Newsnight on experts

Last night’s BBC Newsnight programme featured a 15-minute film by Ian Katz about ‘experts’:

Of course, it starts out with the Michael Gove quote, which for once is presented in full, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts… getting it consistently wrong”.

Paul Nurse – looking more and more like a Harry Enfield character  – is interviewed, and there are clips of Donald Trump saying that “the experts are terrible”.  Focusing on economics, Matt Ridley says that we are right to question experts, particularly after what happened (or didn’t happen) in the aftermath of the EU vote, ending with “I think we should pay a lot of attention to economists, except when they’re talking about the future”.

Katz interviews Gove, trying to get him to admit that he regretted his remarks, without success. He also goes to Ollie’s Cafe in Bognor, to ask a few of the locals why experts had lost their trust. “There’s too much scaremongering from so-called experts”, said the cafe owner Graham Patrick.  “Unfortunately they get stuck in their little bubble of what they’re doing”.  Hear hear!

Katz also talks to MoneySavingExpert Martin Lewis, who, like Ridley, “thinks the trouble starts when experts start predicting the future”. On the EU debate, he says “Some experts made the mistake of campaigning … which immediately says that you’re biased one way or the other, and the public will perceive it and not trust you.”  There’s a useful lesson there for some climate scientists.

The piece ends with one expert who was so upset about the Brexit vote that she attended a Cambridge faculty meeting “wearing only the words Brexit leaves us naked scrawled across her torso”, allowing Katz to make a joke about emperors.

See also this article by Katz on the BBC website.

27 thoughts on “Newsnight on experts

  1. Experts are readily found these days. Here are some under the Hollywood label, including climate expert DeCaprio: http://maggiesfarm.anotherdotcom.com/archives/29570-Hollywood-expertise.html

    Yet somehow they do not impress me much. But then I have yet to be impressed by anyone on the side of CO2 Alarm.

    Ridley’s book about the crucial importance in many areas of bottom-up innovation and inspiration is well worth reading in this context: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Evolution-Everything-Matt-Ridley/dp/000754247X

    The Bolin/Strong/UNEP/IPCC initiative, on the other hand, was very much top-down.

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  2. It should be noted that expert luvvies Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway managed to get their Oscar announcement wrong, even though Beatty clearly suspected the gen was not pukka.

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  3. MIAB, it’s worse–they got handed the wrong envelope by expert accountancy firm PWC. They just read their lines the way actors are supposed to.

    I don’t mind experts. Most real experts are happy to acknowledge uncertainty and the possibility they might be wrong.

    It’s those claiming expertise without actually having it that bother me.

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  4. We should all lay off the experts and leave them to get on with doing that which they have unrivalled experience in doing – getting it very wrong. Of course, there are many experts who get it very right but these are not the experts the public are sick of because the public are richly endowed with common sense and can distinguish between a genuine expert and a snake oil salesman who happens to have academic qualifications and a career position which affords them some sort of intellectual/social status.

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  5. Many thanks for linking this. The BBC won’t let us ex-prats see their output, except the stuff they put out on the World Service (aimed at colonies like British West Hartlepool) on the commercial grounds that it might mess up their chances of selling the material to Johnny Foreigner later, though it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to buy close up footage of Sir Paul Nurse.

    As Cliscep’s resident Marxist, should I be worried about being in complete agreement with the good people of Bognor? As Graham Patrick of Ollie’s Café says: “There’s too many organisations and businesses that, all they do is study graphs and take polls and they just seem to make a living out of it.”

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  6. Many of the conflicts seem to be clashes between “experts” and the “wisdom of crowds”. Neither side is correct all of the time, but crowds only seem to remember when the experts were wrong.

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  7. Bill Nye is another good example of someone paraded and promoted as an expert by himself and by others, not least in the climate science zone. Scott Adams has his number, as has Tucker Carlson who seems to be providing a very welcome public service in exposing one ‘expert’ after another as they come on his programme to share their strongly-held convictions on this that, or the other.

    More here: http://blog.dilbert.com/post/157823678756/tucker-carlson-induces-cognitive-dissonance-in

    There are of course, genuine experts around, even in the climate zone. Richard Lindzen for example. I’d sure like to see what he could do with a regular programme of his own on some major tv channel.

