Thursday, November 8, 2012

We should bow to experts - unless they happen to be right-wing

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 7.)
I recently had what might be termed a difference of professional opinion with some of my fellow journalists. It was touched off by a newspaper editorial that took a whack at “enthusiastic amateurs” sounding off on such issues as climate change, vaccinations and fluoridation.

Everyone was entitled to their opinion, the editorial writer loftily pronounced, but not all views should be accorded equal weight. The views of people with years of study and experience behind them were worth more than those of non-experts.
“Everyone is free to disagree but ignorance does not have an equal right to be heard,” the editorial concluded.

A member of an internet journalism discussion group to which I belong applauded the editorial, saying she couldn’t agree more. “These amateur know-it-alls are a menace,” she declared.
I thought this a peculiar position for a journalist for take. I mean, aren’t we supposed to believe in freedom of speech? 

Another member chimed in that the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar should be added to the “list of nutters”. Then someone else suggested a couple of other names for what was shaping up as a blacklist: David Round and Lindsay Mitchell.
For the benefit of those who haven’t heard of them, I should explain who these people are.

David Round is a University of Canterbury law lecturer who has written extensively over many years about Treaty of Waitangi issues. Unusually for an academic, he scathingly dismisses the Treaty settlement process as a rort and a gravy train.
Lindsay Mitchell is a Wellington researcher who, in her own words, sets out to debunk the myths surrounding the welfare state, which she describes as economically, socially and morally unsustainable. Hers is a courageous and often lonely voice challenging the vast body of agencies, bureaucrats and academics with a common interest in propping up an unwieldy and seriously flawed welfare system.

What was immediately noticeable was that the individuals dismissed by some of my fellow journalists as not deserving any publicity were, loosely speaking, all right of centre.
I noted that no one suggested that the ubiquitous, all-purpose left-wing activist John Minto gets far too much attention from the media. Yet over time, Minto has been on our television screens and in the news columns of our newspapers far more often than the three people mentioned above.

Minto irritates me, but I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that he should be silenced. Yet here were journalists arguing, in effect, that the media pays far too far much attention to activists from the other side of the political divide.
I concluded that among journalists who belong to the group, or at least those who take part in the online discussions, there was a pronounced bias against the right. 

Is this true of journalists generally? I’m not sure. It may simply be true of the journalists who feel strongly enough to express an opinion. Journalism has always attracted a percentage of people who are motivated by idealism, and idealists are often left-wing.
But the individual political leanings of journalists are not so important in this context. What matters is that they should be committed to freedom of expression, regardless of whether they agree with the opinion being expressed.

That’s fundamental to journalism in a liberal democracy, and I found it highly ironic – and said so – that people who called themselves journalists appeared to be arguing that certain views, right-wing views, shouldn’t be given the time of day. (Some denied my accusation that they were arguing for suppression, but it was hard to see what other inference could be drawn from their statements.)
In any case, let’s examine this question of “expert” versus “non-expert” a little more closely.

It was clear from the discussion that the word “expert” is generally equated with a university degree. In the climate change debate, you’re not considered credible unless you have a relevant academic qualification.But in more than 40 years in journalism, I’ve come across any number of highly-qualified “experts” whose opinions seemed to owe more to ideology than to academic credibility.
Many academics are moralists by nature, always ready to lecture us on what they perceive to be the world’s failings. I remember sitting in a university lecture theatre several years ago, surrounded by gullible young students, and being appalled by the brazenly ideological cant spouted by the eminent academic addressing us.

Whatever the subject – whether climate change or alcohol law reform, to choose two topical examples – many academics are inclined to cherry-pick the theories that suit their political leanings. They often give the game away by indulging in extravagant rhetoric that is more emotive than scientific.

But assuming that academic qualifications confer some sort of authority, how does one of my fellow journalists explain his suggestion that David Round has no credibility? According to the University of Canterbury website, Mr Round has an honours degree in law. I can only conclude that in the eyes of some journalists, left-wing people with degrees are entitled to respect but right-wing people with degrees should be ignored.
Let’s take this further still. Why should we bow to academic experts anyway, when they are notorious for getting things wrong?

