Monday 26 September 2016

How the smart people usually turn out to be wrong

The sniffy reaction to Danny Healy-Rae's climate-change views was pure snobbery

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Outsiders, outsiders: Michael Lowry, with brothers Danny, centre, and Michael Healy-Rae Photo: Tom Burke
Outsiders, outsiders: Michael Lowry, with brothers Danny, centre, and Michael Healy-Rae Photo: Tom Burke

Eamon Ryan's face bore the horrified expression of a man who'd found himself inadvertently trapped in a sketch from The Savage Eye.

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Danny Healy-Rae, recently elected TD for Kerry, was explaining his view that climate change is not a man-made disaster, but a natural phenomenon subject to frequent shifts over time, adding that "God above is in charge of the weather" and "we here can't do anything about it".

Ryan referenced the exchange again in the Dail on Friday when he rose to respond as Green Party leader to the vote on the election of a new Taoiseach. He was admirably generous in praising Healy-Rae's sincerity, but it was still clearly on his mind.

Social media, for its part, couldn't believe its luck, less generously turning Healy-Rae's comments about the Almighty's hand in the weather into a stream of wisecracks, with the rural deputy as the unflattering punchline.

The merciless mocking of the "culchie" with the strange views was as subtle as a Punch cartoon from the 19th century. The debate in the Dail even made headlines in the UK and America, no doubt helped by Galway deputy Catherine Connolly's characterisation of her fellow Independent TD as "Ireland's Sarah Palin", another populist politician whose folksy way of expressing unfashionable opinions made her a target for derision.

None of this exactly does much to discourage the Healy-Raes in their belief that they are outsiders up against an antagonistic Dublin elite.

On reflection, though, were Danny Healy-Rae's views on global warming really that laughable? He's simply repeating what other climate change sceptics have been saying for years now, including Nobel Prize-winning physicists, who take a range of contrary positions on the current orthodoxy by either arguing that the role of carbon dioxide in warming has been exaggerated or that the costs of doing anything to reverse the trend are so prohibitively expensive that they can't be justified.

Some have compared the scientific consensus to a "new religion", with Nobel laureate Ivar Giaever even wondering why scientists are happy to discuss the existence of parallel universes but freak out when any of their colleagues dare question if the statistical calculations used to track rises in global temperature are distorting the true picture.

Whether they're right or wrong is irrelevant. The point is that they may face hostility for challenging scientific consensus, but they're not subjected to the same condescending caricature and that's probably not unrelated to the fact that they express themselves using longer words uttered in accents that are more acceptable to metropolitan opinion formers.

Is that it then? Are we just laughing at Healy-Rae because he has a "funny" accent and is so unsophisticated, darling, that he doesn't realise he's not supposed to believe in God these days, much less admit it in public? How hopelessly out of date. How very not modern.

If that's all it comes down to, then it has to be said that our ingrained respect for superficially "smart" people over allegedly "stupid" ones hasn't served us well in recent years. It was the so-called 'smart people' who collapsed the banks and caused the financial crash. It was so-called smart people who declared that a headlong rush towards economic and political union in Europe was the right way to go and then announced that they knew how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again when he fell off the wall.

Some austerity here; a bit of quantitative easing there. The result: the continent's longest-ever recession and the prospect of further downturns still lurking in the shadows.

The same people were adamant that the EU should ignore ordinary people's concerns about migration from the Middle East and the discontent would go away. Instead, it's growing, not just on the far-right fringes, but in mainstream politics from Italy to Austria, France to the UK.

They're still at it. Six months ago, the smart people were confident that Donald Trump's campaign would run out of steam and a more moderate candidate would emerge. First, it was going to be Jeb Bush, then Marco Rubio. One by one, they all fell away. He's now the Republican candidate for president, having overwhelmingly triumphed in a contest that the most respected pundits in the United States maintained would break him.

The same pundits thought that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in as Democratic nominee, when in fact she's still having to fight for every vote. She'll win eventually, but it's proving far from easy.

Now they're saying that Clinton will easily see off Trump in November. They have polls and data to prove it. But what if they're equally wrong with this prediction?

Donald Trump faced the same mockery as Danny Healy-Rae and for the same reason. He doesn't talk like the commentariat. What they consistently fail to realise is that this is the nature of his appeal. People are tired of superficially smart people telling them what they should and should not think.

They're tired of having their opinions policed by the politically correct.

In Ireland, we have our share of these self-proclaimed intellectual geniuses in ivory towers too. They're the ones who said Fianna Fail was finished after 2011 and that Sinn Fein and the Left would be the major beneficiaries of discontent with the last Fine Gael/Labour coalition.

Instead, SF remains more of a posturing protest movement than a serious contender for government, whilst the anti-austerity parties languish on low single-figure percentage points when real votes are counted at the ballot box.

Since the election, the "informed" consensus has been that a grand coalition between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael was inevitable in this centenary of the Rising. The numbers apparently offered no other alternative. Except, of course, they did, as has been shown by subsequent events.

Time and again, the apparently clever people - the ones with degrees from the right universities and who know the correct spoon to use at dinner parties - turn out to be spectacularly wrong; and the ones written off as dumb -who talk about God, and who refuse to accept that their role in life is to genuflect before every political and scientific pronouncement from their betters - are proved right.

In fact, the gap between what the smart people say and what actually happens in the real world seems to be getting wider by the day. But rather than examine what it is in their untested assumptions about the world which predisposes them to get things wrong, they retreat into conspiracy-theory thinking when reality fails to match up to their expectations.

The Labour Party was supposed to win the last election in the UK. Why didn't it? Because the Tories cheated and bought their way to victory.

Sinn Fein was supposed to have swept to power in Ireland. Why hasn't it? Because the establishment and media colluded to blind the Irish people to the true nature of their oppression. Anything other than admit the awful truth.

Susan Sontag identified this refusal of self-congratulatory intellectuals to concede that it might be they who are out of touch when she urged her fellow New York liberals to ask themselves who had been better informed about the reality of communism - progressives who spent the years between 1950 and 1970 reading publications such as The New Statesman, or their conservative parents, who were reading Reader's Digest?

"The answer, I think, should give us pause," she concluded. It still should.

Most of those mocking Danny Healy-Rae this week have no more grasp of the physics behind climate change than he does; but then he wasn't claiming to be an expert. They simply prefer to take their opinions on the matter from someone who quotes UN reports, rather than one who name-checks God.

That's a matter of aesthetics, not science. And it certainly isn't enlightened politics.

Sunday Independent

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