Democracy, consultation, evidence-based decision-making – who can be against this sort of stuff? Increasingly, and uncomfortably, I am.
Luis Suarez’s eight match FA suspension has provoked an unedifying response even for the considerably less than Beautiful Game. Leaving aside the ranters and racists, some of the most eloquent and thoughtful of observers wish to reserve judgement until they have “seen the evidence”. This is not a sustainable position.
In Jorges Luis Borges’ short story Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote, the protagonist rewrites Cervantes’ text line by line re-creating the story, but not re-creating its meaning, for its contemporary re-writing is informed by all the events that have happened to the tale, to the reader, to the world since it was originally published. Applying Borges’ moral, whatever is released by the FA in support of the Suarez disciplinary panel’s decision is not “the evidence” – at best it is a transcript of that evidence (and even a verbatim transcript is not the thing itself). “The evidence “ is gone, impossible to see as it was seen by the panel. People will not judge “the evidence” – they will judge the material released in the light of everything that has happened between the suspension being made public and their reading of what they will, erroneously, refer to as “the evidence”. Borges’ point – and that of other postmodernist literary critics – is that the meaning of a text is created anew on every reading and I suspect this point is about to be driven home by the sledgehammer fists of keyboard warriors and phone-in squawkers very soon – more’s the pity.
Cricket’s DRS uses technology to increase the information available to decision-makers mediating it through a protocol to ensure that it is applied consistently and correctly. Except, of course, that it isn’t. The extent to which the DRS is used varies according to which teams are playing, what technology is available, whether the cameras capture the pertinent action and so on and so on and so on.
In the case of the DRS, the epistemological issue is different from Exhibit A above, since we see exactly the same pictures as the Third Umpire to whom the referral has been made, and at exactly the same time. Every viewer is a juror with the facts of the case before them (the only viewers excluded are those actually in attendance at the ground – though they arch their necks to catch a glimpse of the televisions in the hospitality boxes and are advised by the champagne swillers as to what the decision should be).
Even with information spread as widely and as instantly as is the case with cricket’s DRS , controversies rage for exactly the opposite reason that they rage in the case of Exhibit A – the web lights up with indignation not because of what the public does not know, but because of what it does know. Everyone has the same standing as everyone else, their opinions equally valid, their quasi-vote in the quasi-plebiscite as to whether the DRS got it right or not as valid as their vote in a political election. Noise ensues.
Ease of communication in the workplace and home has elevated “consultation” to a kind of drug for which its addicts demand greater and greater fixes. Decision-making, once so opaque, so corruptible, so arbitrary has become transparent, open and collegiate with paper trails, minutes and gant charts if you must, to prove it. It has also buried the decision-makers under an avalanche of e-mails, meetings (virtual and real) and systems that give less and less time to the business of getting the decision right and more and more time to following the consultation procedure designed to ensure that the decision is got right. This road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
24 hour news broadcasters and rolling news websites devour content and we like it – come on, who couldn’t wait for December 26 and the firing up of news, politics, sport info suspended for all of 24 hours while we ate and drank too much within the narrow confines of our families? Partly in order to fill that space, partly because of the fetishising of consultation (termed interactivity in this world) and partly because it’s cheap, the media is filled with ill-informed opinion, assertions presented as facts and wafer-thin knowledge posing as authority.
At its sharpest, this trend is exemplified by the mainstream media’s reaction to science stories. On the one hand, the media flutters its eyelashes and plays the dumb blonde stereotype to its maximum (applying equally to male or female writers / broadcasters), wearing its ignorance like a badge of honour, the more to appear humble in the eyes of the public. Recent discussions of the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson were characterised exactly by this kind of glorified stupidity as is the media’s reaction to Brian Cox – this year’s licensed boffin (there’s always one).
None of this would matter much were it not for the other side of the media’s embrace of scientific ignorance. Whether the Higgs Boson exists or not is (literally) of academic interest, but feeding the world’s population and curing some of the most hideous diseases visited upon Man are anything but purely academic. Despite that and the extraordinary impact that science has had on public health in the last two hundred years, every scientist who wishes to engage with the media on such vital issues as genetically-modified crops and stem cell research is confronted, more or less instantly, with the accusation that they are “playing God”. Those same journalists so happy to be in the dark about dark matter position themselves at the cutting edge of medical ethics. And there’s a real price to pay for this confederacy of dunces – politicians, always with one eye on public opinion, make research funding decisions that can determine where science goes. And that’s before we even talk about education and curricula and let’s not start on referenda, TV talent shows, opinion polls, focus groups, pre-screening audience panels…
So what is the answer? Reluctantly, counter-intuitively and guiltily, I feel compelled to place my trust in the philosopher-kings. If they are appointed appropriately; monitored to ensure that there is no partiality, pandering to special interests and corruption avoided; and they are supported by an appeal system that is fair allowing injustices to be addressed and the system to be improved as a result, I say we should let the philosopher-kings get on with it. Sure they will make the odd mistake, but the system has to bear that cost.
We have to trust that the FA panel got the Suarez decision right on the evidence presented; that the DRS gets more decisions right than any other combination of man and machine; that workplace decisions matter more than the process that produces them, that good decision-making needs relaxed and confident decision-makers and that scientists can regulate themselves because they are the only ones who understand how.
We need, in an age of limitless communication, to consult less and decide more.