The Expertise Squeeze?

2016 was the year of surprises. One of those surprises was Brexit. It was a surprise for David Cameron. It turns out that if you spin the referendum roulette wheel often enough, your luck will run out. Based on their preparation for the consequences, it was also a surprise for Leave campaigners. While many shocking things were said and done during that campaign, one sticks out for me. On the 3rd of June 2016, a few weeks before the referendum day itself, Michael Gove was interviewed by Faisal Islam, a Sky journalist. Islam had just listed a series of authorities – including the leaders of the US, India, Australia, CBI, IMF, NHS and unions – that had counselled against Brexit. Gove responded:

“I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations.. from acronyms.. saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

Gove went on to say that those experts “have a vested financial interest in the European Union” and that this interlocutor was “on the side of the elites”. In turn, his interviewer labelled him “Oxbridge Trump”.

And speaking of the US president, two months earlier, the Real Donald Trump had said at a rally in Wisconsin:

“You look at what China’s doing in the South China Sea, and they say, ‘Oh, Trump doesn’t have experts,’ Let me tell you, I do have experts but I know what’s happening. And look at the experts we’ve had, OK? Look at the experts. All of these people have had experts. You know, I’ve always wanted to say this—I’ve never said this before with all the talking we all do—all of these experts, ‘Oh we need an expert—’ The experts are terrible.”

Trump has gone on to govern with the same erratic attitude to competence that characterised this utterance – every few months, he will come out with a similar statement about a policy area: “Who knew that healthcare / North Korea / (insert policy issue here) was so complicated! Who knew!” Who knew? Who indeed. Experts are only one group among many singled out for attack by Trump so it seems almost unfair to mention this event.

The Australian government does not quite have an equivalent of a Gove or a Trump “expert” statement. While the likes of One Nation promote all kinds of strange ideas and say all kinds of outrageous things, they remain a fringe phenomenon. Meanwhile the current Coalition government may often be at odds with experts on topics as diverse as asylum seekers, energy policy and taxation but this is not unusual in a democracy. However there was an utterance by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that came close to Trumpian heights of absurdity. It relates to the regulation of cryptography:

“The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”

Excluding Australia from the realm of mathematics is certainly an… innovative move (and Turnbull has assured us that he is all about innovation). This is unlikely to end well. If mathematics is pitched against the fear of terrorism then mathematics is sure to lose. Maths may have Number Theory but Fear has the actual voter numbers. When even mathematics is politicised (a field of endeavour at once immensely powerful and often wilfully disengaged from the quotidian), you have to wonder what remains out of bounds.

The public expert-bashing has yielded a number of responses. At least three books have been published with the title “Post Truth” this year (spoilers: the authors are not in favour of it) and US academic Tom Nichols has published a book called The Death Of Expertise. Nichols posits that the general public have turned against experts and now arrogantly glory in their own ignorance. The claimed causes of this are higher education, the internet and the media. The expansion of higher education and the proliferation of low quality learning institutions has led to a graduate glut of ill-educated individuals who believe that their near worthless degrees give them the same standing as ivy league professors. The internet makes available a wide variety of content, only a minority of which is actually true. The credulous can easily find “evidence” to support their viewpoints no matter how bizarre. Finally, the media used to be a mainstream environment focused on truth and has now become a fragmented, partisan free-for-all where experts are chosen for their ideological purity rather than their subject matter competence. Experts become mere technicians called on to fix problems rather than sources of insight and authority for the populace.

If this weren’t depressing enough for experts, a group of cognitive scientists and technologists including Gary Klein, Ben Shneiderman, and Robert Hoffman identify a completely different set of threats. For them the threats against the validity of expertise come from researchers and practitioners in the fields of the sociology of knowledge, decision research, heuristics and biases, evidence-based performance and information technology. While some of these viewpoints have little sway outside academia, some of the others are having a major impact in government and business. Evidence-based performance attempts to replace the judgment of professionals with “best practice” – perhaps documented in a checklist. Decision research replaces expert judgment with simple (“linear”) statistical models. Information technology goes further and claims that human beings can be completely replaced by artificial intelligence, big data, and automation. The promises made on behalf of cognitive computing, machine learning and big data are extensive. An often-quoted University of Oxford study puts 47% of US employment at risk of automation – that includes professionals such as insurance underwriters as well as filing clerks. These threats do not come from the plebian masses that concern the post-truth crowd. Instead they come from above, from the organisations that hire and develop experts.

Why are attempts to displace experts attractive to organisations? Well, the place of experts in organisations is an ambivalent one. On the one hand, experts are often the public face of these organisations. Companies and public bodies may compete to hire the most prestigious in their field. They won’t necessarily use them wisely once hired but bragging rights count for a lot – at least until the initial ardor fades and someone new comes along. On the other hand, experts are expensive and fragile. If they genuinely add a great deal and become indispensable then managers are presented with a significant risk. People get sick or depressed or distracted by family problems or tempted by the offers of competitors. So the thought of getting the benefits of your experts without vulnerability to their downsides is deeply attractive. Hence the investment in the original expert systems that promised to replace experts but largely failed. Some of the new Machine Learning (ML) approaches will likewise end badly but others are already displacing professionals. The large accounting firms take on far fewer graduates than they used to. They no longer need armies of 20-somethings with clipboards to audit companies – much of the work can be done by sucking data out of finance systems and running statistical tests over it to detect malfeasance. The junior auditors have been weighed in the balance (sheet) and found wanting.

So it appears that experts face pressures from two directions. On the one hand, an ignorant public (and the populists who court them) wish to eliminate experts and even the notion of expertise while technologists and managers wish to replace them with machines. Squeezed into irrelevance – who would want to be an expert?

