Wednesday, 5 September 2012

We should listen to experts, not pretend to be one

I presume that most of us believe ourselves to be an expert in something.  From particle physics to computer games, from parenting to bomb disposal, most of us spend a great part of our lives focusing on something - and it is impossible to do that without knowing quite a lot about it.

As an academic, my own areas of expertise are pretty precise.  I don't think it would be particularly arrogant to suggest that if I were to throw a stone from the coffee shop in which I am sitting, it would be unlikely to hit many people who know more about language philosophy in the mid-eighteenth-century English novel.  Having said that, if I were to throw a stone from here I would probably hit half-a-dozen people who know more about gardening, DIY, mathematics, etc. etc..

Being in Stratford, I am currently fascinated by the people I see with Olympic security badges.  What do they do?  Have I just said 'good morning' to an Olympian?  To a woman who was an architect of the stadium?  To a man who is just off to referee a gold-medal table tennis match?

Stratford Station: Who have you just bumped into?
There is something endlessly fascinating about other people's areas of expertise.  Indeed, perhaps one of the great draws of the Olympics is seeing people achieve things which seem superhuman to most of us.  How can a human being have such fast reactions?  How can a human being control a bat / ball / sword with such complete control and precision?  How in the name of all that is holy can a double above-knee amputee even stand up on those things, let along run that fast?!

Most of the time, there is a healthy respect for other people's areas of expertise.  You would not, for example, find many people arguing seriously 'yeah, David Weir's alright and all that - but give me a decent wheelchair and I could go even faster'.  You would not find many people arguing seriously 'that Stephen Hawking may think he knows a lot about theoretical cosmology, but he doesn't know as much as me'.  If you are going into hostpital for an operation, you don't find many people saying 'oh for heaven's sake, give me the scalple and let me do it - I know how to do it better'.

After all, that would be both arrogant and ridiculous.  Wouldn't it?

David Weir.  Think you can do better?
Trouble is, there are some jobs in which the appearance of expertise is the specialism required.  Doctors spend their lives being seen by patients as the ones with the answers to all their problems.  How difficult is it for doctors to avoid falling into the trap of believing that they are?  I remember once having a conversation with a renowned surgeon, in which he asked me about my doctoral thesis.  I began to explain what I was writing about, but after a few seconds I had to stop while this eminent surgeon began to helpfully explain the topic to me.  Now, his knowledge of the area was impressive - but he certainly didn't know more about it that I did, and how many of us would dare to try and explain to another academic their own specialism as though they were a raw fresher?  The problem was not that this surgeon was inherently arrogant, but that adopting the role of confident authority was a significant aspect of his job.  He was used to people expecting him to adopt this role, and on this one rare occasion the lines between professional expectations and social interaction had become temporarily blurred.

As a teacher I feel prone to exactly the same kinds of slip-ups.  If you have spent the majority of your working life standing in front of a room full of people who see you as the ultimate authority, there is a temptation to feel obliged to be that ultimate authority.  Indeed, a colleague of mind was the other week recounting a conversation with his wife.  The conversation lighted on the topic of 'game theory', and my colleague told me he had got half-way through explaining game theory to his wife before she gently reminded him that while he was an eminent expert in many fields of sociology she was the one who had a Phd in game theory - and that perhaps she didn't need it explained to her.

Here we are then. Explain everything to us.
My colleague had temporarily forgotten that his wife was not a student, and he was not her lecturer - something for which my own wife is equally unforgiving.  Such instances demonstrate that the lecturer / student relationship is too often by default a relationship of the expert / ignorant, and that the profession of teaching can make us believe there is a pressure to appear to be that expert - whatever the topic.

An occupational hazard, for which educators need to be ever-vigilant.

In some industries though, what doctors and educators might see as a hazard has become almost institutionalised as an essential qualification.

I have certainly worked under managers in the past who saw the appearance of almost omniponent authority as the right way to project strength and leadership, and for whom the appearance of expertise was genuinely more important than any actual expertise.  Under such managers, a bad decision was justified simply because it was made by the manager - not because of any logical validity to the decision itself.

I am, of course, not expert enough to determine whether this constitutes good management or bad management.

I do have a concern though, that politicians appear more and more to adopt this 'omnipotent' approach to their job - and frankly I cannot see that as anything other than bad for the country.

We have just had a political cabinet re-shuffle in which Jeremy Hunt has now become the Health Minister.  Hunt is a man who has no background in heath at all, who advocates hokey brands of homeopathy and once called for the dismantling of the NHSHe is clearly not a medical expert - but how long do you think it will be before he starts talking as though nobody knows more about it than he does?

Jeremy Hunt: A politician (but not an expert)
After all, Hunt's predecessor was a man who once boldy declared to an NHS confederation conference:

Survival rates for respiratory diseases and many cancers remain poor compared to other countries. The evidence shows us there is much further to go on managing care more effectively. For example, the NHS has high rates of acute complications of diabetes and avoidable asthma admissions, the incidence of MRSA infection remains worse than the European average, venous thrombo-embolysm causes 25,000 avoidable deaths each year. 

Hmm.  What evidence was that, exactly?  How is a 'European average' determined, and is it reasonable to measure UK health against health provision in, say, Italy?  What is meant by 'unavoidable deaths', and And is this the only possible explanation of that evidence?

Now, I am not disputing that Mr. Lansley was using evidence which had been given to him in good faith - but I am pretty sure that this graduate of politics (who became shadow health minister largely because his Dad used to work in a lab) did not gather this data, and almost certainly did not know how to interpret the complexities of that data any more than I do.

Andrew Lansley: A politician (but not an expert)

And yet this interpretation of evidence was used as the basis for a wholesale reform of the NHS opposed by every significant organisation and healthcare professional - and supported only by politicians, members of the public and private healthcare providers.

In other words, the NHS reform was pushed through only by people who either were not experts in the subject, or who stood to personally benefit from them.  The winners were those who could persuade the public with the appearance of expertise, while the actual experts were sidelined.

We should not be too surprised at this.  There have been many recent examples of government bodies ostracising experts in favour of their own opinions.  In 2010 a forum on GM foods was abandoned after too many of its academic panel members resigned, accusing the government was accused of being "dogmatically entrenched" and "anti-science".  A year earlier the government advisor on drugs resigned because nobody paid any attention to the science when making political decisions.  This led Lord Winston to comment:

I think that if governments appoint expert advice they shouldn't dismiss it so lightly. I think it shows a rather poor understanding of the value of science.

Lord Winston: An expert (but not a politician)

One of the most difficult things I find in communicating to students is that it is more important to be all-questioning than all-knowing.  Certainly the reality is that when a student walks into the first day of their degree course, often what they are looking for is the security of knowing their tutors are sufficiently 'expert'.  There is a fine balance though, between giving students this confidence and exemplifying an approach which is more interested in exploring than in demonstrating; more interested in asking than in telling; more interested in finding out where we are wrong, than in pretending we are right

When it comes to leading a country, making policy decisions which effect the lives of millions, which control out economy and determine whether people will be sent to war, wouldn't we rather have people who are more interested in finding out where they are wrong, than people adept in making it look like they are right regardless?  Wouldn't we rather have people more interested in finding the truth about the world, than people whose ideologies have convinced them that they already know it?

In other words, if your life depended on winning a race who would you rather advise you?  Double Olympic gold medalist David Weir, or sports minster (and graduate of Land Management) Hugh Roberston?

Run! Run! Run!