The Fallacy of the Uninformed Celebrity Opinion

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.