In considering these claims about the death of expertise, we should take a step back and look at some data (we should not use populist methods to investigate populism). Does the public see all experts as the same? Has trust in experts collapsed in recent years? Roy Morgan’s annual survey of the image of the professions actually indicates rising trust in doctors, university lectures and engineers over the last 40 years. It’s not gold stars all round however. Bank managers and ministers of religion have seen significant falls over the same period. Politicians do better than used car salesmen (the lower limit of trust it would seem) but only just. A recent poll by Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science shows that the overwhelming majority of the public believe that doctors, scientists and engineers both contribute to the wellbeing of society and should be considered prestigious professions. CSIRO studies on public attitudes towards climate change indicate that the most trusted sources of information on the topic are university scientists and the least are oil companies (although for those that don’t believe climate change is happening, their most trusted source is their family and friends). While the Edelman Trust Bar discusses low and decreasing trust among Australians for government, media and business; academic and technical experts are seen as the most credible spokespeople that the survey considers – higher even than “a person like yourself” and way higher than government officials or businesspeople.

The overwhelming message from this range of sources is that the public does not view all authority figures as equal and that trust in experts has not collapsed – in fact it some areas it has risen.The fall of the clergy is likely caused by the decline in religious observance and exacerbated by the ongoing child abuse scandals. If your business is morality and care then carelessly and immorally protecting predators is fatal. Bankers seem to have traded public trust for profits and wealth. It will be fascinating to see what happens if the profits run out and they are thrown back on the goodwill of the public. Overall, however, none of this implies a widespread rejection of expertise although it does indicate that a number of key social and economic institutions have become disconnected from the population at large.

Now there is a difference between simply saying you respect someone and actually following their advice. Looking at the example of medicine, almost four out of five Australians say that they use the internet to research health information (compared to a third in 2012). More than half of Australians say that they look up information about health conditions on the internet to avoid seeing a medical professional. On the other end of the stethoscope, a fifth of GPs report that “patients dictating their treatment” is an issue (about the same number as answered “maintaining electronic system” – technology can be as much a challenge as an enabler). This behaviour begs the question of what patients want from doctors – medical advice, access to a prescription pad, someone to talk to? We are not about to give up our relationship with our doctors but that relationship may change – as we shall see later.

If one issue has crystallised debates about medical expertise, health information and public safety, it is vaccination. In the 1990s, British doctor Andrew Wakefield claimed to have discovered a link between the widely-used Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, bowel disease, and autism. Over the following 20 years, medical authorities found his research fraudulent and he was struck off the UK medical register. Wakefield moved to the US where his ideas have been championed by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy. N.B. There is no reliable evidence that vaccines cause autism or that not getting vaccinated is better for you than getting your shots. In Australia, until relatively recently anti-vaccination groups have been given media time in the interests of balance – but they are now effectively pariah organisations.

How have these debates resonated with the public? A survey of parents carried out in 2012 indicated that 94% of parents support vaccination of children, 90% believed vaccination was safe and 83% of parents obtained information from their GP. However, there were were other results that complicated matters. The internet was the third most widely used information source for information. Avoiding or delaying vaccination was related to seeking advice from an alternative health practitioner. Significant numbers of parents had concerns about vaccines weakening their child’s immune system or potentially causing autism. Doctors have to operate in world full of competing information but they start from strong position of trust. There is a risk that in focusing on the small number of parents who refuse vaccination, the broader concerns and disconnections with parents are lost. These concerns can only be partially assuaged with facts. Parenting is an intensely emotional (and only occasionally rational) activity. The broader question is whether health professionals have both the skills and the time to work through these parental concerns that may undermine this important program.

Of course Michael Gove was not berating doctors in his broadside against experts (although the relationship between his government and the UK medical profession has not always been cordial). He was specifically picking on the economic experts of the “acronym organisations” (e.g. IMF, ECB) who are associated in the minds of many of the public with the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Eurozone Crises of 2010. These were supposedly the smartest guys in the room and yet the world almost collapsed. Millions of people have lost their jobs or their pensions as a result of fraud and incompetence on the part of these experts.

Gove has been roundly condemned by many commentators for his “experts” comment and its implied anti-intellectualism. However Gove’s jibes have weight because the authorities that he challenges have made serious mistakes. This is not to say that Gove is right (I happen to believe the UK has made a mistake around Brexit) but that he is not wholly wrong. Gove’s attacks deserve to be taken seriously especially where he identifies the limits of expertise and the dangers of technocracy.

Firstly, the limits of expertise. If not all experts are trusted equally by the public then not experts perform equally well. Many people call themselves them an “expert” (just as many of us call ourselves “attractive” or claim a “GSOH”). Some fields seem more amenable to developing expertise than others. Whereas weather forecasters and physicians can develop reliably high performance, clinical psychologists and intelligence analysts are restricted in their abilities and stockbrokers do no better than chance. Psychologist James Shanteau calls these “domain differences”. Some fields are more mature than others in terms of their understanding but also some phenomena are more tractable than others. There are some domains where our expertise is likely always to be limited. Managing complex modern economies will be one such domain. Therefore those claiming expertise in this field require humility and the ability to simultaneously realise that they are probably wrong on any number of issues while still acting where they need to. Like consumers of alcohol, experts should know their limits.

The other risk that Gove alludes to is technocracy – removing political decisions from the hands of the public and elected officials and placing them in the hands of unelected experts. While proponents of rule by expert goes back at least as far as Plato, Technocracy as a movement with that name arose in the early years of the 20th century. American engineers such as Howard Scott proposed a society based on efficiency and engineering insight – where money was replaced by energy certificates with energy as the key metric of value (echoing some of our current energy debates). Technocracy as a public movement hit a peak of popularity at the start of the Great Depression – at about the same time that anti-democratic populist movements reached the peak of their popularity in Europe. Technocratic and anti-intellectual populist movements can be seen as differing but related responses to the failure of democracy.

While they have been portrayed as opposites, both offer something similar – the promise of subduing the mess and tumult of democratic life with order. Order through personal authority and charisma for the populist. Order through the authority of knowledge for the technocrat. Populist and technocrat are two sides of the same coin and we should not be surprised to see the emergence of politicians that attempt to wield technocracy and populism at the same time. Indeed, this is what Trump claimed he was going to do – fill government positions not with time-serving Washington insiders but with brilliant business people whose expertise in deal-making and running organisations would transform government and bring it closer to the people. This does not seem to be what has actually happened in practice (as might be expected from Trump’s earlier comments on expertise). Instead he has selected right-wing ideologues and several very wealthy executives whose experience has not transferred well to their new environments. It turns out that the State Department is not that similar to an oil company (although international trust may also be a non-renewable resource).

