Cummings’ little knowledge is a dangerous thing and must be challenged

The government’s narrow base of evidence for its radical agenda combined with ongoing attacks on humanities and the social sciences is a worrying trend. Liberal Democrats can and should oppose it. Much as I was dismayed by the Conservative election win last year I naively thought that having someone like Cummings, interested in ideas and sceptical of sacred cows, might at least create a space for some creative policy thinking. I was even intrigued by the scattergun ‘weirdos and misfits’ job advert. I was wrong.

Cummings’ relationship to knowledge is far from benign. A Twitter take I saw suggests the best way to think about him is as someone at the first peak of the Dunning-Kruger paradox where having a little knowledge on a subject perversely gives the holder a heightened sense of their own mastery. As an Oxford humanities graduate himself, Cummings reviles ‘Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties’. He loves experts, but only ones that support his worldview and personal grudges.

Cummings reveres certain kinds of thinking: game theory, behavioural science (remember the unsubstantiated belief in ‘behavioural fatigue’ that delayed lockdown) and faith in big data, and hostility towards humanities and social sciences. Meanwhile Gove’s recent Ditchley speech reiterated the need for fewer social scientists and more statisticians in the civil service (as if these were mutually exclusive) and signals a resumption of the wrecking ball approach temporarily paused by coronavirus and Barnard Castle.

In fact, a more sceptical and rounded view of evidence on behaviour would have questioned the government’s assumptions at the start of the outbreak (indeed many academics did but were ignored). The benefits of big data can’t be harnessed by mathematicians and data scientists alone – interpretive skills such as those provided by many social science degrees are vital for understanding and using raw information. As this LSE blog argues, the narrow Gove and Cummings approach points to a retread of the abysmal failures of the Soviet Union, a closed system unable to deal with change or actual human beings.

One of the reasons I joined the Lib Dems is that the party values knowledge and evidence. Our job now should be to challenge the government’s narrow basis for its radical programme and make a positive case for the use of social sciences, the humanities and the natural sciences as vitally interlinked systems of knowledge for good policy and general flourishing.

At the national level our MPs and Lords should continue to challenge the erroneous basis of the government’s policies, aware that this isn’t just the usual Tory disregard for facts and detail but a potentially more dangerous ideologically-driven approach. At the local and devolved level we should build partnerships with universities, developing mutually beneficial arrangements with both people who understand numbers and people who understand people. We should also look to link up with campaigns like SHAPE to promote the value of the ‘softer’ subjects. While this isn’t a short-term election winner it should be a long-term liberal priority.

* Sam Martin is a member based in Sutton, London, He is standing as a candidate in the current Social Liberal Forum council elections..

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  • richard underhill 13th Jul '20 - 10:13am

    By Sam Martin | Mon 13th July 2020 – 9:40 am
    Do you agree with the FT that there is “a plague of economists?”

  • Samuel Martin 13th Jul '20 - 10:59am

    hi Richard – I don’t know the context of the FT’s comment but I definitely think that the 19thC separating out of economics into its own discipline, followed by increasing pretensions of economists to be hard scientists dealing with fixed laws, was damaging and led to the 2008 crash.

  • What we need is a nation of small scale creative capitalists, be they engineers, artists or techies with a tax system skewed to make it worth their time to take a risk… from this comes all the wealth and tax that the Left love to throw around. The educational system similarly needs to be skewed to encourage courses that lead to this kind of creative capitalism, preferably free of charge given the huge sums of tax that the govn will get from those who are successful even at current rates. Be interesting to see if the govn goes down this direction, all the madcap plans have been somewhat delayed by Covid and perhaps many abandoned as the idea of a minimal State does not work well when you have a national emergency.

    Cummings has a very strong position as the man who wins elections, if the Left found a way to remove him how amused would they be if he then teamed up with the likes of Nigel Farage?

    The best way of combating a bad idea is to come up with a much better solution rather than whining away.

