On Sunday, lamenting the failings of the Environment Agency, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, said:
“We thought we were dealing with experts.”
The Agency’s chairman Lord Smith hit back:
My staff know a hundred times more than any Minister.
So are they experts? Or did they get it wrong? Both.
In 1981 there were 364 economists who wrote to The Times to say that Margaret Thatcher’s economic strategy was doomed to fail. “Present policies will deepen the depression,” they wrote. Almost at once a strong recovery got under way.
Were these 364 signatories not proper economists? Did they have fake qualifications? Of course not. They were experts. But they got it wrong.
Daniel Hannan’s excellent new book How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters helps to explain this paradox.
Mr Hannan says:
The more we learn about how the brain works, the more we discover that people’s political opinions tend to be a rationalization of their instincts. We subconsciously pick the data that sustain our prejudices and block out those that don’t. We can generally spot this tendency in other people; we almost never acknowledge it in ourselves.
He gave the example of global warming. Surely a matter of data, not a question of being left wing or right wing?
The trouble is that we all have assumptions, scientists as much as anyone else. Our ancestors learned, on the savannahs of Pleistocene Africa, to make sense of their surroundings by finding patterns, and this tendency is encoded deep in our DNA. It explains the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. When presented with a new discovery, we automatically try to press it into our existing belief system; if it doesn’t fit we question the discovery before the belief system. Sometimes this habit leads us into error. But without it we should hardly survive at all. As Edmund Burke argued, life would become impossible if we tried to think through every new situation from first principles, disregarding both our own experience and the accumulated wisdom of our people – if, in other words, we shed all prejudice.
This doesn’t mean that politicians should not seek advice from experts. On the contrary it is probably a case for getting a range of advice. The danger is in deference to experts – what Hayek called the “fatal conceit” of imagining a better outcome if power is concentrated in their hands.
Anyone who imagines an expert could possibly offer advice devoid of ideology is deluded.