Sunday 17 January 2016

"You're not entitled to your opinion": Plato, proto-fascism and the cult of the expert


You're not entitled to your opinion insists philosophy lecturer, Patrick Stokes:

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Let's get the first thing out of the way. You may be entitled to your opinion but that doesn't stop it being a stupid opinion. And Stokes is right when he observes that students in his class have to argue for their opinion (it is, after all, a philosophy class) The problem is that, as is common in this argument about the value of opinion, Stokes then invokes Plato to substantiate his opinion on who else is allowed to have an opinion. This invocation is backed up with a particularly egregious example of bad opinions being given too much credence.

My problem with this isn't that (using Stokes' example) arguing against vaccination programmes has much validity but rather the wider difficulty in deciding who is or is not an expert. In the case Stokes cites, the distinction is easy but this is seldom the case when it comes to argument. Let's take economics and the example of Paul Krugman. Now Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, the very acme of the expert, he is - in Stokes' view - entirely entitled to his opinion. Yet what we get as a result is statements made purely on the basis that 'I am an expert ergo my opinion is valid, you are not an expert ergo your opinion is not valid'.

I wrote about an occasion of Krugman's approach to being an expert a year or so ago:

When confronted with the moral argument that debt means having something now rather than later - meaning of course that we, given the likely timescale for debt repayment, are taking that from future generations - Krugman chooses instead to talk about the lack of graduate job prospects. Rather than addressing the real issue raised - government debt as deferred taxation, Krugman chooses to talk about a relatively minor labour demand issue.

And then when Angela Leadsom raises supply side considerations - how to help the economy create jobs - Krugman lapses into accusations that Ms Leadsom and others are ideologically motivated and using the current crisis to shrink the size of the state. At no point in this does Krugman respond to or consider whether there are any supply side constraints. He waffles vaguely that there's no evidence of supply side constraint (in the US) and states baldly that the whole problem is a matter of demand. More seriously - from the point of debate - he accuses others of insincerity and exploitation without evidence.

What we see here is a 'cult of the expert'. Krugman is right because he is an expert not because, as an expert, he has set out his opinion and refuted (with reason) the arguments from others that challenge that opinion. This is the core ideal of Plato's politics - that society would be better if its management wasn't left to the ignorance of everyman but determined by ruling philosophers. This proto-fascism is the prime cancer in European thought since it seeks to deny the ignorant agency while at the same time deciding ignorance on the basis of an ideology - "I am an expert and you are not".

The argument that Stokes puts forward - "equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse" - might have some validity if experts were limited by their expertise. We have no issue with a scientist making clear that ceteris paribus vaccines are safe and providing scientific evidence to support that opinion. Indeed decision-makers would be foolish to disregard such an opinion unless there was a substantial and evidenced challenge to it.

The problem is that relatively few things within public discourse are as clear as the example that Stokes is using. This means we either have competing experts or else a situation where there is no valid expert opinion. And we still face the problem as to who defines the expert - here's a good example.

A few days ago two academics, Sara Kalkhoran and Stanton Glantz, published a 'systematic review and meta-analysis' of ecigs and smoking cessation concluding that ecigs reduced rates of smoking cessation. Now these are experts (I think we can state, for the sake of our argument, that an academic publishing research is de jure an expert) so, using Stokes argument, we should be giving credence to their opinion. Indeed the World Health Organisation has done just that - using Glantz's research and comment as a core element in its published advice to policy-makers on ecigs.

The problem is this:

"The problems with the authors’ interpretation of the two papers mentioned above are as follows: The first study (Adkson et al) is not longitudinal as has been reported here – e-cigarette use was measured at follow up, the same time as quit status was ascertained. The second study (Hitchman et al) included smokers who were using e-cigarettes at baseline and therefore included smokers who may have tried to use e-cigarettes to quit and failed, and excluded smokers who successfully used e-cigarettes to quit. The authors of this meta-analysis had been previously informed by the authors of the Adkison paper that they were misreporting the findings.”

Such a damning response doesn't, of course, stop the 'public discourse, from presenting Glantz's work without challenge or question. Were Glantz simply an ideological advocate in the manner of Meryl Dorey (Stokes' anti-vaxxer) then he could be dismissed in the same manner. However Glantz is a tenured academic as well as an ideological advocate - his expertise remains even when other researchers present effective challenge. The same - which is why Stokes' position is wrong - applies to Paul Krugman. Without the possibility of some little boy pointing out the emperors lack of clothes, we have the prospect of rule by an ever less accountable 'intellectual' clique conforming to the central Platonic error - that society can be managed by clever men.

Since we're arguing here about the distinction between 'the man in Whitehall knows best' and 'trust the people', it makes sense to enquire which of these two positions manages society best. And there's lots of evidence - some scientific, some historical and some based in reason - arguing both sides. Indeed there are many supporters for the 'philosopher king' model of rule by experts despite the evidence from Soviet Russia, from Germany and, more recently from Cuba or Venezuela that such a model will always (you can't think of everything) result in sub-optimal outcomes. Including some sub-optimal outcomes that result in millions dying painful and premature deaths.

Today this cult of the expert more and more governs our decision-making:

Right across government we see decision-making that should be done by people accountable to the public being done by the unelected - local enterprise partnerships, schools forums, probation boards, a veritable host of the unelected and unaccountable. This is post-democracy - consultation, partnership and the 'professional' have replaced the tried and tested process of electing people to make decisions on our behalf. We have decided that democracy - elections, MPs, councillors and so forth - are a bit of a pain. Or rather we haven't decided, the system has gradually sidelined politicians - the people's representatives - to the stage where the only way for us to effect any change is for us to join in the game, to play at post-democracy.

Democracy isn't modern and it runs counter to our cult of the expert, our obsession with that unreachable ideal of 'evidence-based policy'. So the powerful have emasculated democracy and replaced it with a pretty spectacle, a place of sound and fury. Great fun, as observers of parliament know, but ultimately pointless. The decisions are made somewhere else.

And so long as men like Patrick Stokes, for noble reasons and using egregious examples like Meryl Dorey, promte that cult of the expert to students will will continue to undermine liberty in the cause of better government, to take a few more baby steps towards the Platonic ideal of a fascist autocracy where all-knowing philosophers order society in the interests of a supine unquestioning (for questioning the expert is a sin) mass of the population.


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