Thursday, 3 April 2014

High Status, Low Information

There's a certain type of voter out there who can be - how can I put this - difficult to reach for the 'Yes' campaign. Since I'm a human being and not a marketer, I'll resist the temptation to try to identify a 'Mosaic' category or come up with a snappy 'Mondeo Man' or 'Pebbledash People' type alliteration to describe them. Instead, let's describe them as they are - 'High Status, Low Information'.

I've had cause to tangle with a few myself recently on the letters page of the Press and Journal. These are individuals who either are or have been highly successful in their professional life and who consequently - and often with justification - have a very high opinion of their own abilities. The folly is to assume that ability or expertise in one field of life necessarily means that they automatically benefit from a similar level of ability in another.

Choosing an example - entirely at random, you understand - someone may have enjoyed a highly successful career in academia as a microbiologist. Given the propensity for public alarm about bugs and bacteria, they may even have carved out a niche as the media 'go-to' guy for comment whenever there's an outbreak of something nasty in a butcher's shop or a cooling tower. However, is it safe to assume that their authority in one area should translate seamlessly to another?

Professor Hugh Pennington is one such individual. He's a very vocal supporter of 'Better Together' and is keen to tell anyone who will listen that academic research funding will be under threat if we vote 'Yes' in September, despite the fact that his view is not shared universally by others who perhaps understand the situation at least as well if not even better than he does.

Interestingly, he recently replied to a letter of mine in the P&J which had debunked a couple of factual inaccuracies being propagated by one of the paper's regular pro-union correspondents regarding NATO and defence jobs at Faslane (in sum, he claimed 6,500 would be lost if Trident went, I pointed out that only 520 of those jobs relate to Trident).

Pic  Credit: bodgerbrooks

After trying to claim that the earlier individual had only been quoting from the White Paper (if he did, he did so incorrectly), the Professor went on to describe as 'daft' the White Paper proposal that Faslane become the Joint Forces HQ - including the primary naval base - for an Independent Scotland.

His grounds? Apparently, Faslane is too far away from the east coast oil and gas installations which would be its primary purpose to defend - a perfectly valid personal opinion, but personal opinion nevertheless. However, given that the UK's only other naval bases are both on the south coast of England at Portsmouth and Devonport, it begs the question of how Faslane can be 'too far away' to carry out that function without the same criticism applying to naval bases which are even further away? Clearly, for the White Paper to be daft in this respect the status quo must be dafter still.

You don't need to have military knowledge to debunk his argument, only a basic appreciation of the geography of the British Isles. Nevertheless, the normal caution which most of us would apply before sharing our opinions in public, that of asking ourselves 'does this argument make sense?', doesn't seem to have been applied by Prof Pennington to his own contribution.

Even then, having experience in a relevant area doesn't always translate into knowledge of relevant facts or an ability to process the relevant information. A couple of days later, a gentleman by the name of Sir Peter Graham - a former Lt General who has taken to the stump in support of Better Together - suggested that independence would mean the closure of Faslane and the loss of all associated jobs, an assertion which is such obvious nonsense that it needn't detain us a moment longer than it takes to read the remainder of this sentence.

Of more interest was his claim that NATO wouldn't be keen to accept an independent Scotland which insisted on the removal of Trident from Faslane. However, there is a precedent for this which involves the withdrawal by 1979 of nuclear armed US Navy Polaris and Poseidon submarines from their former base in Spain, which later went on to join NATO in 1982. Clearly, there's little basis for comparison between the Spanish state transitioning to democracy and modern day Scotland, but it's amusing to note that a precedent exists which contradicts directly Sir Peter's assertion.

Even if that example didn't exist, the assertion still falls apart under closer examination. To wit, if Scotland votes for Independence, then Independence is a done deal. If Trident is to be the dealbreaker to NATO membership which Sir Peter invites us to believe it is, then the choice then facing NATO in response to a Scottish request for membership becomes one of whether it prefers relocated Trident submarines and Scotland outside the alliance, or relocated Trident submarines and Scotland inside the alliance. [Hint - it will pick the latter before it insists on the former.]

All of this verbiage probably highlights a few things, but if there's any conclusion I'd invite you to draw then it comes in three parts:

1. Not everything a clever person says is automatically of itself clever.

2. Competence in one sphere of life doesn't automatically make you competent in another.

3. Beware of experts, even when they should know what they are talking about.

The appeal to authority - especially one's own - is a most pernicious fallacy. In this referendum campaign, before lending credence to the opinionated, the overbearing or the merely overrated, always take time to extend to yourself the courtesy of thinking for yourself.