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  8. The misuse of “expert” has long been a bugbear of mine. My google definition says: “a person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area”, which to me are two very different things. Plenty of people can be knowledgeable about a subject (as in studied it extensively) but be utterly hopeless at proving any level of analytical skill within that subject (as in predicting the future).

    24 hour TV seems to have totally inundated us with the former, confident commentators who get paid to spout bollox to fill the airwaves. However they are treated as if they are the latter and their soothsaying announcements are given credibility despite zero track record of success (in fact often a huge negative record, see Guardian commentators, pollsters etc).

    Also, because of the vast industries created there seems to be no correcting mechanisms to oust the poorest performers. Econoimists still spout bollox, pollsters still post useless polls…and people still pay for it and lap it up.

    On Climate, I think anyone confidently prediciting the future is a charlatan on either side. I just don’t think it’s possible (unless someone shows me a proven track record of success).

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  9. There’s an interesting example of the experts (including Nobel prize winners) being ignored by politicians and “informed” opinion in the UK and Europe, when their opinion clashed with policies those groups wanted.

    Prominent American economists ranging from Friedman to Krugman and Stiglitz all said the design and implementation of the Euro were flawed back around the turn of the century, which could cause trouble in the future, especially in the event of economic shocks. Their advice was also disinterested, as the Euro was not a political issue in the US,

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  10. THOMASWFULLER2 (01 Mar 17 at 4:39 am)
    If there are two of us Marxists here, one of us had better split off and form a dissident faction. I’ll be “Bognor tendency” if you like. (Though that won’t mean much to non-Brits.)

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  11. They’re trying to make out that Gove started the distrust of ‘experts’. He just voiced what a lot of people have been thinking for some time. There are a catalogue of real events that demonstrate that experts have been massively wrong. The banking crash. The pensions scandals. The Euro crisis. Heck, the Euro full stop. Iraq. The NHS database. As at no other time people can see experts get it wrong again and again. For some reason experts seem to think that getting complicated things wrong should be accepted by the lower orders but surely those higher salaries are the reward for the harder tasks? Getting things wrong should be subject to the same level of censure. When the public see the experts failing at their job and walking away from their messes, what are they to make of the quality of those who are supposed to regulate the experts? Are they fooled by the ever ready excuses why there was failure? Is ass covering just another ugly feature of experts and why we’ve come to distrust them?

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  12. One problem is that it is difficult to define an expert. So the BBC puts on a programme with a talking head with loads of academic credentials and promotes that person as an expert. I remember in the long distant 70s watching a programme where an academic geologist expounded on North Sea oil production and how the oil companies could produce far more oil than they were doing. However, back then, the BBC were more rigorous than they now appear to be. So along came an economist from one of the majors who pointed out that maximising extraction might mean that oil prices fell to a point where exploration and development of the North Sea became uneconomic. Using the entire Forties field in a year, as advocated by the expert, might lead to problems and would require investment that would be irrecoverable.

    These days, the BBC still strives for neutrality but it does appear that there is a difference in the level of expertise required for the opposition viewpoint, leaving the Establishment in control of the high ground.

    In Economic questions, it gets very difficult. I remember the notorious 356 letter (I have not bothered to check the number) excoriating the Howe budget, which targeted inflation rather than unemployment. It worked in that it halted inflation but at a cost of higher unemployment. The economic establishment wanted to keep inflation rising to soak up unemployment. They were stuck in a mindset where their theory could not explain why inflation and unemployment were rising at the same time but they wanted to persist with policies that had been ineffective for 7 years.

    They are still everywhere in academia. They still have not accepted that Keynesianism is not a good theory. However, it should be clear by now that austerity is not the right answer for our situation. But our problem is not inflation at 15%. The solutions of the academic economists, all still Keynesians despite the 1970s and 80s, are probably wrong but they might be better than austerity.

