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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016


With a slightly heavy heart I voted in favour of inviting Michael Gove to become a Visiting Fellow of my college. It is part of the college's charter to actively forge links between the academic world and the world of business, administration, politics and civil society. This seems to me to be an entirely appropriate thing to do. It's not good for us to sit  alone  in the ivory tower all the time and it is good for non academics to have a space in which to reflect about their concerns away from the day to day pressures of their particular calling. I think that both sides gain from this. Maybe it  helps us do our jobs just a little bit better.

Once you accept the idea of Visiting Fellows you also have to accept that it will be necessary to deal with the world as it is, not as you would like it to be. In practice that can quite literally mean supping with people you profoundly disagree with, even with people whose ideas and actions you find somewhat distasteful. It would be a strange kind of engagement with the outside world if you only invited into the club people you agree with. Moreover, a college community is not a monolithic bloc with one mind. Like the world itself a college contains people with different opinions, tastes and beliefs.

In appointing Visiting Fellows great care is taken to achieve balance across the mainstream political spectrum and that is entirely as it should be.  Just about the only significant disqualifications are a habit of serial incivility such that interaction with members of the college is unlikely to be productive and actions  on the part of a Visiting Fellow that are likely to bring the college into disrepute, for example the sort of thing that leads to detention at Her Majesty's pleasure.

Having said all that I now find myself wondering where exactly the boundaries of productive interaction lie. Today I read in the newspapers of an interview that Michael Gove gave to LBC. I didn't hear the interview so I only have the written reports to go on.  After being asked why he was disregarding the vast majority of expert economic opinion on the likely consequences of Brexit, Gove is quoted as saying:

"We have to be careful about historical comparisons, but Albert Einstein during the 1930s was denounced by the German authorities for being wrong and his theories were denounced, and one of the reasons of course he was denounced was because he was Jewish."

"They got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say that he was wrong and Einstein said: ' Look, if I was wrong, one would have been enough.'"

What this reveals to me is an attitude of complete contempt for intellectual expertise. It's the 'they're all in it together' know nothing attitude of a flat earth crank.  In fact it's worse than that because there is the implication that in some sense academic expertise has been prostituted. And to crown it all the comparison implies not just financial but intellectual corruption - the German scientists knew that Einstein was right but chose to say otherwise. In what way is that similar to economic experts trying to forecast the consequences of Brexit?
I'm not an economist, but if I were I would be insulted by such a comparison. It's one thing to disagree, that's the bread and butter of academic life, its another entirely to imply that you are only saying something because of a dishonorable ulterior motive.
It's not the first time that Gove has let slip what he really thinks about people who are making a genuine attempt to understand how the world works. I'm having second thoughts about the likelihood of productive conversations.

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