It should be noted that technocratic governments do not necessarily need to be led by engineers. In Europe, the technocrats are generally economists and financiers (often with a Goldman Sachs pedigree). The balancing of interest rates, employment, exchange rates, debt, taxes, investment, etc are seen as the primary work of government. However in China, the political elite are “traditional” technocrats in that they have degrees in engineering. The last three presidents of China were trained as a chemical engineer, a water conservancy engineer and an electrical engineer. At the same time, the Chinese state combines its technocracy with populism – promoting a heavily nationalist worldview that is happy to demonise those who are not Han Chinese inside and outside its borders.

There is a great danger of technocracy by itself or the muddier variants of technocratic populism and that is due to the previous problem – the limits of expertise. As we saw earlier, some problems are just not that tractable. The big challenges that societies face are “wicked problems”. Problems like climate change and inequality do not have neat technical solutions, they are fundamentally messy, they are ambiguous, they change dynamically and they require a collective will to action. Experts cannot provide this collective action by themselves. They cannot prevent climate change or reduce inequality. They can engage and contribute but they cannot solve these solutions in an individualistic, heroic fashion.

While wicked problems highlight the limits of experts, they also provide them a way to escape the squeeze. The current generation of artificial intelligence systems are not designed to handle complex problems that require unpredictable engagement with human beings. Humans will need to engage with each other to find solutions to our challenges (although they may use information technology to investigate these solutions). However this means that experts need to be willing to work at communication and engagement to ensure that their expertise has an impact. I am not suggesting that experts should be become politicians (that would be self-defeating – and the world has enough politicians already). Rather that their future will involve a broader skill set than they have been previously used to. Not all of these wicked problems will be dealt with at the most rarefied levels of state (in fact, one of the characteristics of a wicked problem is that it needs to be dealt with at multiple levels) . Working with someone to help them lose weight or manage a chronic condition like diabetes or persuading them that their kids won’t be hurt by their vaccination shots can be a complex task where dispassionately relaying the facts is not enough. Much of the technical detail may be outsourced to machines with more a comprehensive and up-to-date knowledge base however the professional will still need have a broad understanding of the field, will still need to spot where the detail of the context needs to be taken into account and will still need to guide another human being through difficult and traumatic choices.

As Atul Gawande (surgeon, public health policy wonk and possibly the greatest writer on medicine and humanity living today) said about the difficult conversations that doctors need to have with their patients (esp. about end of life issues): “One reason there’s more surgery and less discussion is that the health system will pay a doctor a lot for doing a surgery and basically nothing for having a frank, sensitive, hard conversation about end-of-life choices… we really reward me for being a surgeon and this debate about whether we are going to make it possible for people to be rewarded for being really good at these human sides of the skills”. As someone who has had to either work with or manage experts throughout my career, I would observe that the incentives for experts are not just financial. For many experts, their sense of identity and self-worth is intertwined with what they know and what they can do. They have invested time and energy into developing these parts of themselves (and have been rewarded with money and respect for doing so). Some have also developed wonderful communications skills as well – but many have not. And those skills of communication, engagement and mobilisation will only become more important for them. The force of automation will change the shape of expert knowledge.

The impact of machines on experts will not uniform and neither is there only one possible response to them. Richard and Daniel Susskind identify seven different models for the future of professions – ranging from the traditional “trusted adviser” model to through to increased work undertaken by para-professionals, and the embedding of expert knowledge into machines. Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby present different options for those facing technological displacement including becoming a manager of the technologies, focusing on activities that technologies do not cope well with (see the previous comments about conversations) or designing the technological systems themselves. The options open to a professional will vary not only by professional but by the various specialities within that profession. It will change the tasks that experts undertake.

It will change the attitude of the public as well. The Susskinds talk about the rise “quasi-trust” and “trusted solutions” displacing the present notion of the professional as “trusted adviser”. When people are replaced by products, we no longer rely on the moral characteristics of professionals but on the reliability of the solution. I think they have a valid point but this won’t be uniform. While it is true that you only worry about your car being evil if you’re in a Stephen King novel, there are some actions that we will feel comfortable leaving to a machine and some that we will not. While I might be happy to get a robo-generated will, I might not be happy to discuss end of life care with a machine.

The expertise squeeze is real although its extent is exaggerated by pessimists. The squeeze will change the shape of experts – in terms of how they learn, what they need to know and how they must engage with others. The squeeze will change the shape of society – the shifting fortunes of different professionals is tied to the perceived value they add to our lives and the ability of the institutions they represent to handle scandal and bad decisions. The challenge for the rest of us (non-experts) will be our willingness to engage with, and sift through, different sources of advice. In a world brimming with information, knowledge is no longer power. Discernment and judgement come to the fore. We must choose wisely.

Sources & Further Reading

Tom Nichols – Death of Expertise –

Klein et al – The War On Experts –

Future of Employment:

CPAS poll:

Roy Morgan Image of the Professions:

Climate Change  Survey;

Edelman Trust Barometer – Australia:

Medical & patient behaviour:,-beliefs,-behaviours-and-concerns-towards-childhood-vaccinations-in-australia-a-national-online-survey/

Why task domains (still) matter for understanding expertise –

Only Humans Need Apply:

The Future of the Professions:

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Situation: Normie

One can imagine an alternative reality where Kill All Normies (KAN) had a different reception. Where Trump narrowly lost the 2016 election and the alt-right remained a curiosity – albeit a disturbing one. KAN would be a long pamphlet / short book aimed at the audience of a leftish, academicish publisher (the kind of readership that know who Gramsci is). It would be fiercely debated within those narrow circles for a few weeks and then disappear.

But that is not the world it was published into. Instead Trump is president and it’s OK to be a public racist again. It is unlikely that the alt-right were instrumental in Trump’s victory – but they have profited from it. In attempting to chart the rise of the alt-right, it is therefore an Important Book. Even if it wasn’t meant to be.

