by Tobias Phibbs
Wednesday, 28
April 2021
Idea
15:00

There is nothing smart about our expert class

Saying that we have a cognitive elite gives them too much credit
by Tobias Phibbs
Who’s the sharpest tool in this box? Credit: Aaron Chown – WPA Pool/Getty Images

Sleaze! Corruption! Leaking rats! Listening to the news, it is sometimes difficult to separate the noise from the signal — though the public are substantially better at it than political journalists. From Cameron’s desperate attempt at lobbying to the scandal of the Downing Street wallpaper, however, the overriding impression we get is of a sordid, rather pathetic political class. High corruption and conspiracy this is not.

In recent years, criticisms of the meritocratic elite have gained significant traction. As David Goodhart put it:

Modern societies have made one kind of human aptitude, cognitive ability, too much the gold standard of human esteem and the shaping of society too much in the interests of smart people has helped to create the political alienation that led to Brexit in the UK and the election of the maverick Donald Trump in the US.
- David Goodhart, Standpoint

There is some truth in this, but is our political system really selecting for “smart people”? Was it smart people who outsourced industry, thought China was on an inexorable path to liberal democracy, or who now believe you can solve the housing crisis by fiddling around with mortgages and stamp duty? In 2012, only 23% of Labour MPs (and 55% of Tory MPs) could correctly identify the probability of spinning a coin twice and getting two heads. Perhaps the current cohort is a significant improvement. Then again, perhaps it is not.

Nor are politicians alone in this. The media are even worse. Driven by the logic of the click, grown men and women chase politicians around trying to secure ‘gotchas’ about Scotch Eggs and whether or not the Prime Minister is ‘woke’. Robert Peston was confused by a mirror.

More consequentially, neither public health scientists nor bureaucrats have exactly covered themselves in glory in our response to Covid. You were much better looking at the obscurer parts of Twitter — or thinking for yourself — than listening to the expert class if you wanted to know whether, for example, border controls or masks work, or when a vaccine might be ready.

The last year has confirmed that Dominic Cummings was right when he told the IPPR in 2014 (in spite of his own taste for SW1 drama):

You might think somewhere there must be a quiet calm centre like in a James Bond movie where you open the door and that is where the ninjas are who actually know what they are doing. There are no ninjas. There is no door.
- Dominic Cummings

Looking at the events of the last few days (/weeks/months/years), it is hard to wonder whether our problem is less that we are dominated by a cognitive elite, and more that we have no elite at all. By accusing the political class of forming a cognitive elite, we give them too much credit. Perhaps we should worry less about ‘elitism’, and more about the failure to produce a serious or virtuous elite altogether, and the abdication of the responsibility of government by a political class more interested in rolling with the punches of the media-driven rigmarole than governing.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
48 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 year ago

Some of the poor performance can be attributed to the rise of credentialism. The transformation of universities from elite educational institutions, to a mass certification for profit industry.

The so called cognitive industries, increasingly resemble guilds. Keeping entry costs high, by requiring pointless graduate degrees, to ensure equally high profits.

Combine that with the ideological capture of higher education and I don’t think there is much selection based on merit these days.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matthew Powell
Simon Newman
Simon Newman
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

The  ideological capture of higher education I think affects the *virtue* of those at the top much more than the intelligence, though I think it does have some negative effect on IQ selection. The main effect is to stop those with a commitment to the truth from advancing.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Newman

As a lot of them seem to be relatives of an earlier lot I think it may be that we are told more about the present lot-imagine if the Edwardians knew all about Lloyd George? Also the decisions various politicians have made over the years haven’t exactly been sensible.One of the problems is we don’t seem to have a good middle-management sector who are skilled in science and engineering any more to tell the minister they can’t build a bridge for example over that bit of water or it will just collapse or be too expensive.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

I’m not sure. Lloyd George was a bit sleazy in his private life but he was undoubtedly a brilliant mind who came from a relatively modest farming family, became a solicitor as an apprentice among the top results in Wales and became one of the few PMs in the 20th century without a university degree and the only PM who was a solicitor (as opposed to the innumerable barristers).

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

Good article and yes, it has been obvious for some decades that, across the West, we are governed by Very Stupid People. As the writer points out, the media is no better and the so-called ‘experts’ tend to be even worse. The results are all around us, not to mention all around the people of places like Iraq and Libya.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Evil people really, as like Biden, they govern not in the National Interest, but to secure votes, which means making apparent policy pander to voters who have absolutely no idea of the actual world and economics.
Second they have political debts to pay. To rise from the University politics to the National top, at every level you have to attract ‘Donor’ funding, and Party approval (and both parties are Owned by the same ‘Donor Class’ of Global Elites). This means selling your soul to the devil in steps, till the Party, and thus the Donor Elites, owns you by the time you reach high up the greasy pole of political party politics.
Then you pay back on your contract with the devil, decisions are made by the back room lobbyists who represent the Global Elites and you pass those with the power you were given. In exchange you get status, power, and once you leave (IF you did as you were told) you will be given Wealth.

