My beef with experts


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


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!”

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29 thoughts on “My beef with experts

  1. M T McGuire January 28, 2019 at 11:48 am Reply

    I agree that there can be a lot of overreaction, especially when expert advice is taken and applied by people who are not experts. But it depends what the field is, doesn’t it? I confess that with beef, I carried on eating it. But that was a slight chance it might kill me, and I knew someone who’d eaten some BSE beef years before, before it was even a thing.

    On the other hand, things like global warming … We might be coming out of a mini ice age, or our continued rapacious consumption of our planet’s resources and our total disregard for its wild life and beauty might come back to give us a fatal bite in the bottom. I’m more inclined to believe it because I watched a Newsround report about it when I was a kid that posted that f global warming was a thing we would have more extreme weather, that it would get windier, summers hotter, winters colder because the gulf stream would be pushed into a different path by the melting ice caps and pushed past Britain. This would sometimes cause us wetter summers, rather than hot ones, as the Atlantic weather which the gulf stream usually kept at bay now sat over the UK and ireland. There was a lot of stuff in it which has, indeed, happened. So I’d rather play safe and cut emissions etc.

    As for farmers, we have a serious disrespect of our food producers in this country and frankly it’s a disgrace. There needs to be some serious re-education on that score although I’m not sure how we teach people in towns about the country.



    • jwebster2 January 28, 2019 at 11:50 am Reply

      Yes I’ve always held that tipping plastic into the oceans etc wasn’t clever. Cutting emissions strikes me as a good idea
      But it does irritate me when people who fly several times a year and live in a centrally heated house point the finger at me 🙂

      • M T McGuire January 28, 2019 at 3:14 pm

        Oh yeh those people who bang on about how much cows contribute to global warming will make a good start. if I was a farmer they would absolutely f*** me off. After all, while yes, there are loads of cows, there aren’t any more bison and countless other ruminants and grass eating species have been pushed out or killed to make way for intensive farming all over the world, so if you take the number of cows and you balance them against these other ruminants and the number of bison that were on the American plains before the pioneers killed them all, and then factoring the amount of cows that would probably have existed anyway, I’d be really interested to see, whether you would end up with something approaching parity in methane production terms but emanating from the arses of different creatures.

        To my very cynical view the whole cow argument is vegetarians, who want us all to stop eating meat, working out that ecological issues are a hot topic right now and finding a way to piggyback their own aim onto with an issue of common concern. There is just as much evidence that the kind of intensive agricultural farming that would be required to feed us all, growing once a year crops like soya and the like, would do far worse ecological damage – after all look what palm oil production has done to the rainforests. better to leave the farmers alone and go after the handful of companies responsible for the quarters of greenhouse emissions.




      • M T McGuire January 28, 2019 at 3:16 pm

        The quarters 🙄🙄 body phone! I meant three quarters.

      • jwebster2 January 28, 2019 at 3:36 pm

        yes, they overlook the fact that every time you plough land, you release C02
        Whereas if you have animals grazing, the CO2 gets locked into the soil 🙂
        You get the ridiculous situation where we would be encouraged to produce milk from intensively housed dairy cows, which were fed on maize, because that would reduce the amount of Methane produced per litre of milk, but of course it would massively increase the amount of CO2 and particulates from diesel 🙂
        Too many single issue pressure groups without a clue

  2. Jack Eason January 28, 2019 at 1:10 pm Reply

    Nicely put Jim. Eperts so-called should be totally ignored!!!

    • jwebster2 January 28, 2019 at 1:30 pm Reply

      At the very least they should present their track record so that you have a chance to evaluate them 🙂

      • Jack Eason January 28, 2019 at 1:32 pm

        Most are nobody worth even reading…

      • jwebster2 January 28, 2019 at 2:07 pm

        yes, when somebody quotes an economist I keep wanting to ask “Did they spot the last crash, the crash before, or none of them’ 🙂

  3. M T McGuire January 28, 2019 at 3:43 pm Reply

    So true. Everything is a sod of a lot more complicated than pressure groups, not to mention the powers that be, would have us think.