Angela Nagle’s book is not quite ethnography, not quite journalism, not quite political argument. The book is short and reads as a series of articles joined together. It feels grossly underedited – many sentences need adverbs removed or clauses broken up. The flow of chapters is unclear (the later, better chapters feel like they belong earlier on) and enough evidence is presented to support the author’s point but little more. I only got a partial sense of what the alt-right is, who makes it up and how they operate.

Instead the book is more concerned making some provocative points within its leftish, academicish milieu. The notion that the alt-right are Gramscians is an intriguing one. The observations that transgression does not always lead to liberation is a valid one but unoriginal. Nagle draws on books like The Sex Revolts to make this argument. The comparison is not always flattering – that book was exhaustively and exhaustingly researched in way that KAN isn’t.

I am not a fan of call out culture but I was unconvinced by the argument that the alt-right is a direct reaction to Left Tumblr. The 4chan nerd ragers seem to be triggered more by what they see in mainstream culture rather than SJW niches (and they tend to exaggerate the power of these niches much as some on the left exaggerate the power of the alt-right). It’s possible to argue that similar social forces drive the emergence of these niches but some teasing out of their similarities and differences would be beneficial. As critics have noted, Nagle has major beefs with identity politics that get prosecuted here. These are not given the space to be thoroughly explored so they sometimes come across as crude putdowns.

The final chapters that discuss the misogyny that underpins much of the alt-right and its raging elitism are genuinely interesting (and I wish they would have gone further and deeper). Likewise the criticism of those who promoted sites like 4chan as a source of anarchic social good is well-aimed.

The book has also weighed on current shitfight about the role of identity politics and the future of the left – which has given it prominence but not ways that lead to its arguments being considered in a measured manner. I suspect there is more Dr Nagle’s work than this one, slim book. I also suspect that I have more in common with her perspectives than indicated here – esp. looking at the abstract for her PhD thesis.

The alt-right developed in its own shadowy world and its exposure to mass publicity has not been to its benefit (as Nagle recently documented). Likewise, wider exposure has not necessarily been to this book’s benefit. There is still a gap in the market for an thorough exploration of this phenomenon.

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History, Gravity

Last week, The Institute of Public Affairs released a report on the teaching of history in Australian universities. It reminded me of my own times as a student. Particularly the day we filled a fellow undergrad’s dorm room with balloons from floor to ceiling. Both we and the IPA engaged in a top-flight, time-consuming instance of trolling. And in both instances, we were richly rewarded. While I don’t think anyone actually broke down in tears at the IPA’s stunt, they did reap a fine harvest of media corn. The ire of actual academic historians must have been an added bonus.

I’m not that interested in the conclusions of the IPA’s research but I am fascinated by what it reveals about the mindset and obsessions of Australian conservatives. In short, conservatives are obsessed with history. The History Wars raged in the early years of this millennium, providing a minor buzzing in background of Australian Idol. The IPA are attempting to revive the history wars in much the same way that Guy Sebastian’s latest album is attempting to revive his career – and with as much success. Nevertheless, the history wars will not go away for two stark reasons.

The first is ideological. Conservatives seek political legitimation in history. They are animated by a nostalgia for pasts both real and imagined. Nostalgia is a perfect word – partly because it derives from the ancient Greek for an ache for a lost home but also because it was an invention of the seventeenth century long after the ancient Greeks were dead. Reading the work of prominent conservative journalists in the News Corp press, I get the sense they long for the 50s and 60s of their childhoods (or the childhoods of their parents). Science or Economics cannot validate or embody these urges but History can. History is the main source of political legitimation for the conservative project and it therefore must be fought for.

Now this has some delicious ironies. It is ironic that conservatives worship history because so do their sworn enemies – communists. Marx proclaimed a world without God but guided by the Scientific Laws of History. Although Marx’s God feels more Old Testament, a demiurge to the conservatives’ New Testament History-as-exemplar. It is also ironic that the periods that conservatives hark back to (especially the bland bliss of Post-War Menzies) were also the times when the Western world was at its most explicitly socialist and collective. The memory can play tricks.

The second reason that the history wars will not go away are demographic. Australia has an ageing population. And as we age, we lose ourselves to history and memories. For my entire life, I have been told by old people how terrible the modern world is. The world with fewer people in poverty than ever, with reduced infant mortality and longer lifespans. This waking nightmare of bounty and ease. But when your body is failing, your loved ones are dead, and your dreams are nearly extinguished, that all sounds academic. Religion may be the Opium of the People but History is the Oxycontin of the Aged. The pull of the past will be ever stronger for a greying population. The struggle to control it will escalate.

Do not expect the history wars to disappear. If you live in and for the past (or your memory of it) then you will fight for them forever. Academic historians will be bystanders in this battle. University students will also be acceptable casualties. Good history (white blindfold, western civilization, etc) will be pitted against bad history (black armband, identity politics, delete as appropriate). The tragedy here is that while history influences the present and the future, it does not decide them. We must focus on how we forge a different future. We must seek out new mistakes to make. Or we can just fall back into the easy ways of the elaborate troll, falling back into gravitation pull of the black hole of history.

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Expert Witness

The Death of Expertise by Prof. Tom Nichols is one of a number of books that refer to the tumultuous events of 2016 (c.f. at least three books about Post Truth). Prof. Nichols is an academic with a background in Russian studies and nuclear weapons policy research who teaches at the Naval War College. He’s also a conservative commentator of the “Never Trump” variety – he’s probably not expecting an NSC post any time soon.

The book identifies a decreasing respect for expertise / professionals / public intellectuals. This disrespect has three major courses that get a chapter each:

  • A higher education system that panders to its student base as consumers to be entertained rather than as learners to be taken on a journey of intellectual discovery.
  • An internet environment that enables the easy creation and dissemination of content regardless of its veracity.
  • The media landscape that is fractured, partisan and sensationalist.