The agendas the Politicians claim and espouse are just all covers, at the highest levels, they are mechanisms of the means to maintain the complete power of the Global Elites, some Socialist, some Conservative, but both working to the same goal, just from different directions.

From Henry VIII on you hear of how the bankers loaning money were the real power, they made war possible, made buying alliances possible, made the populace appeased. The Renaissance was entirely built on Banking, Modern economics was discovered. All commerce, all government is debt based. No government has sat on a treasure chamber of gold and jewels they go to when they wish to build a navy or a road system or a government capital building, or pay the army and civil wages. They borrow, then tax to repay with interest. Now more than ever before, the ENTIRE World works on Central Bank Debt which feeds Fractional Reserve Banking, which is where every bit of wealth ultimately comes from, debt. Debt (bonds, Treasuries, notes, gilts…) is the actual Money – the paper you hold, the 1s and zeros, they represent a portion of that debt – debt is money, it is + or -, and both make money, are money. The same banking families exist today, they still own the Kings and Presidents. The error of this article is it thinks the bungling fools elected are the global elites, they are merely their lackeys and servants!

Will R
Will R
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Totally agree – some people have far too much time on their hands

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Tis tho good to be reminded of the big picture regularly in case we forget to notice the wood whilst focussed on the trees…

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Would anyone who isn’t “stupid” want to be in charge?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

There has never been a ‘golden age’ in that respect, nor will there ever be. However, many of us have commented in recent years that the quality of leadership, certainly across the West, seems to have declined considerably in recent decades.
Personally I date it from the collapse of Communism. Until that time, western political, corporate and media ‘elites’ had to at least display some competence and integrity in order to demonstrate that they were ‘better’ than the alternative.
But there are other factors at play such as the fiat money system, the collapse of educational standards, the non-stop news cycle etc.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

There was an Ancient Greek state, (I’m sorry I have forgotten its name) that required those standing for election to public office to do so with a noose around their neck.
This demonstrated that at the audit at the end of their normally one year term of office, that they accepted execution, if they had proved to be a failure.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Tom Graham
Tom Graham
1 year ago

I read that the practice in ancient Greece was that citizens were elected by lottery to whatever executive positions needed filling – for a period of one year. No elections at all.
I like the sound of that system very much.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Why should there be ‘Leadership’? That implies there is a place to go to, and that they’re taking us there. There isn’t. Usually it’s some ‘glorious future’. Now look back at history. What glorious future has ever arrived? Compared with a medieval peasantry we are almost absurdly fortunate in material and technical terms. Yet people are, demonstrably in some cases, still unhappy. The sight of privileged leftists complaining about ‘injustice’ is almost funny.
As H.G. Wells once said ‘Grown men don’t need Leaders’.
People really need some form of understanding. That may require sitting still and quiet for a very long time, thinking, without ever having a formed opinion.

Simon Newman
Simon Newman
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

There has definitely been a decline in virtue since the end of the Cold War, I agree. The elites no longer felt restrained. Their reaction to the 2008 financial collapse – the absence of consequences for the guilty – was in stark contrast to similar events pre-2000.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Thank you for this short article. The sooner we can remove the term ‘elite’ from the vocabulary applied to politicians and senior civil servants, the better. ‘Elite’ should be replaced with ‘effective’ or ‘ineffective’. That will provide a constant reminder to our leaders of how well they are doing their jobs (or not) and will help pop the bubble of their self-regard.

David George
David George
1 year ago

That’s a classic from Cummins.
Our Ardern led debacle of a government couldn’t be better described.

William Gladstone
William Gladstone
1 year ago

Its what they think of as clever, that’s the problem. They are clever people, but they excel at deceit in a nutshell. The thing is I don’t think deceit is a particularly admirable or useful attribute if you want a society with a better standard of living for example.
What you want is clever problem solvers but there aren’t many of them around and if you are not a genius but are good at deception and fairly shameless you can probably get further up the greasy pole than the hard working talented problem solver. Add in to the mix the endless activist types who go out of their way to promote their mates and are not too fussed if they bring the system down so are hardly looking to improve it and you have our elite in a nutshell.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
1 year ago

No, they are really not clever.

In 2012, only 23% of Labour MPs (and 55% of Tory MPs) could correctly identify the probability of spinning a coin twice and getting two heads.

