The new priesthood of meddling experts
Whether they’re marshalling ‘science’ to stop us from smoking or from eating meat, we should all be more sceptical of the new expert class.
Feeling that it lacks moral authority, the British political elite continually solicits others to speak on its behalf, whether it’s a group of scientists or medical doctors. Legitimacy, conviction, authority… what politicians want, these experts seem to have in spades. Little wonder that public policy, particularly the most authoritarian, citizen-controlling kind, always seems to be backed by ‘expertise’ these days.
And so it was this week with the release of a report by the UK’s Royal College of Physicians (RCP) warning of the deleterious effect passive smoking can have on children. This report wasn’t something the RCP did simply out of the goodness of its fearmongering heart. It did it because there is a review of anti-smoking legislation imminent and, given that the UK’s chief medical officer Liam Donaldson has written an approving foreword, the British state clearly needed the debate-defying authority only a professional expert can provide. Which makes the policies proposed in the RCP’s report even more shocking.
Chief among them is the proposal to ban smoking in cars and also where young people congregate. Such proposals are not entirely new, but what sets the RCP’s demands apart is that they want smoking prohibited not just when there are children in the car but in all cars per se. In the ominous words of the report’s lead author, Professor John Britton: ‘This isn’t just about protecting children from passive smoking, it’s about taking smoking completely out of children’s lives. Adults need to think about who’s seeing them smoke.’ Donaldson clearly welcomed this expert endorsement of future government legislation: ‘One of the biggest impacts of smoking around children is that adult smokers can be seen as role models, increasing the likelihood that the child will, in due course, also become a regular smoker. Preventing this means that adults take responsibility to stop smoking in front of their children at home, or in places where children may see them smoke.’ If anything confirms smokers’ pariah status, it is this: henceforth they will neither be seen nor inhaled.
No expert endorsement, in this case from a leading professional body, is complete without facts and figures, of course. Policymakers love facts and figures and the more of them, the better – the better, that is, with which to beat those who disagree around the head. Facts and figures don’t just put policy beyond doubt - they put it beyond debate. Right on cue the RCP estimated that, amongst children, passive smoking contributes to over 20,000 cases of lower respiratory tract infection, 120,000 cases of middle-ear disease, 22,000 new cases of wheeze and asthma, 200 cases of bacterial meningitis, and 40 sudden infant deaths. Got all that? And if illness and fatality aren’t persuasive enough, the RCP drops in the obligatory financial nugget: children’s inhalation of second-hand smoke costs the National Health Service about £23million a year.
None of this estimation is based on new research, however. It is based on ‘meta-analyses’ and ‘systematic reviews’ of ‘established literature’. In other, less confusing words, it’s an interpretation of data that has been around for the past 10 years. And the problem for those who want to close down a debate with an interpretation is that an interpretation is never beyond dispute: it can always be questioned. The truth of an interpretation is not something that can simply be proclaimed; it needs to be debated. Hence, as we have countered time and time again on spiked (see The anti-smoking ‘truth regime’ that cannot be questioned, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick), there is still little or no statistically significant link between passive smoking and ill health. Not for nothing did a 2006 House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee report assert that claims made for the dangers of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) were far from certain - it even went so far as to say that the statistics did not justify the smoking ban. Not that this will be admitted by those at the Department of Health determined pre-emptively to shut down debate. These are facts, they say, and facts are sacred.
Except they’re not sacred. Sometimes they’re not even that factual. On the day the RCP launched its state-backed salvo against the citizenry, pitting children against adults, complete with facts, evidence and meta-analysed literature, there was another story also gaining momentum. In 2006, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) released a report claiming that meat production was responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse emissions - more, incredibly, than transport. This understandably caused quite a stir. A horrific alliance of greens and vegetarians had finally found the authority their essentially moral arguments lacked. Armed with this ‘fact’ much as Tomás de Torquemada carried the Bible, they proceeded to urge the world to stop stuffing their stupid, carnivorous faces. Paul McCartney even launched a campaign last year called ‘less meat = less heat’.
Unfortunately for these expert-powered, fact-fuelled campaigners, it has now become clear that something was not quite right with these facts. As Professor Frank Mitloehner from the University of California noted, while the FAO totted up all the greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat production, from farm to table, they just took the existing UN figure for the greenhouse emissions of transport. Unlike that for meat production, this only included the fossil fuel burnt when using the particular mode of transport. It did not mention the fossil fuel burnt in manufacturing cars, maintaining roads, building planes or the upkeep of railways. That is, the FAO applied completely different methods of measurement to food production and transport. The resulting figures are literally incomparable. A FAO policy officer was more than a little embarrassed: ‘I must say honestly that [Professor Mitloehner] has a point.’
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The bigger point here, however, is not that facts can be more than a little fictional. It is not even that experts in their fields, medical or otherwise, are fallible. It is that expertise should not be prostituted to politicians and political campaigners. In their hands it becomes something other than it is. It becomes the source of authority that their arguments or their policies lack. And in the process it transforms those arguments and policies into the commands of those who know better than normal members of the demos. For the new expert priesthood, to choose not to stop smoking, as adults are entitled to do, is to choose ignorance and darkness. The facts and figures of prostituted expertise compel assent, not debate.
Criticising this exploitation of the expertise of professional scientists, medical doctors and so on shouldn’t be taken as a denigration of rationality, of our ability to know how things are, whether it’s the increased risk of lung disease amongst smokers or the carbon emissions of different modes of transport. Rather it is to argue that this form of rational knowledge, when used by politicians, merges with their moral reasoning. They don’t just say how things are, they use (and abuse) it to say how things ought to be. And in doing so, they deprive us of our own reason, our own ability to make moral decisions about how we want to live our lives. Under the tyranny of expertise, the only rationality that matters is theirs.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.