A Point of View: Beware of experts

  • 9 December 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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The word government

We should be wary of leaving political decisions to experts and technocrats. Lisa Jardine asks if someone is an expert in their field, does that make them the right person to run a country?

The scientist, novelist and British civil servant CP Snow is probably best remembered for his controversial lecture The Two Cultures And The Scientific Revolution, on the gulf of incomprehension separating the arts and sciences, delivered in 1959.

In it he argued that in spite of the increasing importance of science, British intellectual life continued to be dominated by the traditional humanities. Today his argument continues to resonate, though perhaps now economics has joined science as a specialist field which baffles those who have received only an arts education.

A year after his Two Cultures lecture, Snow expanded on his argument and gave it an added sense of urgency in his 1960 Science and Government lectures, delivered at Harvard. He warned that at a time when specialist scientific understanding was indispensable, those charged with taking vital political decisions had no proper grasp on the issues.

"One of the most bizarre features of our time," he wrote. "Is that the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men who cannot have a first-hand knowledge of what those choices depend upon or what their results may be."

Snow specified that he had in mind decisions, I quote, "which determine in the crudest sense whether we live or die". He named some of them. In recent British history they had included the choice in England and the United States to go ahead with work on the fission bomb in 1940-41, the decision in 1945 to use the atomic bomb against Japan, the choice in the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s to make the hydrogen bomb.

To show what it means when a "handful of men" take "life and death" decisions on behalf of the nation, Snow narrates with dramatic intensity a real-life confrontation which took place during World War II. His hero is the chemist Henry Tizard and his villain the physicist Frederick Lindemann, better known by his later title of Lord Cherwell.

Both were high-level wartime scientific advisers entrusted with decisions on the strength of which the war might have been won or lost. Tizard was responsible for the accelerated development of radar in the early war years. Lord Cherwell set up the government statistical office, among whose calculations crucial for the war effort were those on how to achieve the maximum impact with bomb sizes and delivery.

It was Cherwell, however, who became the wartime government's first official chief scientific adviser. And it was he who persuaded Prime Minister Winston Churchill to adopt the "strategic bombing initiative" - the mathematically-calculated plan for saturation bombing of civilian targets in urban areas of Germany.

Tizard and Cherwell fell out in 1942, Snow recounts, over the decision to adopt the statistical office's calculations in support of strategic bombing. Cherwell, a member of the cabinet, wrote the scientific paper which formed the basis for that decision.

Aerial bombardments

It calculated mathematically the dramatic demoralising effect that could be achieved by an intensive British bombing initiative over 18 months. The bombing must be directed against German working-class houses because they were densely packed together. Middle-class houses had big gardens. If the strategy were adopted, Cherwell argued, it would be possible to destroy 50% of all houses in large German towns.

Here is what happened next, according to Snow: "The paper went to Tizard. He studied the statistics. He came to the conclusion, quite impregnably, that Cherwell's estimate of the number of houses that could possibly be destroyed was five times too high. Everyone agreed that if the amount of possible destruction was as low as that calculated by Tizard, the bombing offensive was not worth concentrating on. We should have to find a different strategy."

Image caption Tizard and Cherwell clashed over bombing strategy

In fact, Snow told his 1960 Harvard audience the bombing survey after the war revealed that Cherwell's estimate had been 10 times too high.

But Cherwell was the man at Churchill's side and he convinced the cabinet that saturation bombing was the right policy to pursue. For the remainder of the war air power that was badly needed in other areas, for example to escort essential convoys of supply ships or to defend the British coastline, was diverted to concentrate on nightly aerial bombardments of Germany.

As chief scientific adviser, with a seat at the cabinet table, Cherwell's view prevailed. The opponents to strategic bombing were silenced because one man had so much influence. No-one, however expert and highly regarded, should ever be allowed that amount of licence again, insists Snow. Other presentations of evidence and other argued positions must be reviewed, discussed and considered before a decision is finally taken.

"If you are going to have a scientist in a position of isolated power," Snow concludes. "The only scientist among non-scientists, it is dangerous whoever he is."


Snow has a clear sense, based on his own wartime experience, that in government informed individuals have to work together as a team towards a consensus - or at least an informed disagreement. But they can only do so in matters of science if there are enough of them who understand how scientific argument works.

All those in positions of power and influence, Snow maintains, ought to be able to evaluate proposals put to them which involve science and technology. It may not be possible for them to master the detail themselves, but they must be able to follow the argument. And be surrounded by those with good enough scientific backgrounds to explain the reasoning processes by which the proposed course of action was reached.

Image caption Economist Mario Monti is now in Italy's prime minister

The only way to achieve this, says Snow, is to set the sciences squarely alongside the arts at the heart of education. More than 50 years after Snow launched his appeal for an integrated arts-science culture and curriculum, it is, in my view, high time that we renewed and intensified our efforts to realise Snow's as yet unrealised goal.

Because as I see it, the issue today is not whether the sciences or the humanities get more funding out of the shamefully small pot currently allocated to higher education. It is rather whether the educated elites in both sectors are prepared to stand side by side to insist that informed, educated debate is needed wherever political policy has to be formed in so-called "technical", "specialist" areas of life. Which today means those number and formula driven disciplines with which the humanities-trained struggle to engage.

In current debates about GM crops, nuclear energy and climate change, the public at large - including governments and senior administrators - are liable to be swayed by the most persuasive of the advisers or interest groups, because they are not equipped with the knowledge or the reasoned strategies needed to judge. Many of them are dismayed by any argument that involves number and maths.

Not democracy

Currently, this tendency to be swayed by experts is most clearly to be seen in the field of economics. Recently two nations within the European Union, Greece and Italy, have replaced their elected prime ministers by so-called technocrats - men with a significant track record in finance, but not experience of government at local or national level.

In the case of Italy, the entire cabinet consists of financial specialists. The non-elected prime minister's people head "governments of national unity" which pursue policies for which nobody in the electorate voted. Indeed, they are not expected to consider the interests of the public, except insofar as introducing austerity measures sufficiently swingeing to satisfy the international markets is supposed ultimately to ensure the solvency of the nation as a whole.

Image caption Austerity measures caused protests in Greece

Are we really comfortable leaving grave political decisions to technocrats whose successes have been measured in terms of investment yields? We have been forced into the position of doing so, I suggest, by very much the circumstances that CP Snow described 50 years ago, in connection with key decisions in time of war.

In wartime, Churchill - himself exclusively humanities-educated - took the advice of the man closest to him whose views were, as it happened, not shared by other prominent figures within the scientific community.

Today, faced with an international financial crisis, Europe's elected representatives have singled out individuals with economic expertise for a solution. In this case too, significant voices have been raised by economic experts outside government, questioning the wisdom of adopting the measures proposed.

The rule of a few wise men is oligarchy, not democracy. So democracy depends upon our being able to sustain informed debate in the fields of science and economics. Each and every one of us has to take responsibility for the decisions that shape the future of the nation as a whole.

But we will only be able to do that if those we have elected to govern us can master the technical aspects of difficult decision making - and if we in our turn are able to follow their arguments.