Artistic Expertise

By skepticlawyer

Very often, well-known actors, sportspeople and artists are asked to opine on things well outside their ken. I’ve had it done to me in the past. I hope, for the most part, that I had the wit and wisdom to say, ‘well, I don’t know’, but sometimes, I didn’t. Okay, lawyers are opinionated bastards — that’s why so many of us finish up in parliament — so maybe you can put the opinionating down to the fact that I’m a lawyer. That said, if I’m expert in anything other than how to put a sentence together, it’s in law.

How valuable is it to have celebrities (of whatever sort) sound off on public policy? Can they ever be better informed than the statistical average? Even if they are better informed, does that mean anything? Does being well informed count for anything in particular?

I started thinking about this after reading this post over at Catallaxy. In it, Sinclair highlights a rather perceptive comment from Lionel Shriver, whose novel We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the best I’ve ever read. Sandwiched between a couple of boiler-plate lefties on Q & A, Shriver made the following comments:

LIONEL SHRIVER: Briefly, I just think that when you suddenly bring in any huge tax of an entire industry of that size, you send a little shivver through the commerce of your entire country, because you highlight the potential capriciousness of government and the rather frightening capacity of any government to essentially take all your money.

JOHN RALSTON SAUL: But that’s how we actually got public education. That’s how we got healthcare. We taxed people who said they would never be taxed. That’s how we did it. We took money from people who had the money and put it into the public purse then built universities and schools and public swimming pools and so on. I mean, that’s what democracy is about is the – I’m not speaking in favour of this tax. I’m saying, “That’s how we built the public good which produced this audience and us.”

LIONEL SHRIVER: I’m not saying, “No, we shouldn’t have taxes.”

JOHN RALSTON SAUL: Oh.

LIONEL SHRIVER: But you might feel a little differently if suddenly while we were sitting here foreign writers who came into Australia were stripped of their assets by 90 per cent and they just passed that law.

JOHN RALSTON SAUL: Yeah, might.

PETER CAREY: Well, what’s wrong with that?

LIONEL SHRIVER: You might not come back to the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Shriver’s point is a good one, and non-standard. It’s not something we’re used to hearing from artists, who are generally assumed to be left-liberals. This is something Shriver has also addressed, which another commenter highlighted in the same thread:

Instead, there was smugness [Albrechtsen is describing the Sydney Writer’s Festival]. Ironically, the very same smugness explored a few days earlier by Shriver during an intelligent discussion with broadcaster and journalist Caroline Baum. When talking about humour, Shriver said she doesn’t care for the clubby nature of most political satire where it is assumed you are all on the same side. “It’s what annoys me about liberals in general. Conservatives, as a type, do not assume when they meet someone that you’re a conservative . . . Liberals are presumptuous and especially if you seem like a half-way decent human being. The assumption is, of course, you are wildly left-wing.” Everyone is regarded as being in the same club. It’s “very self-congratulatory”, Shriver said.

Because it’s rare, it’s tempting to view Shriver’s interventions as somehow cleverer, but if I’m being honest with myself, I’m forced to ask whether I like her comments because I agree with them, just as some people will be fortified by Ralston Saul’s comments because they agree with him. To my mind, the issue here is a larger one: what is the value of expertise, and at what point does it become necessary to say, ‘we need an expert: not only is a writer or actor or sportsman’s opinion of no great use, but nor is the opinion of the man in the street.’? This touches on something I raised in my post about the intellectually privileged backgrounds of those now governing the UK: what are we to do (if anything) with our Platonic Guardians, especially when they finish up ruling over us anyway, despite our best efforts to deepen the selection pool from which we draw our elites? I seldom agree with Gerard Henderson, but he makes this point compellingly:

No one quite matches Deveny’s contempt for the less educated and lower socio-economic groups. However, in 2004 La Trobe University academic Judith Brett warned readers of the edited collection The Howard Years that, in contemporary Australia, “the opinions of the ignorant or uninvolved are given equal weight to those of the passionate and the knowledgeable”. How shocking is that?

