Ongoing ignorance of experts 2

Tolstoy hit the nail on the head. All climate alarmists are alike; each climate sceptic is unhappy in his own way.

Only kidding. The smug self-satisfaction still includes some minor variations.

I wish to return to Matt Ridley, an expert who I believe was unfairly criticised in September by two perceptive experts here, Geoff Chambers and Paul Matthews:

(Geoff) From what you quote, Ridley’s comparison of the use of the word Denier to the Cultural revolution (which killed several million) seems a bit over the top.

(Paul) I agree some of that is a bit OTT. He may have to rename his blog The Rational Pessimist.

The blog now helpfully contains the article in question. The Times subeditors had given it the headline New enemies threaten the Enlightenment. Matt has now called it Is the Enlightenment dimming?

Right away I knew I was unhappy about the way my fellow sceptics were. Because in the excerpt I’d quoted, right after citing the term “climate denier” as a sign of one of many contemporary intolerances, Matt clearly gave three alternative paths he feels the world might take from where we are now:

How bad is this spasm of intolerance going to get? Perhaps it is a brief hiatus in rationalism, a dimming of the hard-won secular enlightenment, which will soon re-brighten after doing little harm. Or perhaps it is like China’s Cultural Revolution: a short-lived but vicious phenomenon confined to one part of the world that will do terrible harm then cease.

Or maybe the entire world is heading into a great endarkenment, in which an atmosphere of illiberal orthodoxy threatens the achievement of recent centuries. “The world simply cannot afford an American descent into illiberal tyranny,” says Professor Weinstein.

And this is exactly what we should expect an expert to do, faced with the gross uncertainties of the future, otherwise known as their own ignorance: give three or more very different possibilities for the reader to assess. I also agree with Matt that the third, most catastrophic path cannot be ruled out.

This is quite the opposite of the foaming, remoaning opponents of Brexit, who seem to assume catastrophe is certain if we go ahead in true respect for the popular vote of June 2016. As if uncertainty, and experts getting the future wrong, has now somehow been banished from the old continent:

And what of climate? The weasel words of many scientists, that disaster ‘may be’ on the way due to man’s CO2 emissions, can perhaps be seen as a faint echo of the integrity science should be bringing to the table. But as this series began with, suing other less endowed scientists for disagreeing with you on the viability of 100% renewables to meet global energy needs is surely integrity’s opposite, triggering Ridley’s suggestive tweet for the Christian with a taste for paradox,”The enlightenment needs saving.”

Musical interlude

I am in fact what I would call an Enlightenment sceptic, of which more in a little while. I would trace this attitude to the writings of Isaiah Berlin. But the first and last time I mentioned Berlin on this blog, in August 2016, Man in a Barrel was less than complimentary about the celebrated Oxford historian of ideas. He explained why a few days later. I read all four pieces MIAB pointed to and greatly enjoyed them, most of all this passage from Berlin’s friend and amanuensis Henry Hardy:

Music was one of the most important things in his life, more important than his own academic work. He would often say that personal relationships were the most important thing in life – ‘People are my landscape’, as Karl Wolfskehl put it – and I would have thought that music would come a close second or indeed an equal first. … Music was deeply important to him, but not in an esoteric way. His favourite radio channel – people are sometimes surprised to know – was Classic FM, not Radio 3, because it played more of the core of the musical repertoire that he loved.

A little over two months later, on 8th November 2016, I was travelling by car to Cornwall for a brief walking holiday and time of reflection. Bored by whatever I was listening to I flipped to Isaiah’s favourite channel. The last movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 had just begun and I was at once entranced by the exuberant interpretation through to its triumphant conclusion. It sounded like a brilliant male soloist to me. Hélène Grimaud is unlikely to take offence at my mistake, as she herself has said she feels as if she plays like a man. Unsurprisingly, for anything I liked so much, I was soon reading things like this:

By then, the critical divide over her style was well established. Anthony Tommasini, the Times critic, praised her as “a focused, at times ferocious, pianist who favors a big steely sound and bold, unsentimental playing.” But, if she played Bach like Chopin, she also played Chopin a bit like Bach, leading one critic to ask, regarding her performance of the Berceuse, Chopin’s famous lullaby, “With all that plunking going on, how can baby sleep?”

Poor baby. And I don’t just mean the critic. I relished the controversies in that New Yorker article including the bust-up with renowned conductor Claudio Abbado leading to Grimaud’s live recording of the two late Mozart concertos in Bavaria that I felt I’d been parachuted into, driving through Devon five years later, to my great blessing. For in the genius of Mozart and this sparkling interpretation it seemed I was being given hope for life itself and a motif for my forthcoming period of reflection. Music sometimes does things like that for me.

Cut to October 2017. Again I’m driving west, this time from London, and happen upon Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo interviewing Armando Iannucci on Radio 5 Live about his new film, The Death of Stalin. If all concerned hadn’t agreed the comedy was very dark, with the writer-director insisting he felt deeply responsible not to downplay the suffering of millions in the process of mocking the difficulties of the remaining Soviet leaders jockeying for power without getting sent to the Gulag, I probably wouldn’t have been interested. Once I actually became a viewer, this month, I could not help be deeply affected by the fact the film opens with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, initially the slow movement which Hélène Grimaud regards as “the most sublime music, where you find the real Mozart.” (We hear snippets of all movements by the end of the first section of the film.) Another fiery Jewish pianist, Maria Yudina, a real and courageous person, who never hid her disdain for Uncle Joe, is portrayed as soloist. But, if Shostakovich is to be believed, the incident Iannucci conveniently placed just before Stalin’s demise in 1953 happened nine years earlier.

