CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. We came, we saw, but what did we really learn? (Times)

The third debate showed us that we can immerse ourselves in a warm soup of personality and trivia, says David Aaronovitch. But on the big issues, the leaders won't tell us what we don't want to hear.

2. TV debate: David Cameron faced the job interview of his life. He passed (Guardian)

The political stakes last night were huge -- David Cameron faced the most important job interview of his life. You may not want to know this, says Martin Kettle, but most viewers will judge that he passed.

3. Ultimately, a question of judgement (Independent)

The leading article advises British voters to think long and hard about which party leader on display last night would have the judgement deal with this economic crisis, citing the Conservatives' past poor judgement.

4. Cameron's plans risk a postcode lottery (Financial Times)

Cameron's plans to shrink the size of the state in specific areas contradicts the principle of whereby the distribution of public services is dependent not upon geography but upon need, writes Vernon Bogdanor.

5. Greece shows just why the Celts should be grilled on the BBC (Guardian)

Why should the Scots or Welsh cut jobs if London will pay, Simon Jenkins. Locking the SNP and Plaid Cymru out of the TV debates only feeds this accountability deficit.

6. Cameron is concealing his inner Bush (Independent)

Johann Hari debunks Cameron's claims to be a "compassionate Conservative", looking at four specific policies and finding a cocktail of market fundamentalism, Europhobia, and haranguing of the vulnerable

7. Europe's economy is the sick man of the world (Times)

The eurozone will have to boost economic growth, and, Bill Emmott warns, they must also accept the need to exclude Greece from the euro, at least until it is able to meet the single currency's rules.

8. The crisis will spread without a Plan B (Financial Times)

Nouriel Roubini and Arnab Das discuss the Greek sovereign debt crisis. It might not be too late to avoid a disorderly outcome, if the right steps are taken now.

9. Censorship is in the ascendant (Independent)

The reaction across the political spectrum to the South Park saga has added to its grim comedy, says Terence Blacker. As a culture, we increasingly prefer to play safe and to avoid trouble.

10. Borderline Politics (Times)

The leading article looks at Arizona's ugly new immigration law, which Obama has rightly criticised as deeply un-American.

 

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GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt