Too much of our public discussion is led by those who are have strong opinions based on prejudice and ignorance rather than thorough research and understanding

Bill Gallagher (he’s a knight), chief executive of the Gallagher Group, claimed that the ‘Treaty [of Waitangi] papers on display at Te Papa were fraudulent documents’ as well as making other extravagant statements. (The papers are actually held in the National Library.) Later he apologised,

Before I develop this theme, I want to say that I have the highest regard for the Gallagher Group, best known for their electric fences, as an innovative and successful export company. I also acknowledge that Gallagher interests have been major cultural donors to Hamilton and wider, and that the region is much the better for their activities.

Even so, one may wonder why we should take any notice of Gallagher’s historical and political sentiments. Being a successful businessman does not give one any expertise in other areas as he said in his apology: ‘I am a business person and not a historian. Since then I have been doing further reading and acknowledge that I also need to seek more research and understanding on this topic from various viewpoints.’

You may be astonished by this admission. If you are astonished that anyone in his situation could be so humble as to admit ignorance, I agree. But going off half-cocked in public without having done any serious background preparation is so common that one is not surprised by yet another instance.

It is the celebrity phenomenon. Gaining fame or earning success in New Zealand too frequently generates an arrogance which makes the celebrity think he or she can make worthy announcements on topics well outside their expertise.

It is not confined to business. Those who front the media are particularly prone. The plaudits they get from, say, talk-back listeners mean they readily recycle the public’s views – perhaps articulated a little better – reinforcing errors, prejudices and ignorances.

Another example is millionaires who think their good fortune gives them universal insights which allow them not only to pontificate but to establish political parties which reflect their often eccentric and autocratic views. They seem to flourish in the MMP environment but thus far none has convinced the public sufficiently to elect them into parliament. (There are wells of common-sense in the public.)

Worryingly, even the government promotes the uninformed celebrity. I have yet to see a careful analysis of the flag referendum but right from the beginning one was struck by the ordinariness of the committee of celebrities appointed to guide it. With one or two exceptions they were without any of the relevant expertise for choosing a flag (I lack it too).

Those who puzzle over Prime Minister John Key’s success may find a clue in his choice of a purely populist path to replace the flag. I am not saying that experts should have chosen it; a popular vote on the ultimate choice was probably right. (I am comforted that the populace had again the common sense to reject the unattractive choices.) Experts should be on tap, not on top, but they should not be ignored. Getting the right balance between expertise and popular choice is a skill only top politicians really master. I am surprised that Key failed so badly.

We sometimes depend on those who pretend to be experts. For instance the Commissioner for Children’s expert (sic) panel on child poverty was patently not expert in the area; only two members had publications in the report’s rather thin publications list; both were very marginal compared to the rich literature we have on child poverty. We forget this because the celebrities came to the right conclusion that child poverty was a problem which needs to be urgently addressed. But because of its ignorance, the panel lamentably failed to set out a sound underlying analysis. I expect that, as a result, the Labour-led government will be struggling with the reality of efficient policies to address child poverty, especially if it goes, as its predecessor Labour-led government did, for uninformed external advisors.

Part of the problem is that we dislike experts, perhaps because they undermine the fantasies which often underpin our opinions. It is extremely frustrating to be told one’s uninformed conclusions do not fit the facts or logic.

There are often very few experts in a particular area in New Zealand. That partly reflects the size of the country. One New Zealand intellectual, on a per capita basis, is matched by a hundred others living in one of the five other English speaking countries of America, Australia, Britain, Canada and Ireland (one of them is probably an expatriate New Zealand). Because we discourage public intellectual activity the figure is probably higher.

Celebrity public ignorance is not peculiar to New Zealand. Its most prominent display in the past year has been by the President of the United States, who appears unusually unfit for the office he holds but seems to have got elected (on a minority vote) because of his celebrity status. He is such an extreme example one might forgive the parallel but milder outbursts here.