77% of Labour MPs are very not intelligent.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

And, to paraphrase Dennis Skinner, half of Tory MPs are not crooks.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Half of Tory MPs are not crooks – sounds about right.
Less than on quarter of Labour MPs are not [email protected]

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Roman Provincial Governors performed rather well on the whole.
If not they were liable to be prosecuted in the Extortion Courts, established by
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus.
From what we know about 50% were found guilty. The punishment, far worse than death, was exile! Thrown out of the gang and packed off to some remote backwater such as say Marseilles . In effect a living hell that would last a lifetime, and discourage others.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

What a great idea. I would also extend it to Sports’s Day.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

Did anyone obsess about Roman provincial governors’ soft furnishings?

Peter Mott
Peter Mott
1 year ago

What a splendid piece! My conclusion is that MPs should be more or less randomly selected from as broad a cross section of the populace as possible because there will then be many views represented and, at least, a Hartlepool plumber will know about drains down which the present “elite” consigns us. There are no technocrats.

Steve
Steve
1 year ago

Late-stage democracy, early-stage rule by multinational corporations.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
1 year ago

We had two generations of politicians in the 20th Century who went through the selection process of taking part in a world war. These guys had to be competent to rise through the ranks to leadership positions.
Before that, the vast bureaucracy we have now simply didn’t exist, so it couldn’t be stuffed with half-wits and sociopaths.

Perdu En France
Perdu En France
1 year ago

There’s a pretty good way of working out what’s going on here. The players are the ones who’ve succeeded in scaling the greasy pole. The way of doing this is by prioritising individual self interest. So what you’re looking at is more of the same. So whatever they may be advocating, opposing, supporting or obstructing they’re doing it because it’s the best for them, personally.
They are not necessarily the wisest or the most informed. But they are personally successful & personal success is the only thing that counts

Last edited 1 year ago by Perdu En France
Paul Hayes
Paul Hayes
1 year ago

You were much better looking at the obscurer parts of Twitter — or thinking for yourself — than listening to the expert class if you wanted to know whether, for example, border controls or masks work, or when a vaccine might be ready.

I’m sure you don’t mean that as a serious general recommendation but it raises an important issue anyway: for the interested non-expert it’s [usually] a question of what intermediary sources to trust. The logic of inference implies that in fact you were / are better listening to the expert class on any given question but identifying the appropriate expert class (and finding out what its answers are) is itself a problem. Ideally we’d be able to trust the journalist class to solve that one for us but we can’t and, for example, there’s been a lot more public uncertainty about the “do masks work” question than the scientific uncertainties warranted.

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Hayes

Yet the public has proven to be right and the ‘scientific uncertainties’ more uncertain than they believed – because they never bothered getting out of their labs and health care settings into the real world.
The actual effect of face covering and other NPIs has been negligible – because system effects dominate (unsurprisingly everybody doesn’t do precisely what you tell them to do and the virus gets around the sides). There is nothing in the paper you quote about system effects. It’s all about how to take lab reports and turn it into effective propaganda in the hope that might help.
And increasingly that is what you see with supposedly scientific papers. They are reviewed by mates in an organisation that is ‘believable’ to push a particular political line, then published in a tame journal. And it is heavily influence by groupthink. Asking questions becomes heresy.
Science is becoming more and more like a church with priests every day. Because they have forgotten what Feynman told us: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

Last edited 1 year ago by Neil Wilson
Paul Hayes
Paul Hayes
1 year ago
Reply to  Neil Wilson

Sure, people don’t do precisely what they’re told or advised to do, but enough do that, unsurprisingly, the actual effect of those things has not been negligible. The scientists have not been as foolish – as un-Feynman like – as you seem to believe they have. In particular they’ve not been unaware that human behaviour is relevant (it is a science after all!) and, for example, effective communication is one of the NPIs studied.

William Harvey
William Harvey
1 year ago

. The West…and America in particular is not.. Its is as far from serious as you can get. We have become a very trite and silly culture/society , run by ineffective, unintelligent, self serving fops. These people are far from being smart and serious..

China on the other hand is very serious. Thats why they are now starting to lead the political and cultural debates. The West is copying China in so many areas. ( transport, education, economics) … it may not be long before we copy their political configuration as well. Maybe we should get prepared for a less than benign dictatorship at some point.

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
1 year ago

The Groupthink of the ‘elites’ and ‘meritocrats’ who rule countries like ours is shaped by the requirements of the wealthy and powerful who own their allegiance (Big Money paying for political parties, bribing politicians; Vested Interests whose power has these ‘leaders’ cowed).
In the past there was in most Britons, Americans &c a rock substratum of patriotism; red lines beyond which they would not go in point of selling out their countries’ people and future.
In most individuals’ cases these red lines now hardly exist. Everything is decided by greed and cowardice.
Such a development is the inevitable function of the spiritual – which also means the ethical and emotional – decay of human nature in this present phase, the last phase, of ‘the times of the Gentiles’ (Luke, chapter 21, verse 24).
The Lord Jesus forecast it: ‘Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold’ (Matthew chapter 24, verse 12).

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Scott

History repeats, often.