Artistic licence they call it. I needed three viewings of the film to decide if the shortcuts taken throughout were justified by communication of vital truths for a new generation. By now I feel they are. Even Kolyma gets one mention, at a key and tragic moment in the narrative. The lack of any attempted Russianness or consistency in the English accents I also think works extremely well, a weakness for some that can only be compounded by the German origin of the key music of the piece. Mind you, the credits are accompanied by some wonderful Shostakovich and rightly so. Again, I think the compromises work and shed light on a key moment in gruesome 20th century history.

Ongoing ignorance of everyone

The Death of Stalin is for me a brilliant depiction of how a group of ‘experts’ – or ruthless members of the supreme Soviet – have no idea of what is going to happen next. We are now in such a moment, just as we were in 1989, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. As I tweeted earlier, in my compassionate way, we are going to have to get used to it. Any real expert isn’t going to hide the terrifying reality from us but they can and should explore the various possibilities. Climate hasn’t exactly been a good training ground for such balance and candour.

13 thoughts on “Ongoing ignorance of experts 2

  1. …two perceptive experts here, Geoff Chambers and Paul Matthews…

    Experts? Who are you calling an expert? There’ll be no Big Oil money for you this month.

    But you’re forgiven for the image of Tolstoy, all dressed up in his peasant kit, hitting the nail on the head. (He was probably one of the few intellectuals of his time who could hit a nail on the head.)

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  2. Geoff: You should know by now that when I call someone an expert it’s code for ignorance. And I see you as one of the biggest experts we have. 🙂

    Tolstoy’s image for me, as a human being, was rather wrecked by reading the testimony of his wife. Good novelist though.

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  3. Now I’ve read the Ridley piece I see the significance of the Ianucci play on Stalin. It’s to Ridley’s credit that he poses the problem of the modern threat to the Enlightenment, puts it into the widest possible historical context, and admits that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next.

    What should happen next is that people with opposing views to those of Ridley engage with him, argue, and thus Enlighten us all. But it won’t happen will it? Because Ridley was the head of Northern Rock and he owns a coal mine and therefore, well, therefore we shan’t.

    And who cares about the Enlightenment when Manhattan’s going to be underwater next week?

    It must be so nice to have a Really Simple Idea that stops you having to think about the difficult ones.

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  4. George Washington also demolished fruit trees with his little axe, but could not lie. It’s therefore a wonder he became a successful politician and hence the USA came into being.

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  5. Chastened by Richard’s stinging insult, I’ve gone back to read Matt Ridley’s article more carefully.

    “Endarkenment” is a good term for what may be going on. I’ll try to use it more.

    The Mel Brookes comment about comedy is certainly very true. Recently I watched Airplane and was struck by the fact that most of the jokes wouldn’t be allowed these days. And of course I am with Matt Ridley on virtue-signalling, no-platforming and statue-toppling.

    But where I differ with the rational optimist is over his pessimism. He writes “maybe the entire world is heading into a great endarkenment…” which I really don’t think is a threat. Look at the latest example. The illiberal authoritarians have been disgraced and ridiculed, while free speech and libertarianism have a new heroine in the form of Lindsay Shepherd.

    Having said that, I agree with his ending, “I am fairly certain that the Enlightenment is not over, that discovery and reason will overwhelm dogma and superstition.”

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  6. We could say, after Nietzsche, that paradise lies in the shadow of our swords. I could imagine the fires of the Enlightenment burned bright but nevertheless were surrounded by ignorance, hatred and censorship all round.

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  7. Some axing by today’s polies, free speech for instance,
    but actually they’re more handy with axioms, eg:

    “Man-made climate change is undeniable.”

    “The EXPERT may not be questioned.”

    “Building safe societies requires controls on free speech.”

    “Some are more equal than others.”

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  8. Beth
    “Man-made climate change is undeniable.”
    Especially as a result of changing land use – deforestation, Christie’s study of effect of irrigation in California’s Great Valley. Aircraft vapour trails, and so on.

    “Building safe societies requires controls on free speech.”
    In moderation, yes. The false shouting of fire in a theatre argument.

    “Some are more equal than others.”
    Always has been true. You are better at poetry than I am – I just react to that of others (where is Kim?)

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  9. Both axiom
    and its opposite
    are likely wrought
    more apposite
    when qualified by
    meet context –
    I think… )

    O Singer under bridges, say,
    where is kim? Kim at Judith Curry’s salon
    was want to set the denizens laughing
    at doomsayers’ fear and guilt – ‘Wage, wage
    war against the lying and the fright’, or
    laughing at cli-sci politicking, – ‘Crying
    theatre at a crowded fire.’

    …One day pehaps I’ll do a blog post
    on wondrous spirits I have met
    while serfing on the internet.

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  10. I would prefer an argument presented on its own rights. People like Isaiah Berlin and the slightly lesser Roger Scruton just represent arguments from authorities more or less tainted. You could resort to Lenin or Ayn Rand but all you do is to cut down your audience. People such as ATTP are nibbling, why alienate with authorities they lack the intellectual equipment to argue against?

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  11. I see Isaiah Berlin as the absolute opposite of an authority. His attitude to relationships and music is proof of how much he would have agreed with me! But, having heard back tonight from Ian Woolley, I’m ready to explain a bit more in a new installment. ATTP, though very welcome to consider it, would not be my primary target reader.

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