Let me start with the areas where I agree with Prof. Nichols:

  • I value expertise and the pursuit of knowledge. I do not think all opinions are equally valid.
  • I have some major concerns as to the construction of our higher education systems. I do not think the focus on degree programs as an aspirational model for everyone is healthy. Some of the problems of grade inflation and campus politics are more extreme in the US market compared to Australia (based on my limited experience). However I do think the higher education market is due some kind of “crash” or at least, restructuring. The issues scene in the Australian VET sector (too much government money, too little regulation) are a small foreshadowing of the bigger falls that will come.
  • The media landscape is changing in ways that are inimical to high standards of reportage and journalism.
  • There is a break between democratic governments and their citizens. This fracture is widening in many Western democracies and will only get wider.

I want to make some notes on the form of the book:

  • Prof. Nichols is a decent prose stylist and entertaining writer.
  • Prof. Nichols is not a sociologist of the professions nor is he a cognitive scientist with insight into expertise development. In this domain, he is a dilettante. That is, in itself, not a problem although it is somewhat ironic that a book protesting the willingness of amateurs to wade into the domains of others is written by… an amateur wading into the domain of others.
  • There are some odd omissions within the book. Statistics are used but irregularly – the preference being for the sweeping assertion and a number of telling anecdotes. There is not a single chart in the whole thing.
  • The footnotes mostly refer to periodicals (e.g. The Atlantic, New York Times) rather than academic research – David Dunning and Philip Tetlock being noticeable exceptions. And why not, their work is excellent. But where is everything else? Extensive research has been carried out on the rise of the professions, their role in society, the challenge of integrating experts into government, and the opportunities and perils of technocracy. Why neglect it?
  • The whole thing feels like a 252 page “hot take” – a series of opinion columns strung together into a book. Some of it is entertaining. Some of it insightful. Some of it not much of either.

And now moving on to the content. I wish to ask a series of questions.

The first question is concerns definition. What exactly is dying? Early on, the book lumps together professionals, expertise, and public intellectuals as all things that under attack. This is… a very broad brush. Less a brush and more a mop. The book dashes from anti-vaxxers to public policy advisors to journalists. Nichols is seeking to make a grand argument about the nature of American society. This broad focus poses some risks that we will encounter very shortly.

The second question is: where is the evidence that expertise less valued now that it was in the past? There’s lots of anecdotes but little in the way of the quantifiable trend data. Which is odd because there’s a number of research polls about public attitudes to professionals. For example:

These polls shows a few things:

  • Not all professions are equal. Different professions are viewed very differently by the public at large.
  • Medical professionals remain highly trusted (and prestigious).
  • Some professions have actually grown in trustworthiness over the years – engineers being a stand out example.
  • Some professionals have not done so well. Politicians, lawyers, journalists, college teachers, and the clergy do not have great reputations. But for some groups this distrust goes back decades (trust in lawyers in 2016 is very similar to what it was in 1988).
  • I note with some amusement (& perhaps a dash of hope) in the Harris Poll that only 21% of those aged 70 or older think of “politician” as a prestigious occupation but 57% of Millennials do. Whither apathy?

These numbers do not show a widespread collapse in either trust or prestige for professionals across the board. Rather they imply the reconfiguring of the role of the professional within society. The pieces on the board are shifting around.

The third question relates to the chapter on higher education. The argument is that going into higher education (esp. lower status colleges) breeds a contempt for experts. Therefore, presumably one would expect those with “some college” would be the most hostile to experts and elites in general? I’d like to see some data supporting this proposition. In 2016 presidential election, the candidate positioned as anti-elitist also played best with those without a college education.

The final question involves taking a step back from the hurlyburly of rude people on the internet and biased news shows and asking what concerns professionals.

  • A Medscape survey identified that the key issues for doctors are: bureaucracy, long hours, and the computerization of practice. Professionals here are not concerned with mouthy plebs but rather the tensions of being a professional within an industrial-style institution.
  • Gary Klein & co write about the The War On Expertise but this war is being waged by technologists, behavioural economists, and checklist developers.
  • The Susskinds have written on the future of the professions in a manner that is both less gloomy and more far-reaching that Nichols’ book. Their point is that the models under which the professions have operated for the last 200 years are undergoing transformative change – and I agree with them. But this change is not necessarily “bad” for society as a whole. Our historical models of expertise management have left knowledge inaccessible to many.

Nichols’ book is a missed opportunity. There’s a bigger story here than ungrateful students and mean internet comments. While he picks up on some important issues, he needs to move beyond his own preoccupations.


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No End

Euan Semple asks whether we have reached The end of civilisation as we know it?

Euan’s take is that the Tech Bemehoths (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon) provide key parts of infrastructure globally. Our governments are out of their depth so therefore:

Are we transitioning from the nation state to some other way of maintaining and supporting our societies? How do we feel about this? Is it inevitable? Could we stop it even if we wanted?

My response to this is: Probably not.

Now where do I think positions like Euan’s have a point? Well, I agree that these companies are large and powerful. And they want to use this power to further their own ends. Google are engaged in an anti-trust battle with the EU. Facebook’s CEO seems to be contemplating running for office. However there are some things to consider.

How powerful are the Tech Behemoths really?

The 2017 Fortune 500 is headed up by retailer Amazon Walmart (whose revenues are still less than the US Defense budget). The next three companies are all Chinese energy companies (utilities and oil). Two more car manufacturers and two more oil companies round it out. With Apple coming it at #9.

Silicon Valley companies (we’re including Amazon here although it’s based in Seattle) certainly get a lot of press. And Euan and I are more likely to interact with, say, Google, rather than Sinopec on a daily basis. But we shouldn’t mistake visibility for power.

Now there are two caveats here:

  • The internet companies are still growing very quickly. Amazon, Google and Facebook may trouble the Top 10 in 5 years.
  • All companies are now technology companies to some extent. Walmart invested heavily in supply chain technology to build its market dominance. The average new car has hundreds of microprocessors in it – and the focus on driving automation is only going to increase that.

Are governments floundering?

I’m not sure this accusation is fair. Governments do suck at a lot of stuff. But then they do a lot of stuff in the first place. Govt spending equates to over a third of GDP in the US, UK and Australia. Western governments suck at developing new consumer technologies (although the US government was instrumental in growth of Silicon Valley during the Cold War). But they still deliver many services to their populations. Although a sizeable contingent of Western politicians believe that they shouldn’t and are hacking away at those services. I am not comfortable with the wholesale privatization of healthcare or education. Government may be the least worst provider of these services.