Writing in the Herald Sun last February, columnist Jill Singer opined: “There is nothing wrong with being an accountant, farmer or fisherman – but these are insufficient credentials to, say, run a nation’s finances.” According to this logic, one-time train driver Ben Chifley was not qualified to be treasurer in John Curtin’s successful wartime government but Jim Cairns was just the man to hold the position in Gough Whitlam’s erratic government in the early 1970s. Yet Chifley was competent at his job while the former academic Cairns was a disaster.

It may be that Henderson is right, and often society does not accord intellectuals the respect that intellectuals accord themselves, so they complain in the way he identifies. I don’t think this always holds, however. As in the UK, elites in Australia, the US and France are drawn from a small number of universities and postcodes. They are also often very clever, even when they deliberately hide their cleverness — something Bob Hawke did and Tony Abbott does, in both cases for rhetorical effect. The Platonic Guardians are playing at being ‘one of us’, but they remain Platonic Guardians. The ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ is a veneer, one laid on for public consumption but increasingly unreal.

It is very difficult to admit — especially in egalitarian cultures like Australia’s — that some people may know better than others. It is also very difficult to accept — in egalitarian cultures like Australia’s — that it is difficult or impossible for all relevant information to be known to a single mind or small number of minds (like, say, those in the government). Many people may indeed be stupid, but very often stupid people know their own minds and reasons better than the clever people who seek to rule over them. Holding both these fundamental truths in one’s head at the same time without suffering from an incurable dose of cognitive dissonance is nightmarishly difficult, and we seldom get the balance right.

Where does this leave opinionating writers, actors or athletes? To my mind, they’re entitled to their opinion in the same way that Joe and Josephine Average are entitled to their opinions. Sometimes what they (we?) have to say will be interesting and illuminating. Sometimes it may even provide a foundation for public policy. Most of the time, however, it won’t, and that’s okay.

8 Comments

  1. Posted May 28, 2010 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    “It is very difficult to admit — especially in egalitarian cultures like Australia’s — that some people may know better than others. It is also very difficult to accept — in egalitarian cultures like Australia’s — that it is difficult or impossible for all relevant information to be known to a single mind or small number of minds (like, say, those in the government). Many people may indeed be stupid, but very often stupid people know their own minds and reasons better than the clever people who seek to rule over them. Holding both these fundamental truths in one’s head at the same time without suffering from an incurable dose of cognitive dissonance is nightmarishly difficult, and we seldom get the balance right.”

    Absolutely 100% dead-on.

  2. TerjeP (say Taya)
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    One of the reasons I feel that the upper house in Australia (and in the UK for that matter) should be filled with average Joes (and Janes) appointed via sortition instead of election is to keep the elites “fair dinkum”. At least one house should be free of popularism and incentives for party loyalty.

  3. Posted May 29, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    “Well, what’s wrong with that?”
    Peter Carey

    “Like most intellectuals, he’s intensely stupid. ”
    Marquise de Merteuil
    Dangerous Liaisons

  4. Posted May 29, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I think the main qualification for parliamentary life is that the individual must find that the intoxication of power makes the intense tedium worthwhile. Rare and unpleasant individuals.

    I’m glad we make those people live in Canberra. Serves ’em right.

  5. Posted May 29, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    One practical reason to broaden the base of Parliamentarians is that there is a sort of unspoken hierarchy of suspicion in that profession. On matters which an MP does not personally understand, they will be less suspicious of a party-room colleague or fellow-traveller than they might be of a disconnected expert.

    Ronald Regan didn’t get on the CFC-banning boat until Thatcher told him it was the real thing. Thatcher’s undergraduate degree was in chemistry.

    Parliament needs its lawyers; and lawyers are trained and gain experience in many of the core skills of politics. But it also needs a great many other professions and walks of life to help both sides of politics temper their own lawyerly belief that they are better at anything in any field than the experts.

    In my profession we have the same conceit that we are smarter than all other professions.

  6. Wayne
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    To find a reliable expert in science is an art. In science the volume of new material and journal articles can be overwhelming. This results in the most productive scientists in well resourced areas keeping their focus on a subsection of their area.

    We thus have a procession of scientists pontificating on areas they built a reputation in, but often they are not informed on all relevant aspects of their area.

    Experts are of value in decision making when you have an knowledge of the breadth of their understanding.

    The quality of a politician’s advisors is the key to a politician’s success. The ability to select and keep a range of staff and advisors is a key skill in a politician.

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