But we should not criticise Trump and his ilk; while producing the same sort of false news and ignorant opinion in New Zealand, if only a little more moderately. Sadly, too often this is exactly what we do.

Comments (12)

by Moz on December 30, 2017

One side-effect of being confident and secure is a willingness to admit your limitations. I admire the guy for fronting up and admitting he got it wrong. Especially if there was public pressure to do so, since so meany morons double down in that situation.

March for Science featured quite a few "I {heart} experts" signs, which in some ways is "well, duh, you is one" but also reflects a more general phenomenon - people who have expertise tend to value it more generally. And are more willing to act on the advice of the experts. Which is an argument for more Geoffery Palmer, less John Key.

On that note, isn't it interesting that we've had a law PhD as PM but not a politics one. Albeit he did study politics as an undergrad.

by Katharine Moody on December 30, 2017
Katharine Moody

Getting the right balance between expertise and popular choice is a skill only top politicians really master. I am surprised that Key failed so badly.

I'd say he failed so badly simply because he wasn't a top politician. The flag referendum is indeed a good example of this. As was always the case, Key chose to do was what he personally thought best to do - expertise never came into it.

What amazed me about the flag panel is that they included two (different coloured) versions of the one flag design that Key preferred in their 'final four'.  I thought that very odd - a dead give-away that they were working to Key's preferences and Key's preferences alone - supplemented by a further two designs (of their choice) that no one could take seriously.  And then we had the farcical late inclusion of the 'red peak' design (a 5th option) as an attempt to appease the masses who had seen right through the flag panel's 'patsy' performance.

I use the flag referendum as an example of the concept of 'manufacturing consent' in a course on democracy/participatory decision-making that I teach. As part of that lecture material, I provide an example alternate 'final four' (none with a fern, a koru or a southern cross to be seen, but all unmistakeably New Zealand).  My students can't believe they never 'saw' any of these exemplary designs in any of the accompanying media on the subject.  Not one of them even made the flag panel's 'long' short list.  

I so wish Key had played at least that one initiative with a straight bat. Had he, we'd all have a new flag to be proud of by now. We actually do have a great deal of expert graphic designers out there, and the best of the talent submitted to the panel seemingly got ignored given it was instead an exercise in manufacturing consent. It really is a great case study.  

by Charlie on December 31, 2017

You're not wrong Brian! The 'willfull ignorance' thing is, for me, the main meme of 2017.

But it goes far wider than the examples you cherrypicked, maybe to suit your particular flavour of reality.

Both Bill Gallagher and Don Brash are, well, old duffers, who are long past their 'best before' date and have extremely limited influence on young minds. Not really a concern.

To me, of far greater concern is most of Tinseltown (Hollywood for the uninitiated) where some half-brained singer can waggle her ass in front of a camera (and who has half a million twitter followers), and make an utterly crass statement about, say, Trump and half of the nation's under 25 year olds accept it without question.

So uninformed opinion is far from the sole preserve of the right. 

As for academic opinion, just because a person choses to head into in academia doesn't make them any smarter than anyone else (George Bernard Shaw wasn't wrong...) and whilst they may have studied a topic in a very narrow sense it doesn't mean they understand it's practical application. (eg I have a friend with a doctorate in mechanical engineering who can't fix his own car and who would stab himself if left alone with a screwdriver). 

Also we now know academics can't be trusted more than anyone else. Some are covertly pushing a leftist political agenda. The revelations coming out of the US show that many are Alinksiite operatives polluting the minds of children whilst getting paid to do so. You know there's a problem when a college professor is facing prison time for dressing in black, wearing a mask and hitting innocent people in the face using a bike lock & chain during a campus protest....on repeated occasions!