Political scientists are hopeless at predicting election outcomes. Seismologists and meteorologists are often wise only after the event (only last January our own Niwa confessed it had got its summer weather outlook completely wrong). Historians differ wildly in their interpretation of events - which means at least some of them must be wrong - and the study of economics is famously inexact. And don’t get me started on media “experts”, many of whom have only the most tenuous grip on reality.
Journalists of all people should know to treat “experts” with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Besides, there are other ways, apart from a university education, to acquire knowledge and expertise.
A diligent, intelligent and enthusiastic amateur can acquire a body of knowledge to rival that of any academic. For that reason it’s dangerously elitist to dismiss a group such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust as having nothing of value to contribute to the debate on crime and punishment.

Amateur pressure groups play a crucial role in a participatory democracy. Confine public debate to “experts” and you risk excluding legitimate and often highly knowledgeable participants. 
Take Lindsay Mitchell, for example. She is an assiduous researcher who frequently exposes flaws in the arguments of welfare “experts”. Such individuals should be treasured in a free and open democracy – yet here were journalists, of all people, arguing that they should be ignored.

Should we be worried by this? You bet we should.




Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Karl

Yes, that was a shocking article in the Herald on so many levels. In once place it stated:

“attacks on the honesty of scientists and health professionals, invite instant dismissal. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. Thus, an irrational fog has descended over a number of issues. Expertise deserves respect. Everyone is free to disagree but ignorance does not have an equal right to be heard.”

Recently, leading climate change scientist Dr Michael Mann from Penn State University of tree rings and hockey stick graph fame, has brought a defamation law suit against journalist Mark Steyn and others who suggested he might have been guilty of manipulating data. In the legal claim he describes himself as having been "awarded the Nobel Peace Prize". He hasn't of course.

Does this little 'embellishment' call into question his honesty? Well, of course it does.

Would someone who embellishes their CV possibly embellish other data? You would have to conclude that they might.

The good thing about this case is that the 'discovery' phase may well require that all Dr Mann's data is published for everyone to see.

What data he chose include, what data he chose to exclude from his results and why.

This should all make interesting reading, especially for the folks at the Herald.

Jigsaw said...

Recently a blogger(also a journalist)suggested that a person in a position as a writer should be 'a trained journalist' which I find equally alarming. It was as if in order to be able to write for the public a licence of some kind was needed. Perhaps at the very least a directed education to ensure that they thought and wrote in the correct way.
I certainly have little doubt that many people including those in the journalist 'profession' would like to limit the published opinions of others.
David Slack on RNZ recently when FOX News was mentioned crowed loudly 'why would you want to watch that!?' Apparently he is content to listen/watch only that with which he agrees-sad really....

M said...

I think part of the reason for dismissing someone like MacVicar as a "nutter" is that it avoids having to actually consider his arguments.

Why would any intelligent person want to avoid opposing arguments? Because they might threaten a sacred value. You see the same thing in discussions of religion. The response is to simply demonise the heretic.

There was a fascinating article in the NY Times a year ago about Jonathan Haidt's talk on sacredness and bias in social science research.

Haidt notes:

The fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology have long attracted liberals, but they became more exclusive after the 1960s, according to Dr. Haidt. “The fight for civil rights and against racism became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and within the academy,” he said, arguing that this shared morality both “binds and blinds.”

“If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,” he said. “They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” It’s easy for social scientists to observe this process in other communities, like the fundamentalist Christians who embrace “intelligent design” while rejecting Darwinism. But academics can be selective, too, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan found in 1965 when he warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks — violating the taboo against criticizing victims of racism.

“Moynihan was shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard as racist,” Dr. Haidt said. “Open-minded inquiry into the problems of the black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have liberal sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along.”