    It’s a question of who judges the expertise of an expert

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  13. The problem of defining an expert is maybe not so crucial as being able to identify when someone posing as, or really, an expert decides to treat his or her models, theories, notions, and conjectures as if they were as solid as those telling us when and where the sun will rise tomorrow. There may be clues in the level of conviction, in the personalities that want to be in the role of prophet or saviour or merely sounders of alarms. There may be further clues to be found upon cross-examination, but I fear that cross-examination has been too little and too late as far as the climate & CO2 fiasco has been concerned. Plots were laid, organisations launched, solutions devised, and panic seeded long before most of us had really noticed what was going on. Media organisations such as the BBC are now so soaked in the orthodoxy, the ‘consensus’, that they have gone beyond not noticing, and entered straight into evangelical mode without spending much or any time in some kind of assessment and review phase. So, not much cross-examination from them and their like. That makes for exciting opportunities for a wide range of chancers, opportunists, charlatans and rascals, as well as for those genuinely afflicted by the alarm.

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  14. Tiny, yes, that’s right – the programme tried to make out that Gove had started something, a movement that was ‘dangerous’, a distrust of experts that was spreading to science. But that’s getting things backwards. The distrust of experts arises from the behaviour of the experts themselves – increasingly overconfident in their own predictions, increasingly arrogant and authoritarian, and increasingly politically biased, Nursey being a prime example. The situation with climate scepticism is just the same of course – often presented as anti-science when in fact it’s just a reaction to alarmist junk science.

    There’s a report out today on the increasing political bias in universities, see also the Telegraph, and apparently Radio 4 Today mentioned it too.

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  15. “One problem is that it is difficult to define an expert.”

    I agree Man in a barrel, which is why I put ‘expert’ in quotes. Not all experts are equal, not because of ability or diligence but because of the nature of the subject. eg expert mathematicians are not the same as expert economists. Ultimately mathematics has a right answer but for economics the rules are variable. Economics relies on incomplete understanding of the past (because you can’t know everything that influenced events) and an incomplete knowledge of the future (because it’s the future). Even the existence of economics as a knowledge base, influences economic outcomes in new ways. Eg Past experience said that back in 2009 the UK house prices would crash, some said to 50% but instead of panic selling their hard to shift properties, sellers turned into landlords. While the house prices stalled, they didn’t crash. The public, naughty little tinkers, rewrote the rules.

    Some experts have wrongly donned a mantel of superiority, when their subject can never be truly mastered. Some demand respect before they’ve even demonstrated that they’re right most of the time (climate scientists). Too often experts who guessed something right are used to illustrate the success of a field, while the experts who guessed wrong go unmentioned. The next time it will be a different batch of experts but the illusion of perfect expertise will be maintained.

    Many financial experts gambled that Brexit wouldn’t be voted for. In many cases that gamble was a financial one and not just about their reputation. They used their credibility to try and fix the result by predicting a post Brexit catastrophe. Were/are those predicted outcomes likely or were the experts motivated to make those statements? Some are still working hard to make their predictions come true. Nobody, least of all the BBC seems inclined to investigate.

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  16. Yes Paul I noticed the stories on left wing bias at universities too. It must adversely influence thinking on issues that affect or are affected by the general public. And where does the media, especially the BBC get its experts from?

    The paper is good but I don’t really agree with the section on openess to new experiences. If anything, those who remain in academia could be said to be stuck in the same routine and even protected from some of the realities of the market place. In business, you still have to meet new people regularly and be polite. You still have to study new things (often over a wider range of issues but maybe in less detail.) You have office and business politics. Budget constraints. You and the business you work for may completely change what you do and how you do it. You have less freedom to follow your own direction because it’s hard to get funding for stuff nobody wants, but people in businesses have to be creative because it’s the essence of consumerism. Has the person who learns how to operate a new piece of equipment been less open than somone who learns about Henry VIII? Is a person who creates a new spreadsheet less creative than someone who draws a face? Is a business report less crafted than a poem? Is the person who jumps out of a plane more open than the person who designed it?

    Perhaps those who have researched the issue are limited by their biases about what is creative or new experience?

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  17. MiaB, “The solutions of the academic economists, all still Keynesians despite the 1970s and 80s, are probably wrong but they might be better than austerity.”

    That implies that you think those years to have been examples of Keynesian economic policy. Can you justify that idea?

    The letter of the 364 was not so evidently wrong in the context of the time.

    The idea that experts can be wrong lends no support to the idea that opinions of those who have not studied a subject have any worth.

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  18. Tiny CO2. You contrast academia and “business” writing:
    “In business, you still have to meet new people regularly and be polite. You still have to study new things (often over a wider range of issues but maybe in less detail.) You have office and business politics. Budget constraints. You and the business you work for may completely change what you do and how you do it. You have less freedom to follow your own direction because it’s hard to get funding for stuff nobody wants, but people in businesses have to be creative because it’s the essence of consumerism.”

