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Off Piste: Reality check

In the first in a series in which academics range beyond their area of expertise, philosopher Simon Blackburn proffers his top ten modern myths

Every week, Times Higher Education receives hundreds of non-fiction books from publishers for possible review. Over the years, more of them have been written by non-academics, particularly journalists. Most are perfectly well written and some are even thoroughly researched. None lacks confidence. Few areas of intellectual endeavour, with the possible exception of the hard sciences at their hardest, are deemed too challenging for the gifted amateur to attempt.

Conversely, as non-academics fearlessly explain the cosmos, Islam and Napoleon's love life, academics range ever less widely. The reasons for this are understandable - the nature of doctorates, the restrictions of the research assessment exercise, the comparative ease of mastering a narrow field, the arched eyebrow of the specialist contemplating the interloper, the modesty of an expert who measures his or her worth by the unknown mountain still to be scaled rather than the molehill already climbed.

But academics and the rest of us are losing out from this natural reluctance to claim insight beyond the familiar. University scholars have a methodological soundness that is often lacking in their off-campus peers and is certainly foreign to Fleet Street's finest. They have the chance to rub shoulders with other disciplines and modes of thought as few others do, most wear their learning lightly and many, it is rumoured, can write. In a perhaps reckless attempt to swim against the tide, we are starting a new fortnightly series, "Off-piste". The rules are simple - academics can write on any subject as long as it is not higher education or their principal research interest. We might balk at recipes and football chants in Latin but as long as the author writes with intellectual passion, any subject will be considered.

Simon Blackburn is the first to take the plunge ...

— Gerard Kelly, editor, Times Higher Education.

1. The myth of meaning

People think words mean things and that they know what they mean. Both claims are often untrue. When the Government of the day talks of change, reform, choice, progress, the social contract, radical new initiatives, going forward, transparency, accountability and the like, they mean nothing. But people are expected not to realise that, and even cynics may not realise it fully. George Berkeley said: "I entreat the reader to reflect with himself, and see if it doth not often happen, either in hearing or reading a discourse, that the passions of fear, love, hatred, admiration, disdain, and the like, arise immediately in his mind upon the perception of certain words, without any ideas coming between." The whole art of politics, just as much as the art of management (qv), or of teaching subjects such as divinity or French theory, depends on this being true. But it is wrong and unkind to think that the people who use these words realise that they mean nothing. They are as much victims of the illusion as their audience. The test of whether someone is talking like this is whether you can imagine successful action based specifically on what they say. When we cannot, Berkeley's process is under way.

2. The myth of religious belief

This is delicate ground because lots of people believe themselves to have religious belief, and some can even get quite huffy about it. But David Hume, who was usually right about these things, said that nature "suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men's conduct belies their words, and shows that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter."

People say they believe in life after death but still grieve when people die. Christians try to get rich and Muslims gamble. The state of mind here is unaccountable in the same way as that of the child who pretends that the tree stump is a bear and then becomes genuinely frightened of it, while knowing all the time that it is a tree stump. Like the child's game, the grown-up one deserves no special respect, but provided it keeps away from the serious side of life it can remain harmless enough. Unfortunately, it is apt to break out, giving bearded men in skirts an amplifier with which to spread one or another arbitrary set of attitudes and demands.

3. The myth of British values

This holds that there is a special system of British values, of 24-carat export quality. This often coincides with the myth of religious belief. Fair play is supposed to be an essentially British value, although our school bullying is the worst in any country with indoor plumbing. Of course, even the British have values in a fairly thin sense: our first toddle into the social world tells us that when people call us lazy, cowardly, indecisive, mean, bitter, foolish and dishonest they are not speaking well of us; conversely, we blush with pleasure to be described as kind, fair, open and generous.

Beyond that, talk of values is mainly a catalyst for becoming really, really angry and indignant, and is one of life's great pleasures. An absolutely unspeakable variant of this myth is talk of shared values, declaimed by politicians while they entertain dignitaries from, say, Saudi Arabia or Russia, China or Africa, and oddly supposed not to refer to obvious examples, such as a mutual liking for propaganda, deceit, power, war and bribery.

