Sunday, March 27, 2011


It’s seldom comfortable siding with the ex-mistress of a knight of the Garter, but a couple of days ago I was listening to Nicky Campbell’s radio show and that’s what happened to me. A man called Delroy Grant had just been convicted of some serious crimes and Campbell had taken this as a cue to have a nature/nurture debate. I’m currently reading and very much enjoying Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which is about the genetic contribution to human psychology, so naturally I was interested.

Edwina Currie was on the show and thought that some people were born bad, and a psychologist called Martin had called in saying she was wrong and that people’s psychology resulted mostly from childhood experiences. Here’s some of what they said:

Martin: ‘Our states of mind aren’t born in us; obviously our brains are very ready to take on eighteen years of experience but... our brains are learning machines.’
Nicky tries to say something
Edwina: ‘No, Nicky, no, Nicky, we readily accept these days that we have blue eyes or brown eyes because we’ve inherited them...’
Martin (talking over her): ‘But that is genetic... there’s no evidence...’
Edwina: ‘...our hair colour, our height... yeah but how can it be so obvious that our physical characteristics are one way and then say the genes that control our mood, our attitudes...’
Martin (talking over her): ‘Genes don’t control our psychological characteristics.’
Edwina: ‘...oh but they do! My goodness of course they do!’
Martin: ‘You’re not an expert in this area; you’re a politician!’

They carried on for a while, and UK readers can listen to it here if they’re quick. (Edwina comes in at about 43:50.) Now I’m not taking sides here in the debate about whether violence begets violence or whether people with a genetic tendency to be violent beget people with a genetic tendency to be violent. What I didn’t like was that Martin seemed to be using his position as an expert to dismiss the other side of a genuine controversy. (I don't want to misrepresent Martin, and he did go on to admit that genetics did affect psychology in some cases, but this is how it came over at the time.) He asked Edwina for some evidence, but he’ll already know about the evidence from studying twins and adopted children and what have you, and what’s more he’ll know why he doesn’t think it shows that genes control psychological characteristics and why some of his colleagues do.

Now if I was calling in to Nicky Campbell’s show to talk about philosophy I wouldn’t dream of representing it as the expert view that moral statements attempt to state facts, that conceivability doesn’t even nearly entail possibility or that there's nothing more to the meaning of a proper name than its syntax and its referent, even though I think all these things. If Edwina said that it was obvious that ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’ weren’t synonymous I wouldn’t dismiss her as a mere politician. I’d know full well that plenty of experts disagree with me and agree with her.

The point of listening to experts is that they know what the state of the debate is. They know what’s controversial among people who know and what isn’t. They know what's a sensible way of approaching a question relevant to their field. If someone exploits the fact there aren’t any other experts around to push a controversial line then they’re misrepresenting their expertise and abusing our trust. If that’s how they behave then people won’t trust them, and if we can’t trust experts then we’ll benefit a lot less from having them around. Nobody wants public debate to be conducted exclusively by ill-informed laypeople trading ill-informed opinions, but if experts aren’t careful not to misrepresent things then that’s what we’ll be left with.

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