Don’t be evil?

And for-profit businesses present their own set of problems in terms of service delivery. Businesses constantly seek to build monopolistic power over their customers in order to maximise profits. They are predators that need to be held in check by competitors and government regulation. What Adam Smith termed “animal spirits” can be harnessed for the common good but this harnessing won’t just happen.

The Tech Behemoths have limited interest in the common good. They structure their businesses to pay as little tax as legally feasible in the jurisdictions in which they operate. They show scant concern for the privacy rights of their user base

Too big to fail?

Companies can collapse. They can be mismanaged. They just fall prey to bad luck. And when that happens, it can have a negative impact on their employees, customers, suppliers and creditors. But life can go on. Of course, we have learned that some private enterprises (specifically banks) are too big to fail and we have not fully accepted the implications of that discovery (and we won’t until a crisis comes along that we cannot avoid).

Governments do not have this luxury of failure. When a government collapses, you end up with Congo not Kodak. The conflict and potential violence that government holds in check – or channels productively – then explodes into chaos. I simply do not see that function disappearing.

No future?

Exactly what governments do and how they do it will change. Their relationships with technology companies will get ever more complex – and doubtless ever more adversarial, co-dependent and interwoven.

Service delivery will change. Some of this change will be good. Governments will be able to target and measure services ever more precisely should we choose to do so.  Citizens will find new ways of interacting with governments.

However these technologies also allow government to surveil their subjects to ever greater degrees. Remember the companies 2, 3 & 4 in the Fortune 500. The Chinese state has little interest in voice or people power. And Western technology companies have been happy to humour its demands if they lead to profit. Nor will alternatives to the nation state be necessarily more just or more open.

If we choose to forswear the comforts of the state, it may not be a step forward.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Can’t Stop The Prophet?

So I encountered this on the weekend: Is it Wrong to Blame Islam? (sorry for the spoilers but the answer is apparently NO)

It annoyed me a bit. It annoyed me in a multi-dimensional manner. It annoyed me in its assumptions about religious history and belief. It annoyed me in its practical implications. It annoyed me because I’ve read a lot of articles like it before. Although Case claims:

“In the long run, the common good is rarely served by refusing to address serious questions, however painful they may be.”

Which implies that issues around Islam not being addressed in Western societies. I see Australian politicians saying stuff like this and doing stuff like that. I see conservative Australian media personalities talking about this constantly.

Truly, the silence is deafening.

I was tempted not to write a response. But I just know that with a little application, I can make a bad situation worse. Through out the following, I will be referring to the noted article and the steady stream of comments that I read from the conservative press here in Australia. This response has been building up for some time.

So lets start with the authors three main points:

  1. Islam is a religion built on violence.
  2. Islam is totalitarian.
  3. Muslims support terrorism.

Too Many Rappers Identities


Before I start with the rational argument thingies, I want to ground this in my own experience*. I have not had an encounter with Islam as a thing (it is after all, not a thing but a set of ideas) – but I have had many encounters with Muslims.

I didn’t know many Muslims growing up. I grew up in an 80s provincial UK town and went to a Church of England comprehensive school. My social life revolved around the local church. I was aware that Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims existed but I didn’t know any. I first encountered Muslims at university. Or rather, I first encountered men and women for whom “Muslim” was part of their identity. Some were from overseas. Some were the children of immigrants. But my impression of them was that they were as much “Glaswegian”, “Punjabi”, or “medical student” as they were “Muslim”. They were trying to cope with many responsibilities and opportunities at one time. “Muslim” did not seem to be the supreme identity over all that. We didn’t talk a lot about religion as I recall.

One of my best friends while living in London was a Muslim. When I stayed with him, pork was not allowed in the house. Though he drank. And he cruised voraciously for other men. Yes, he was a Muslim. But he was also Malay. And an accountant. And gay. He kept these different identities separate (the biggest wall seemed to be between his business and sex lives).

Since then I have worked with many Muslims – male and female. Some wear the headscarf, some don’t. Some drink alcohol, some don’t. Some eat pork, some don’t. Some pray 5 times a day. Some don’t. Mostly we talk about work and family and friends and some of the crazy stuff that happens in the world. Some of them I love. Some of them really annoy me. We all have roles and responsibilities. And the foods of the Lebanese and the Malays and the Egyptians and the Bengalis and the Iranians are as a tasty as I am gluttonous**.

So perhaps I am already biased. I struggle with seeing “Islam” as one thing. And I am more interested in the voices of individual Muslims and what they tell me about their experience than anything else.

It Was Written

OK. Back to me argument thing. Lets establish some ground rules. I am an atheist. I do not believe in a god nor do I believe any claims by religions that their scriptures or precepts derive from a god. For me, religions are works of human creativity and therefore insightful, perverse, beautiful, inconsistent, and ridiculous. Religious beliefs and institutions both enable and constrain us. I am therefore more concerned with what religions allow people to do and what they prevent rather than whether they are “true” or not. What are their affordances?

Effective religions last over time. The thing about an effective religion is that it has to both cover a lot of bases and also have a lot of wiggle room. Religions must offer an explanation of the meaning of life and a connection with the divine but they can’t just do that. They also have to provide support, sanction and structure for love, family, social organisation, economic activity and political violence. Those that don’t offer these things do not last long except as curios and hiding places in larger cultures – e.g. the celibacy of the Shakers.

What about these violent origins? Well, I was raised with the Old Testament – which is an incredibly violent set of texts – including murder, rape, torture, incest, war, ethnic cleansing. The will of Jehovah is regularly used to justify horrific acts. The New Testament is far less explicitly violent (crucifixion excepted) but situation of the early Christians was very different to that of the Old Testament Jews. The Jews were a middle-eastern tribe warring for their survival with other local tribes. The Christians were a sect within a largely peaceful if oppressive empire that viewed them with varieties of disinterest, homicidal suspicion and eventually opportunistic acceptance. However the relative peace of the New Testament did not stop later Christian rulers from engaging in horrific wars against others or each other and using their religion as a justification. For all its pacifist origins, Christianity has been bloody. Even states based on an ostensibly pacifist religion like Buddhism have engaged in wars, conquests and enslavement.