4. The myth of the scientist

This claims that there is an expertise, science, and that people who are good at it deserve a lot of attention. This is almost wholly false. There is no such thing as a scientist, and it is a shame that William Whewell, a rather patchy philosopher (although a Cambridge man), invented the term. There are only biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and so on. These may be very bright people, but the moment one of them steps a millimetre or two outside their special area of expertise, they are no better than the rest of us.

Problems such as foot-and-mouth disease, global temperatures and badgers, to name but three, need different baskets of expertises, if indeed there are any to be had. A fortiori, there should be no such thing as The Government Scientist. A version of this myth is that something called science is a self-propelled self-governing activity of special virtue, dedicated solely to truth. This ignores the huge proportion of physical scientists who work for the misnamed Ministry of Defence, and the biological scientists who work for big pharma, trying to get around the patents on drugs that do little for the disease burden of the world but that can be sold to the rich. Scientists have one catch-all answer when confronted with such unfortunate facts, which is to claim that the critic must be some kind of relativist. This is a Berkeleian term: nobody knows what it means, but everybody knows it is bad.

5. The myth of management

This claims that people can be managed like warehouses and airports, and that some other people are especially good at it. This is entirely wrong, although it has spread over the UK like the grey goo that some fear nanotechnology would unleash (manotechnology, perhaps, and just as lethal). People can be persuaded, and ordered, given incentives and penalties, suppressed and killed, but not managed. Human affairs can be administered, but administration is not management. One administers to people and their needs. One tries to manage them by ignoring whichever of their needs is inconvenient and by treating them as a mere means to your own ends. But, mirabile dictu, people treated like that become irritable and subversive and quite quickly unmanageable.

Marxists and Hegelians would say that management thus contains its own contradiction, or deconstructs itself, although this is disguised by free use of the myth of meaning (qv). The usual response is to hire more managers to manage the mess, and more layers of managers to oversee the managers. The criminal justice system is a wholly ineffective attempt at managing people. An extreme kind of manager is called a consultant, whose claim to expertise is that he costs more. There are, however, three good reasons for employing consultants: it passes the buck; it is public money; and it is easy to justify such expenditure to auditors, who lunch with consultants and are interchangeable with them.

6. The myth of democracy

Politicians preaching democracy as a value forget the two things wrong with democracy: the "demos" bit and the "cracy" bit or, in other words, the people and the system whereby they are supposed to govern themselves. By and large, even in systems with advanced educational resources, the people cannot do better than take their news and opinions from the likes of Rupert Murdoch (and according to Nick Davies's Flat Earth News, the British Government employs some 1,500 press officers whose job it is to manipulate the people). This is when things are going well. When they are not going well people naturally suppose that disagreement deserves death. It is tempting to think that the only solution is the Hobbesian sovereign with his monopoly of power, but as John Locke said: "This is to think that men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by polecats or foxes, but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions."

For Icelanders, Scandinavians and Europeans, with our long parliamentary traditions, democracy may be the least bad system of government, but it is a long way from being any use elsewhere.

7. The myth of culture

As it occurs in phrases such as multiculturalism, working-class culture and the like, this is the myth that there is a definite, admirable, rooted traditional way of being, and that it must be valued and cosseted and, above all, respected. All this is poppycock. Tempores mutant et nos mutamus in illis - the times change and we change with them. Nostalgia for the days before some change or other is usually fake and always embarrassing, like folk dancing or trying to preserve the Irish language.

What is usually known as culture is a set of symbols enabling people on the inside to recognise and dislike those on the outside. British culture is obviously an oxymoron, a label for the most uncultured pursuit imaginable, such as reading the Daily Mail, getting drunk and loudly voicing contempt for anything that smacks of culture. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, usually indicates a craven willingness to be polite when some of the population ship their daughters into forced marriage or get their brothers to murder them if they resist.

Alongside the myth of culture go myths of history, nationhood and tradition. (See also myth of religious belief.)

8. The myth of equal respect

The belief that everyone deserves equal respect and that anything else is discriminatory and elitist. The truth is the exact opposite: discrimination is a virtuous activity and elites are to be admired. The very few human beings who are good at anything, whether football or playing the violin or writing or painting, form an elite and deserve respect for their excellence. Other people either deserve sympathy for trying and failing, or should be ignored if they have not even tried.