Examples of college professors acting as leftist politial operatives in the classroom:

So let's avoid the logical fallacy of the 'appeal to authority' please.

by Megan Pledger on December 31, 2017
Megan Pledger

"Video offers the seductive appearance of objectivity, even though it can wreak havoc with context.  For example, in my political theory classes, I routinely voiced political positions I didn’t personally believe in order to help them become more concrete for the students.  (Think of it as halfway between “devil’s advocate” and “visual aid.”)  Depending on what we read that week, I’ve portrayed conservatives, liberals, anarchists, fascists, socialists, monarchists, and all sorts of hybrids.  I saw that as part and parcel of my job, and I still believe it was.  But it would have been easy for some kid to record, say, five minutes of the fascism rant and post it.  It wouldn’t have been “faked,” exactly, but it would have been materially misleading and, in some settings, devastating."

The women was right in the first video - there is a civil war in America - not between Republican and Democrats - but between the very rich and the rest.  And it's not a war or guns and bombs but a war of propaganda and politics.  You only need look at the new tax laws that are being introduced in the USA to see who wins and who is going to lose to see it in action.


by Charlie on January 01, 2018

You're right Megan, selective editing is a powerful tool. Media does it all the time.

Enjoy this:

But do you really think that's the case here? ;-) really? And the professor with the padlock & chain? Explain that away please.

When you say there's a war in the US between the rich and the poor, that's is stock 19th century Marxist dogma.

The oppressor and the oppressed: What a tired trope!

Life is vastly more complex in the real world outside of a classroom. As we speak there are wars between:

> The Left and the rest of their liberal, open society

> Black gangs and other black gangs

> Black gangs and Hispanic gangs

> One Hispanic gang against another Hispanic gang

> Radical Islam versus western society

Plus I'm sure many more I'm unaware of.

One group currently not at war: Rich people with anyone else. Sure they're trying to preserve and enhance their status, just like you and I, but that's not a war. That's just healthy competition.


by Megan Pledger on January 01, 2018
Megan Pledger

I think it was an LGBT women teaching a human sexuality course, which includes sexual politics, responding to the Republican assault on female sexuality and transgender sexuality. 

The very rich openly acknowledge it's a war (not healthy competition). 

“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”


by Fentex on January 01, 2018

Just a note on the flag: When it changes it ought be for a reason, and that reason should be the basis for what change is made.

The change, and reason, is obvious - wether Republic or not, when we cease acknowledging the Windsors as monarchs of New Zealand we should drop the Union flag from it's quadrant.

In the end, that's all any discussion of change is about, that is not change for changes sake.

by Charlie on January 02, 2018

Megan, tell me more about this "Republican assault on female sexuality" because I missed that!

by Brent Jackson on January 03, 2018
Brent Jackson

Brian, you may wish to correct the title of your article.  Celebrities wearing uniforms are not really the problem.  (You have also used "uniformed" later in the article as well).

by Brian Easton on January 03, 2018
Brian Easton

Thankyou Brent. Corrected. I should explain that both were changes after my editors saw it. 

by Brian Easton on January 05, 2018
Brian Easton

There a number of points made here, and some more to me on other channels, which suggest I need to write another column on the limitations of the expert. Will do. 

In regard to Fentex's comment, I think John Key was very confused on the flag change. The usual reason is it is a part of the shift towards a republic which reflects New Zealand's unique  forward-looking character rather than its historical colony of Britian. Key said one day we would be a republic but reintroduced titles and took one himself (joining only two of the six previous sipremiers). What he thought he was doing has never been explored. but it goes part of the way to explaining the flag debacle. 


by Katharine Moody on January 06, 2018
Katharine Moody

What he thought he was doing was pretty clear to me - manufacturing consent for a political legacy project.

And it might have worked out differently for him had he taken a major step toward making us a republic - such as Helen Clark did when establishing our own Supreme Court and abolishing titular titles in favour of our own civic honours system.

Key should have capitalised on those initiatives, progressing our own constitution and celebrating that achievement with a flag change   

Problem was he wanted a titular title himself - and hence the obvious contradiction.  

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