  • Phil Beesley 13th Jul '20 - 12:16pm

    I don’t have a single idea about how to challenge the Cummings/Gove approach to government and society. I know what is wrong and I enjoy reading arguments about it; I just don’t know how to open the eyes of those who have fallen for them. As demonstrated by the EU Referendum, rational arguments only convince those who are willing to challenge gut reactions. How do you use instincts against this government?

    I suspect that Cummings may come undone by misinterpreting ‘big data’. We all have daft ideas which we hold with light conviction, concepts which unravel once exposed to reality. Thatcher’s Poll Tax was a great idea of this type. Political advertisers use big data to create dozens of advertising concepts which are exposed to a sample set before being released widely. But they still make mistakes.

    ‘Soft subjects’: I once worked with a History of Art academic who had previously been employed by Fujitsu Siemens on a project to disentangle documents shredded in East Germany. Understanding small differences or separating out things which look similar but aren’t the same are things which AI finds hard to achieve. Humans are required to tell the robot why it is making mistakes.

  • Innocent Bystander 13th Jul '20 - 1:37pm

    This appears to be in praise of the humanities and the softer subjects. Unfortunately we are overrun with those skills while in India and China they can’t learn the hard subjects fast enough. That’s why your ‘phone was made in China and wasn’t (and never will be) made in the UK. I am a Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and I am proud to say that, far from encouraging STEM, I have dissuaded our three sons from following in my footsteps.
    STEM is very popular with our humanities based elite but only for someone else to follow. They wouldn’t touch those subjects themselves, with a barge pole. Non ducor, duco is their motto.
    Unfortunately also, they have this blind trust in anyone who claims to be an expert. Unsurprising gullibility from those who think “Ohm’s Law” is a detective series and Pythagoras is Manchester United’s goalkeeper.
    I align with Gove because experts are human and fallible. They are vain, proud, hate to be proven wrong and obsessive. History is littered with great names who got it wrong but were believed because of their reputations.
    There is no way out of having knowledge and judgement to enable critical interrogation of experts in order to reveal the assumptions and guesses their advice is actually based on.

  • Phil Craxford 14th Jul '20 - 8:02am

    As a matter of personal opinion I’ve always thought the division between humanities and sciences something of a false divide. Many of the greats from history were notably polymaths. Leonardo DaVinci is as famed for his art as his invention, Mendel’s study into genetics must have surely gone alongside study into religion or philosophy. It may be apocryphal but, when IBM ran out of graduates from maths and physics departments for software developer roles the next place they looked was the music department. Problem solving often requires as much creativity as it does analysis.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jul '20 - 10:28am

    @ Steve Cromer,

    “this Vote Leave Government…. has a nasty nativist reactionary little Englander agenda!”

    Would you say one has to follow on from the other? Did Tony Benn, and the pre 2015 Jeremy Corbyn, have the same agenda?

  • David Garlick 14th Jul '20 - 10:30am

    The main points of this for me was the need for Liberal democrats to put forward a cohesive and engaging plan for a great future for this country. Stop worrying about the distraction of Cummings and concentrate of the Conservative habit of over promising and under delivering. Something which will sink them if a combined with a consistent and clear narrative from us.

  • Agree totally with this article. The government ignores scientists, belittles social scientists and strangles the humanities. No surprise: it’s all of a piece with Gove’s disastrous education reforms. Stop people thinking and get them working. Forced people to concentrate on the mechanics of situations – what works – and stop them asking what the thing they’re servicing is meant to achieve. Make the trains run on time – but to where, for whom?

    How to fight it? Use simple English. Many people have surprisingly liberal views on education, but are put off by Progressive-speak. By all means defend a major theatre, but don’t forget to defend a local community arts group many people in the pub (if any) will know about.

    The government’s shambles over Covid-19: primarily, I think down to two things: ministers out of their depth, the capable and experienced people in their party having been driven out; and a lack of forward planning, evidenced by the failure to do anything about the findings of Exercise Cygnus. The latter point is not especially about Johnson’s Tories: all governments for a long time have lacked a systematic approach to Emergency Planning.

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