Respect is not the same as toleration. I am lucky if my neighbours tolerate my singing when in the garden, but they would have to be tone deaf to respect it, and if they did then of course they in turn would forfeit my respect as music critics.

There are people whose chosen lifestyle disqualifies them from any respect at all, such as celebrities, although a more charitable view is that they deserve respect for the amount of publicity they can bestow, which is why they get into nightclubs and Downing Street. Religionists know in their hearts that they are always teetering on the edge of being ridiculous, and are therefore nervous about respect and constantly insist on it.

9. The myth of choice and competition

This is the idea that people are better off, more free, more liberated, if they can choose which of two equally toxic hospitals they can use, instead of being offered just one good one. The myth of competition supposes that because consumers will prefer the less toxic hospital, the managements (qv) will have no option but to get into a benign arms race of detoxifying their beds and wards. This ignores the fact that the easier and cheaper option will be to detoxify any unfortunate public relations coming out of the wards: manipulate the press release, discredit the ungrateful dead, plant sentimental stories of success, rubbish the critics, skew the statistics. After all, this is what press officers are for.

10. The myth of the public service ethos

The idea that sometimes people will do something because it is the right thing to do, not because it affords them any advantage. This was once true, but constant repetition by politicians and economists that it is a myth has successfully made it one.

Readers' comments (45)

  • "People think words mean things and that they know what they mean. Both claims are often untrue" (myth 1). I'd replace "often" by "always". The word "meaning" is just a useful shorthand way of referring to what happens when people perceive words. Meaning is not something that already exists along with words. And certainly it is not something possessed by words. In other words, words haven't got meanings, that is to say, they don't mean anything in themselves.

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  • The expression of such views has been known to lead to death by hemlock poisoning of the expresser. It would be safer to be quiet and leave the press officers, spin doctors, advertising agencies, lobbyists, and so on, to get on with their work.

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  • "9. The myth of choice and competition"

    Myth 9 indicates quite ably that myth 4 applies to some extent to philosophers as well as scientists. The concepts of "choice and competition" often fall foul of the myth of meaning and the myth of management, it must be acknowledged, but they are not myths in themselves because there is evidence that it works.

    Competition, when it works, is what has ensured that everyone in the UK has decent access to food (a problem that is still a problem outside of market economies), and ensured that everyone has a "good, local optician". Myths don't usually feed people or cure their poor sight effectively. For sure, health care has some features that make it difficult to integrate into a competitive market system, but that doesn't make those who advocate it myth-mongers, just the politicians who pretend they are implementing it.

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  • "These may be very bright people, but the moment one of them steps a millimetre or two outside their special area of expertise, they are no better than the rest of us."

    The same could be said of philosophers. In fact, one could say that there is no such thing as a philosopher. Discuss.

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  • On scientists: 'These may be very bright people, but the moment one of them steps a millimetre or two outside their special area of expertise, they are no better than the rest of us.'

    Rather like philosophers talking 'off-piste'?

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  • This is juvenile stuff. We were spouting it in student unions back in the 1970s. It is false in virtually every respect and Blackburn should be ashamed of publishing such puerile, childish rubbish - in fact, a bright child wouldn't give such stupid views houseroom. Or are we really to believe that everyone else in public life is thoroughly wicked except for Blackburn, the enlightened one?

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  • This is absolutely laughable. I thought old/professional media was supposed to be beyond this sort of unreferenced blaggish rant? And this is only one in a series of the more of the same?

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  • What half-baked nonsense! Any one of his points (and all of them) are demonstrably untrue on any level you want to look at them. Numbers 4 and 8 are especially weak for a professor of philosophy to be spouting. Science is not always some siloed-up undertaking; broad knowledge is often rewarded in the lab. As far as personal respect, I feel pity for someone with his attitude. What a drab and second-rate place the world must seem to him!

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  • Maybe I should be a little more direct than I was in my previous comment, and state that what we have here is philosophy turned misanthropy. Needless to say I’m unimpressed with this display of intellectual petulance, and do hope that the THES is not attempting to create its own version of the Guardian's Comment is Free.

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  • It is particularly bizarre, in myth 4, that the author should berate the notion of anyone in science having any meaningful authority outside of their professional microspecialty, whilst throwing around poorly thought-out generalities himself.

    "In the first in a series in which academics range beyond their area of expertise."

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