    You have a rather odd view of academia. I have worked there, but also in a research capacity for industry and government. When working for government, you had sufficient time, but insufficient funding, but you worked on topics supplied by others and any prestige was long in coming (if at all). Industry was extremely well funded, but results were due yesterday and topics were never of your choosing. If you were any good you got instant and substantial recognition. Funding in academia is difficult, and time available is never enough and interrupted constantly. The goal set for you is to run and fund a research group and if you are successful in this you will have even less time to conduct your own research. In my experience you have to meet new people regularly and be polite (students you want to recruit, post docs working for you, fellow academics to cover for you, other academics you wish to influence). Clearly you need to study new things, especially in interdisciplinary subjects, and academics could give masterclasses in office politics. You can usually only work on topics for which you can get funding and this can be difficult. Even experienced researchers with a good track record are not always successful and you can spend months writing a proposal without it being funded. Naturally you have to be creative.

    Academia is not easy street, as many people believe. Research is research, in different settings there are differences, but the similarities are greater.

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  19. And maybe if you’d read the paper I was responding to you wouldn’t jump to conclusions AK. It was mulling the idea that those in academia might be more open to new experiences and thus attract more left wing people who are suposed to be less conservative. My point was that academia is no more open or creative than anywhere else. There are just a lot of things to be open to and not all of them appeal to those on the left. The list was an example of things those dullards in business have to be ‘open’ to.

    Your knowledge of business is severely limited if you think it’s more lucrative than education. Sometimes is, often it’s not. A typical mistake made by academics including the authors of the paper. Invariably when comparing yourselves, you forget to count the secure pension and the stability of the employers as part of the package. You rarely look at an average business, instead you think big, to the top industry or banking performers. As you’d know, high levels of qualifications help secure a good salary in business but they’re not a guarantee. What you study and what experience you’ve got counts a lot more.

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  20. Tiny CO2. I wrote from bitter experience. When I left industry in the USA to teach in Toronto I suffered a 50% salary reduction. I suffered a further 50% reduction when moving to UEA. Furthermore I was not only talking about money, I also included the prestige you were given when doing your work – in my experience very high in industry, not so obvious in academia where competition and scepticism was much greater.

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  21. And would I be right in thinking the industry you left was a lucrative one? It wasn’t an average size or small business.

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  22. THOMASWFULLER2 (01 Mar 17 at 6:05 pm)

    “I’m actually probably closer to a Fabian.”

    So am I. And I agree aboout Russell. He warned Lenin that he was going astray when he met him c.1919, but would Vladimir Ilyitch listen? I only call myself a Marxist to express admiration for a great thinker, and to annoy the kind of people who think we sceptics are all Tea Party members.

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  23. It’s nice that this Newsnight item corrected the misinformation a little in giving Gove back his whole quote. It would have been even nicer if they’d included some more of Faisal Islam’s reaction of horror and disbelief. It was odd because he wasn’t the target of Gove’s criticism, since journalists are almost by definition non-experts, so why did he leap to the defence of experts and appear to ridicule Gove’s statement? It doesn’t make sense because journalists should be as sceptical of experts as they are of politicians.

    I was shovelling gravel this morning with some fellow pensioners, people with technical rather than intellectual skills, and I was struck by how general is the distrust of experts (archaeologists in this case, since we were shovelling.) Then the conversation turned to a recent fatal road accident and someone observed (I translate from the French) “Yeah, well, whatever, E = half mv squared.”

    Some kinds of expertise are accepted. Do you have to be 370 years old to be counted as an expert, or wear a long wig? Would Sir Paul Nurse look good in a long wig?

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  24. The Spiked article is very relevant. One of the things I don’t think experts understand is that democracy is the price they have to pay for avoiding right by might. It allows the people to say they want something different and not have to club those in control over the head. All the unexpected results recently have been clear comments that the incumbents have been getting things wrong. The public don’t need to understand complicated things, they just need to understand their own feelings. Of course they might end up worse off but that’s life. So then they’ll pick something else. If experts want the public to make the ‘right’ decisions they need to be persuasive. If they can’t persuade, it’s a measure of the expert as much as the public.

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