On Suarez, DRS, Workplaces and Science

Published December 27, 2011 by tootingtrumpet

That's not what I wrote - it's what you're reading.

Democracy, consultation, evidence-based decision-making – who can be against this sort of stuff? Increasingly, and uncomfortably, I am.

Exhibit A

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.

Exhibit B

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.

Exhibit C

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.

Exhibit D

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.          

8 comments on “On Suarez, DRS, Workplaces and Science

  • Don’t know, something in the application of Borges doesn’t quite make sense to me. I’m indeed of the “let’s suspend judgment” camp, due precisely to the numerous complications of the case, but I locate its unknowability, if you will, elsewhere. Suppose Suarez’s claim is corroborated by a specialist in the sociolinguistics of Uruguayan Spanish* and the word he used is innocent of racial overtones in his mother tongue: how does one decide whether he had the knowledge of its meaning in English? Was he making a racist cross-lingual pun? Since you brought literary criticism into this discussion (it is all about hermeneutics after all), I might as well mention it has long abandoned reference to intentionality as useless: no way to determine either way.

    It’s layers upon layers of “hinges on interpretation”, enough ambiguity and undecidability to sustain an exploration by Philip Roth or Atom Egoyan – not necessarily the kind of thing the FA can be trusted to get right (the obvious disclaimer is that the last thing I want is to align myself with LFC or many of its supporters).

    *Such should be the standard of inquiry if its findings lay claim to any authority

    • Phil – Thanks for reading. You’re more up to speed than me on lit crit – but I found myself returning to Borges as I rolled it round in my mind.

      Intention is interesting and, as you say impossible to determine. The reader (Evra in this instance) response is known and (surely) reasonably foreseeable even if Suarez had landed at the Pier Head half an hour before the match started. For me, doubts over intentionality take the ban from 18 matches down to 8.

      • Arf, very good about reader response. Yes, I see your point. I was thinking of the danger of branding Suarez a racist over a cultural misunderstanding (this is as awful as being the recipient of racist abuse, not that we should impose degrees on these things), but I guess there is much to be said for “taking a strong stand”. LFC weakened Suarez’s defense by choosing to attack Evra rather than issuing an explanation and an apology – they definitely deserve to be punished for that alone.

  • Hi Gary, I understand both the underpinning premise of your article and your anxiety about feeling that way. I find my myself agreeing & disagreeing with the article in equal measure, as I have a vested interest in 2 of the 4 exhibits you refer to, and passing interest in another.

    In relation to the Suarez case, as a LFC fan I’m not concerned with seeing the evidence as that has been reasonably well publicised (Suarez has always been honest enough to admit using the phrase negrito). Want I do want to understand is the rationale behind the decision. Without that transparency, there will always be doubt and suspicion about the integrity of the decision and whether it has been influenced by internal (David Gill on the FA board) or external (FIFA/Blatter baiting) factors. The worry is without checks & balances, decisions become frequently inconsistent, e.g. the reluctance of the FA to pursue the racism agenda with the England captain with the same zeal as its dealings with Suarez (letting the CPS get involved and making it a criminal offence where guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt ensures there is every chance Terry will be given the all clear). That’s why the clamour for evidence has been so overwhelming, but actually what fans really want is not to feel like there is another agenda at work. Consistency is what is sought.

    That brings me to DRS. I appreciate it is not always available for various reasons but when it is, it does offer greater decision making consistency (without being 100% infallible). Again, any lack of consistency is as a result of those with power (sub-continent cricket boards) not using it for the greater good.

    Finally, I come to the world of work and in particular your reference to consultation. As a HR practitioner, consultation is an integral part of what I do. Without it, workers would be exploited by employers. I appreciate there is a lot of ‘consultation overload’ but I prefer that to the working world the Tories want, where employee rights are negligable (the planned change to extend the period that employers can dismiss workers without any consequence for up to 2 years is a prime example).

    In summary, I believe decision making is slowed up/inconsistent precisely because decision makers are reluctant to be transparent about their motives. More transparency means better and (over a period of time) quicker decision making.

    • Alan – thanks for reading and commenting in such detail.

      I think we are largely in agreement. I want to see the Terry case pursued too, but if the police are involved and the CPS want to prosecute, internal football procedures may be stalled – I’m not sure. I confess that what I have seen is not a clamour for consistency, but a clamour for a “not guilty” verdict – that the panel have been motivated by partiality or vindictiveness and have brought in a perverse decision. On the outside looking in, that looks like conspiracy theorising of the highest order. My point above is that if every decision is challenged and considered delivered in bad faith, there’s nowhere to go – the consent required for a society (or sub-division thereof) is absent, so things collapse.

      I’d say workers are exploited consultation or not! But yes – some consultation is required, but there’s an optimum level and sometimes less is more. Sometimes less consultation – but more effective consultation is more transparent. Of course, decision-makers need to know their motives before they can be transparent about them – I’m not sure that they always do.

      • My issue is that the Terry case was allowed to drift into the hands of the CPS by the FA. Given the very clear video evidence, I cannot believe the FA did not charge him straight away (like they did the following day after Suarez gave Fulham fans the 1 finger salute). No wonder the conspiracy theorists are having a field day! On that basis, I think LFC (and its fans) are right to question the FA decision makers and I dont think society will come crashing to its knees because a people think the FA is as dysfunctional as The Simpsons! Given his honest response (unlike Terry), most LFC fans I know acknowledge that Suarez’s use of the term Negrito cannot have been complimentary given who LFC were playing. They simply want to understand how the panel arrived at their verdict.

        As for the workplace, I see good consultation as being as much about the informal approach than the formal vehicles of communication. When it is done properly, it does provide employees with a level of support that should be given as a matter of course.

  • Yes Phil. Surely an apology for offence taken was in order.

    A racist is a hideous monster in whose name horrendous acts have been committed – I think it cheapens the word to brand as racists every person who says or does something that might be interpreted as having a race element to it. And, of course, the FA panel did not mention racism in its finding – though it did highlight that Evra’s colour was referenced.

    A couple of years ago, I had an exchange online about sledging. I maintain that if an Aussie calls an Indian “A son of a bitch” and the Indian takes offence, that is the Aussie’s fault for running that risk. Banter requires consent and is not something rationalised ex post facto.

  • I agree completely. Moreover, the overuse of the word *racism* is the more dangerous as it could give the real racists grounds to dismiss it altogether.

    It should be also pointed out that for all the thoroughly deserved bad press LFC and sections of its support have received, many Man U fans showed a pathological inability to rise above club affiliations in a matter that demands just that (at least of anyone who considers him/herself a thinking individual first). There was something ugly about people taking glee in Suarez’s ban. Whichever way you look at it, it’s an ugly and unfortunate business, not a cause for celebration. I usually don’t do high moral ground, but this really felt wrong.

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