But how is this possible? Don’t the original scriptures of a religion completely define the actions of its followers? Well, no. The ideas underpinning these different worldviews are less important than the contexts in which their adherents live. We tend to overvalue the role of ideas in the world. Ideas are a great scapegoat. Don’t blame me, the ideas made me do it. It is as though we look at a bush fire and focus endlessly on the spark that ignited it rather than the dry brush that fuels it and the strong winds that drive it. If only the spark had been a different shade of blue, the fire would have been completely different.

This is not to say that ideas are not important. A good idea can express a common mood as yet unexpressed. Or provide a different perspective on a common problem. But ideas do nothing by themselves. Action is reserved for us.

Rappin’ Textural Literalism Is Fundamental

I suppose what we’re really talking about here is authorial intent versus reader reception. I suspect one reason why Christian conservatives are more comfortable focusing on literal readings of the Quran and their supporters in the Muslim world is their preference for literalist and orginalist readings of key documents in general (the Bible, the US Constitution). Originalist and literalist readings by their very nature tend to be conservative. But they are not the only kind of possible readings.

There is a risk with calling someone a “fundamentalist”. It implies that literalist and originalist reads are “correct” and other readings are “incorrect”. Case does this in his discussion of Nasr and Nawaz. The traditionalist is some how more authentic than the reformer. This is exactly what the traditionalist will tell you. But why should we believe him and not the other?

This intellectual focus on fundamentalists is reflected in the way that many in the West talk about Muslims. We often talk “real Muslims” as being the bearded guy dressed like a 7th century Arab. The beer-drinking, bacon-sarnie consuming ones aren’t “real Muslims”. They can’t be because they neither fit in with the rhetoric of Islamic conservatives nor the image of Muslims held by Western conservatives. They get erased from the conversation when they are a necessary part that stops it all spinning into oblivion. The world is full of heretics and apostates.

Stop. Get back to the point.

OK. Is Islam built on violence? Violence is embedded in the rise of Islam. It is also embedded in the rise of Judaism and Hinduism because they began as tightly bound to political entities (nations, tribes). Christianity and Buddhism avoid the connection with violence in their early years as they are independent of a political identity. However as soon as they become bound to political entities that need to deploy violence to achieve their aims, that largely ceases to matter. Everyone’s a badass all of a sudden.

The related question is: Can someone be a member of these religions without glorifying violence? And the answer to that is also yes. Obviously. They can just skim through the bits about hacking people up for believing the wrong things. People do that all the time.

How about the claim that Islam is totalitarian? Similar deal. Some adherents believe that Islam can control all elements of a society. Medieval Christian states attempted to control the sexual, economic, legal, even culinary aspects of believer life. Some Christians look back fondly at that period and want to bring it back. The current fight in Australian about marriage equality is bringing these people to the fore of social debate and the results are not pretty. N.B. All religions describe claim to offer the truth about the world which therefore means their adherents may be tempted by totalitarianism.

However, Islamic tradition and current practice in some countries indicates that this isn’t the only way to be a Muslim. Case knows this but he wants to stress that the totalitarian trend in Islam.

But Islam as it is now is not as he would like it to be, hence the need for reform. I do not deny that Islam can be reformed, but I insist upon not speaking as if the reform has already taken place. The fact that Islam has the potential to become tolerant and non-violent doesn’t entail that it is actually tolerant and non-violent any more than the fact that a guilty man could repent entails that he has repented.

The language here is a little odd. Islam is compared to a guilty man who must repent. I’d like to see more evidence of practices from Muslim-majority countries (where tolerance varies drastically) here rather than quotes from two books by Muslim theorists. It feels like something is being moved over very quickly here. The conjunction of “non-violent” and “tolerant”. Most Muslims do not kill people. I think they’d be right to ask: “Can we expect a fair decision of non-violent and tolerant from someone that has already made their mind up? And why should we care? Who died and left you in charge?”

Terrorwrist (Beneath the Under)

And now we get to talk about terrorism.

Public Service Announcement: Killing people is bad. – I feel like I need to put that in. Just in case anyone gets the wrong idea.

I want to split things out between Western Jihadis and non-Western groups. In terms of the radicalisation of Jihadis in the West, Olivier Roy’s work is useful here. Western Jihadis do not start out their journey driven by either specific religious or political goals. The children of immigrants or else converts, they are often adrift from their worlds. Their acts of terror do not aim to achieve a specific political goal but rather a spectacular death. Their US non-Muslim equivalents shoot people in movie theatres or children in schools – events which get labelled “terrible tragedies” and never trouble the terror statistics. Roy notes the large percentage of converts who make up Western Jihadis. Since the collapse of Communism, there are pretty much two “bad-ass” options for social rebellion in Western societies – fascism and Islamism. And their bad-ass reputation rests (in part) on the constant stream of articles that disapprovingly reinforce how bad ass they are.

The next topic is conflict involving Muslims around the world. It is dangerous to wrap these conflicts into one. The story among some radical Muslims is that there is a global Islamphobia. In this view of the world, Europe, Russia, China, the US and everyone else get into a room and plot how they are going to do in the Muslims. How else to explain the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and Thailand and Israel and Afghanistan and India and China and Russia and everywhere else? Now this is nonsense. There are struggles involving Muslim actors – often as the result of unfinished imperial business or local sectarian strife. There are many local struggles. Forces like ISIS want to paint all these struggles as the same for their own purposes. Then they can clam to speak for oppressed Muslims all over the world and justify their own tawdry existence. We must not fall into that trap and do their work for them. A conflict involving Muslims is not necessarily an Islamic conflict although both sides might try to portray it as such for their own purposes.

