ponderous scholarly caveats, so much of the domain is now promoted through pure presentation and showmanship, as this fake TED talk demonstrates.
Many academics were worried about their careers post Brexit. They’re worrying entirely about the wrong thing. What they should be worried about is what happens when the general public has had enough of the broken covenant between academic and taxpayer. There are only so many times the supposed ‘experts’ can get it so utterly wrong whilst simultaneously being outed as shilling for one political cause or another. At the handful of ‘climate communication’ events I’ve attended a group of these bubble academics and activists hand-wring and remonstrate with one another and wonder why on earth the general public becomes ever more sceptical with each ridiculous screaming headline about how a trace gas is going to kill us all.
The fact is the term ‘expert’ is now being rapidly associated with numerous untrustworthy professions such as ‘politician’ and ‘used-car salesman’. And they have no one to blame other than themselves. Even academics who maintained integrity in their own work will be called to account – why oh why did you not call the snake-oil salesmen among you to account? When that question is finally asked by the general public in earnest it will be too late for you too.