John McGibbon
John McGibbon
1 year ago

What is the proportion of politicians with soft social science degrees, a PPE degree or a classics degree compared to a generation or two ago, this most probably explains why they are so ill equipped to perform as legislators.

Last edited 1 year ago by John McGibbon
David Platzer
David Platzer
1 year ago

In fact, the boobies rather than the elite are in charge.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
1 year ago

On another site, someone renamed the ‘elite’ : the Nazghul.
Seems good to me

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
1 year ago

This is so true.
Our “Elite” class are not particularly bright. The opposite in fact.
They are thick, entitled and inbred – and getting more so with every passing year.

In 2012, only 23% of Labour MPs (and 55% of Tory MPs) could correctly identify the probability of spinning a coin twice and getting two heads.

Holy s***. Says it all really.

Simon Newman
Simon Newman
1 year ago

‘Cognitive elite’ just means social status stratification by IQ, which is what you’d expect in an IQ meritocracy. It has very little to do with politicians, who seem about as clever or stupid as they ever were, or journalists, who admittedly do seem to get stupider with every passing year – but there are specific reasons (mostly ‘the Internet’) why journalism as a profession is in decline.
Finally, it is quite possible to develop a cognitive elite while mean population IQ is in decline; we may have increased cognitive stratification at the same time as our elites are getting stupider, because we all are getting stupider.

Paul Hayes
Paul Hayes
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Newman

IQ fails to measure important elements of cognitive ability anyway. It doesn’t measure the cognitive morality of the thinker either.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Hayes

It strikes me as a nice story that people with low IQ tell themselves to feel better about losing the genetic lottery, just like the nonsense about EQ and multiple intelligence. People have varying skills, don’t get me wrong – but that’s not what intelligence is. The g-factor is a well substantiated and consistent measure of a whole range of mental facilities. It’s like saying ugliness fails to measure important elements of attractiveness… well sure but that’s not the point, that is outside the definition of ugliness.
And we should embrace inequality and excellence in all areas, it is what makes life worth living.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Paul Hayes
Paul Hayes
1 year ago

It strikes me as a nice story that people with low IQ tell themselves

Well it’s better seen as a cautionary tale for those of us with high IQ or g-factor. Rationality and the (innate, strongly correlated) abilities those other tests measure are not strongly correlated. That’s why a separate RQ test is needed. Acquisition of the [meta-]cognitive skills needed to reason well is more a matter of nurture – education – than nature.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Newman

If anything the media-focused nature of modern politics has reduced the average IQ of politicians. There is a good reason anyone with half a brain lets well alone any thought of public service now.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

Unfortunately, Cummings is of the opinion that he is a ninja.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago

Compared to pretty much everyone in the House of Commons he is – as he has shown repeatedly over the last 15 years – although it isn’t that impressive a feat given who he was dealing with.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago

This article is confused, because I think he seems to be confusing the technical and scientific elite that have actually made quite a lot of difference (I mean, just look around you) in terms of economic innovation and the parasitic art-graduate world of politicians, journalists, lawyers and PR men and other halfwits. Who for the most part are filled with the same old suspects as they always have been and I don’t think anyone is under any illusion about the cognitive abilities of these people. Go to any Russel group art’s degree seminar and be bown away by the inanity and incuriosity of 19 out of 20 students feds through a vast impersonal sausage machine of pat answers. Go to any tech company and ask the engineers what they think of people with history or PPE degrees and sit back and await the backlash of contempt. I know because I have both a history and computer science degree at different times in my life. This is a point that Dominic Cummings hit upon repeatedly and tried to change in his time in the DoE. Like him I remember my History and Politics degree being filled with mediocrities who are now managers and ‘directors’ who are just a layer of nuisance and BS us engineers have to contend with to get real work done.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago

Since peace broke out after the post WW2 stalemate ended, nations could relax a bit. Those who entered public service could relax and retire welcoming a new bunch who desired wealth and power and were quite willing to set aside principles for future gain. All was well for quite awhile, everybody was getting richer. But instead of going to war against other nation states which had been a gerational norm, we could tolerate our leaders. Major war, of course, being harder to enter because it affected too many private bank accounts and besides, the US could swing dollars around along with force if needed. Then the gift from China arrived!
Leaders had no idea what to do and no idea how to do it. The press became as frightened about the indecision as well but enjoyed the growing panic which they could aid. Then, like all pandemics in history much was consumed awaiting evolution or help from science. The leaders are loath to admit how ineffective they were and are in the face of nature. But most of us, as we relax from our vaccine or generally solid immune system, can see the waste left by leaders. But given minimal public virtue standards, new leaders like old leaders will carry on as before. The hand wringing will end and the China crisis can begin.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

In case you haven’t noticed there are these things called nuclear weapons.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
1 year ago

Well this, and comments below, is quite an eye-opener for a naive yank. What’s the world coming to?