    • jwebster2 January 28, 2019 at 3:50 pm Reply

      yes they want a simple box to tick so they can say they’ve ‘dealt with the problem’ and can get on with something else.
      The last thing a politician wants is to spend his career dealing with an intractable problem that will outlast him or her

  4. Widdershins January 28, 2019 at 11:23 pm Reply

    Yeah, ‘experts’ who have a particular axe to grind, and are firmly attached to the coat-tails of whoever’s funding them, are to be avoided at all costs.

    • jwebster2 January 29, 2019 at 6:52 am Reply

      they’re far too common. ‘Shroud waving’ to attract funding has a long history 😦

  5. Jack Eason January 31, 2019 at 7:33 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    I’m not the only one who can’t stand experts! Read on…

    • jwebster2 January 31, 2019 at 9:54 am Reply

      Somebody once used the phrase, “Wouldn’t spit on him if he was on fire’ 🙂

      • Jack Eason January 31, 2019 at 1:13 pm

        I rate experts at, or may just below, politicians Jim. Both utterly useless… 😉

      • jwebster2 January 31, 2019 at 1:40 pm

        Politicians have been known to take advantage of the fact that no matter what you want to say, you will somewhere be able to find an expert who supports it
        The expert who doesn’t support it is, of course, not a proper expert 🙂

  6. thelonelyauthorblog January 31, 2019 at 10:42 am Reply

    Most of them are experts at getting tings wrong.
    Good read my friend.

    • jwebster2 January 31, 2019 at 10:53 am Reply

      The problem is that ‘expert’ is a status people award themselves 🙂

  7. patriciaruthsusan January 31, 2019 at 1:09 pm Reply

    Jim tells about past problems with buying and selling beef. He also has a good and affordable book on offer featuring his sheepdog. There’s a great review of the book by a satisfied reader. 🙂 — Suzanne

    • jwebster2 January 31, 2019 at 1:41 pm Reply

      glad you found it interesting 🙂

  8. patriciaruthsusan January 31, 2019 at 1:16 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    Jim tells about past buying and selling of beef. He also has an amusing book at an affordable price on offer about his sheepdog and a great review of the book by a satisfied reader.

  9. annabellefranklinauthor February 1, 2019 at 6:00 pm Reply

    I’m convinced dogs are wiser than we are. It’s just a shame they can’t communicate their expert opinions!

    • jwebster2 February 1, 2019 at 6:08 pm Reply

      they can also be more focused but this isn’t always a good thing 🙂

  10. Ken Thackerey February 2, 2019 at 7:21 pm Reply

    Experts know an awful lot about very little & very little about an awful lot.

  11. kevinashton March 26, 2019 at 1:56 pm Reply

    Being a chef, the issue of Beef on the bone was greeted with dismay by chefs and dutiful compliance by corporate hotels. I was working and living in the US for most of the BSE scandal so my knowledge of it and its effects are mostly from colleagues.

    That said, like many scandals in my lifetime none of the people whose decisions created this scandal ever suffered either financial or legal consequences.
    Who was came up with the idea of putting sheep brains (diseased or otherwise) into animal feed?

    To feed a herbivore meat is so barmy. Humans, though omnivores don’t normally eat animals that eat meat, unless you can count the cannibals eating each other in the Tory party.

    As for experts, their good intentions are often used and abused by others; such as endless public inquiries that end up stalling and eventually blunting public outcry, without anyone being held to account. Now there’s a bone to chew on!

    • jwebster2 March 26, 2019 at 5:45 pm Reply

      Interestingly the use of meat and bone meal in animal feed has been common since the time of the American Civil war in the 1860s and has been used right round the world. Indeed during the first and second world wars, the inclusion of MBM in cattle feed was mandatory!
      Attitudes to these things change, I remember an article in New Scientist discussing the use of urea, from animal waste as a protein feed in ruminants (because you’re actually feeding rumen bacteria rather than a mammal and bacteria can digest ammonia and build it into amino acids. The ruminant then digests the bacteria. This was regarded as cutting edge recycling, so amazingly green and environmentally conscious and obviously the way forward. 🙂

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