People tell us that we’re wrong to disbelieve the experts. After all they’re the ones who know stuff so we should listen to them. The problem comes when you get older. Experts are best if they’re like historians who look back and pontificate on the past. That works. Yes you can argue with other historians, but you’re only arguing over the interpretation of the information. You’re not making the dangerous mistake of using your expert interpretation of the data to predict the future.
Once you predict the future you run into problems. Reality is perfectly happy to run your predictions and in ten or twenty years you can see how right or wrong you were.
So looking back, let’s look at BSE which came close to destroying the UK beef industry and compared to which, Brexit is a trivial irrelevance. Eventually they found that a Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy could move from one species to another. Now remember that when all this kicked off TSE’s were a field of medicine/biology where careers went to die. I’m not knocking the people working on these things in the 1980s, but frankly however good the work they did, they were never going to capture the limelight.
Then suddenly the world changed. With the arrival of BSE money flooded into the field and all eyes were on it. To be fair to the researchers they just kept researching, and generally did what researchers do, which is kick ideas about, try and check things, and do their damnedest to get funding for the next couple of years.
And of course the experts really went to town on things. Prof Liam Donaldson, who was the Chief Medical Officer told BBC radio, “Hundreds of thousands of British meat-eaters might eventually die from the human form of mad cow disease, but the scale of the epidemic will not be known for years. Even as late as 2000, the Guardian was producing articles saying that, “Latest estimates range from a few hundred to just over 130,000.”
Twenty years on, I’d like to refer you to https://www.cjd.ed.ac.uk/sites/default/files/figs.pdf
It’s a pdf which has the figures for deaths from CJD. There are four types, Sporadic, Iatrogenic, Genetic and vCJD. The first three are natural in that humanity has always had them. vCJD is probably the one that comes from Cattle. In spite of the experts, in the last five years there has been 1 case.
To put things in proportion, since they bothered keeping figures (which was 1990) there have been 2068 cases of sporadic CJD. There have been 82 cases of Iatrogenic CJD, 209 cases of Genetic CJD, and 178 cases of vCJD.
So in spite of the experts we haven’t even had a ‘few hundred’ never mind the hundreds of thousands.
To further put this in proportion, the suicide rate among farmers runs at about one a week. In any year, fifty or so kill themselves. In the same period as we have for the CJD cases, 1450 farmers or thereabouts will have committed suicide. I personally know of three who killed themselves during the hysteria of the BSE outbreak because they just couldn’t cope to what it was doing to their homes and their families.
But even during the BSE outbreak, it was soon evident that people were beginning to get sick of the experts and were ignoring them. The final nail in the coffin of expert infallibility came with the ‘beef on the bone ban.’
The government banned the sale of beef on the bone in December 1997. Two years later in 1999 they lifted the ban, probably because people just had no faith in it. One butcher I know told me that before the ban he’d rarely sell beef on the bone. He’d do a couple of joints a year for people who were intending to do roast beef for ten or a dozen guests. When the government introduced the ban, everybody was asking for it! The ban, whilst it inadvertently did a lot to increase the sales of beef, was effectively swept away by popular ridicule of a silly overreaction.
So experts? The passing of time is the graveyard of expert opinions.
Me, if I want to speak to an expert I used to ask this lady
As a reviewer commented, “This is a delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.
I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”