Those in Brussels would do well to read Socratesby AC Grayling / November 13, 2014 / Leave a comment
My one-time boss and mentor, Group Captain Walter Clarke, was wont to quote a Royal Air Force saying: “Have the experts on tap, not on top.” He was an aeronautical engineer, though I knew him in his retirement role as Director of the Sussex Rural Community Council. There, however, the RAF’s advice turned out to be even more pertinent.
Without question, it is excellent advice. One cannot do without experts; one is fumbling in the dark without them. But the whole point of expertise is that it is a single-subject matter. If you want expertise on viruses, go to a virologist; on designing a building, an architect; on fixing a leaky tap, a plumber. But the catch with experts lies in the observation that if your one instrument is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
This is why teachers of logic tell their students about the “Fallacy of the Artisans”: someone trusted in one field of expertise is not automatically trustworthy in another. Advertisers who use celebrities to endorse their products commit this fallacy daily: the footballer who advertises hair gel or a certain brand of car is there to perform the psychological trick of association, not—despite appearances—to deliver informed comment on hair products or motoring.
The implication of the RAF dictum might seem to be that a degree of inexpertise is desirable in those who make final decisions. This is not quite right: what you want in anyone commanding a collection of experts is skill as a generalist (not to say, as a general too, given the challenge in herding a group of people irretrievably immersed in knowing a huge amount about one particular thing). Some measure of understanding of what experts know is necessary, as is skill in evaluating the implications of what they say if they are right. But detachment—the ability to put the expert advice into a much bigger picture—is even more important.
No one can deny the importance of experts. You want an expert pilot in the cockpit of your plane. You want an expert surgeon beside the operating table. And you want expertise in the people managing and applying something as complex as, let’s say, the regulations governing the European Union.
But ah! Here’s a rub! The anti-EU dogs of Ukip and a wing of the Conservative Party and the more froth-mouthed elements of the national press have been thrown a juicy bone by the experts in the European Commission, whose laptops inform them that Britain’s recovery means its contribution to the EU budget needs to be higher. Amazingly, Greece and Italy have to stump up too, while France and Germany get money back.
But this is precisely a case of why experts should not be on top. Numbers were crunched, and according to a Byzantine set of rules, the worst, silliest, clumsiest political gaffe has been committed just as the UK is being goaded into lunacy by its lunatic anti-EU fringe. For there is nothing wrong with the EU regulations in this instance. It is right and fair that the partner nations of the EU should variously contribute or benefit as their economies respectively wax and wane. The UK annually gains far more in raw money terms from the EU than the sum currently requested. But like almost everything else in life, it is not what is done but how it is done that counts. Leaving it to the experts to announce results from their flickering computer screens when some consideration of consequences, sensitivities, timings and the much larger picture is needed, shows how important it is that the experts’ results should be considered by someone in a crow’s-nest giving a view to a larger horizon.
Most philosophers, I hope with due modesty and diffidence, would point out that the true begetter of their calling, Socrates, in effect described it as the only calling in which one trains to be an expert generalist. Perhaps few have succeeded in showing that this need not be an oxymoron—Socrates himself did, and so too did Aristotle, and David Hume, JS Mill and Bertrand Russell. Perhaps, in an effort to save the great and imaginative adventure of the European project, we should send copies of their works to Brussels, to show how their kind of expertise might help.