Finally, I want to talk about the attitudes to terrorism in Muslim-majority countries. Two Pew surveys are referred to in this article. In general, inhabitants of those countries nearer to ISIS being more solidly unfavourable than those further away. It’s important to remember that many of these countries have complicated relationships with the Western that ISIS explicitly sets itself up against. Nevermind “blowback” or the Quran as totalitarian manual, there are people in Pakistan and Malaysia and Nigeria and Indonesia that can remember their country being run by Westerners or have lived under dictators backed by the West or Russia. We are not necessarily the Good Guys. Our enemies are therefore not automatically the Bad Guys. And saying you support ISIS is different to sending it money or actively joining it in battle. How nice it would be if it weren’t so complicated.

Express Yourself

I want to move onto the practical implications of the “Islam is inherently violent, totalitarian and pro-terrorism” argument. This particular author ends with no explicit policy recommendations – which is frustrating. What does the author want?

Others who make these arguments often imply:

  • Primarily, Western states must prevent Muslim immigration. Muslims are a fifth-column within our societies that undermine democratic norms and present an unacceptable security threat. Any targeting of this group is valid.
  • Secondarily, Western states must view Muslim-majority nations as implacably hostile unless they renounce their views. The Muslim world is the new Evil Empire, a latter day Soviet Union.

I want to briefly talk about my disappointment with conservative responses to public Muslims in Australia. Theoretically, if you want to reform Islam then you should be supporting Muslims who engage with Western public society constructively. Such people are gold – role models to those who identify with them and potential bridge builders with their co-religionists. Two recent examples in Australia are Waleed Aly and Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Both are accomplished and articulate. And both have been mercilessly slated by the conservative media in Australia – unaustralian, terrorist sympathising, the works. The message to other Muslims in Australia is clear: You will never belong here. However hard you work or however much you achieve, the only chance that we might accept you is if you give up everything that makes us feel uncomfortable. And then we might not change our minds.

Who could refuse such a tempting offer?

In general, Western societies need to up their game in terms of how they engage with their Muslim communities. This is theoretically easier for countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand where citizenship is not based on ethnic identity – but it is not necessarily the case in practice.

For some local background on this, Sami Shah’s Islamic Republic of Australia is well worth a listen and a read. Shah is an atheist emigrant from Pakistan who now lives in Australia. He is not spruiking for Islam but he’s interested in the story of Australian Muslims.

Contract On The World Love Jam

What if the pessimists are right? What if Islam is inevitably violent, totalitarian and terrorist? Well, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and everyone is completely screwed. That’s it. Nevermind “addressing serious questions”, start buying bundles of barbed wire, drums of water and semi-automatic weapons.

I don’t want to whitewash the situation. Many Muslim-majority countries have a stack of problems – corruption, dictatorial regimes, a lack of civil institutions outside the state or religion, sectarian strife within their own borders, and conflict with their neighbours. Women are often treated badly. And religion is used as to tool to reinforce these negative patterns.

However. We need to stop talking about Islam. Or rather we need to stop talking about Islam likes it’s one monolithic block that we can decode and frame purely from a few carefully-selected verses from the Quran. We need to recognise the plurality of Muslim majority nations. We need to support Muslims whose ideas and actions resonate with our own – rather than those who simply have the most oil as we do currently (something I do agree with Mark Steyn about). We need to stop acting like the most conservative and regressive Muslims are the real ones and the rest are just “fakes”.

The blame game is a lot of fun to play but we need to find new games if we want to move forward. The really hard conversation might not be the one that you were angling for.

*Yes. Every single thing I write is about me. Always. That’s not going to stop.

**This unholy tastiness is doubtless a secret Islamist plot to give me Type 2 diabetes. Each samosa a suicide snack down my rapacious gullet. Truly it will be greeted with 72 raisins in paradise.

ADDENDUM – 22.08.2017

One thing that is not clear in the above rant is that I think there is a valid point of that states that there are obviously illiberal strains of thought and practice among Muslims. To say that “Islam is a religion of peace” is more a statement of intent than a statement about all possible interpretations. Graeme Wood’s noted piece on ISIS in The Atlantic is relevant here.

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Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Adele Webb has an engaging article on The Conversation about ambivalence towards democracy among electorates. It’s the start of something but by no means the end. Have a read and then consider my response here.

There’s a challenge with applying a psychological concept like “ambivalence” to groups. Electorates will have “mixed feelings” about issues almost as a matter of a definition. They are after all, made up of many different individuals with differing goals. It’s more unusual to find things about which an electorate is “unambivalent”. Commentators frequently opine that “the people have spoken” – suggesting a single, clear order when the experience is more like a cacophonous choir of voices producing an outcome that no one individual may have desired. It’s noisy.

So when we talk about ambivalence among voters – are we talking about an aggregate view or the attitudes of individuals? Webb elides the distinction between the two but I think she wants to talk mostly about individuals. She gives an example based on her field work – where middle-class Filipino voters want civil liberties but not too much freedom. She sees those as contradictory and I can see why but of course they may not be. Voters often want more freedom and resources for themselves but fewer for other people. This is only contradictory if you assume their desires are universalist rather than selfish. After all, it’s not people like us that are a threat to order. It’s them. Over there. Webb does allude to this later on when she talks about conflict over definitions of who “the people” actually are.

I’d like to add that there are different forms of ambivalence. There is the hot, intimate ambivalence of loving and hating someone intensely. Then there is the cool, distant of ambivalence towards the far away. The ambivalence that many citizens feel towards democracy feels more like the latter than the former. The disconnection makes it easy for emotions to change. Democracy becomes a screen on which we project our desires and fears rather than a space in which we interact with each other – “voters [are] transformed into… passive bystanders”. Indeed the promise of populist leaders is to rekindle the passion, to hold their followers closer, sweep them off their feet and carry them over the threshold into the centres of power. They don’t necessarily keep their promises. Treat ‘em mean ‘n’ keep ‘em keen.

I completely agree with Webb that this ambivalence should not be seen as irrational on the part of voters and it should be taken seriously. Rather it should be understood and worked with. Likewise, many will are disappointed with democracy. The compromises that make up a functioning democracy are inherently disappointing. Now disappointment is not necessarily an a negative emotion but it does provoke action. The real question is whether democracies can find productive ways of managing and channeling this disappointment.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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