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Ask the expert, if you can find one

It was around four years ago I discovered the title of ‘Doctor’ extended beyond medical staff. I’m not sure many people outside of the academic world fully understand or have any reason to know the order in which post nominal letters are awarded or titles are given. Gaining the title of ‘doctor’ at the very beginning of any academic journey, seems so distantly part of any future plan, its barely imaginable. Some career paths seem wildly ambitious. Wanting to be an ‘expert’ in your field for the humble student, feels much like aspiring to become an astronaut midway through a physics degree.

Once you enter the world of academia, the titles people hold seem to determine an awful lot of their credibility. It’s rare to find a university lecturer who isn’t working towards doctoral qualification, most already have one. The papers, books and research journals are filled with the knowledge of individuals who once were nothing more than students. I often wonder though, at what point someone becomes an expert? At what point, (if ever) do the most academically qualified individuals refer to themselves as experts within a narrow area of their field.

The government often talks about relying on ‘expert’ evidence. Watching the experts stand beside the PM discussing the current pandemic, they appear uneasy, particularly when questions are raised about a different expert having a contradicting opinion. One thing I feel quite sure of is that experts seem to rarely agree. As Bertrand Russell (1927/42) states, “even when all the experts agree, they may well be mistaken” . Maybe that’s because it’s questionable if anyone can ever truly know everything on a given subject area.

The scientific committee seems to be buzzing with accusations that the experts are not quite what they seem. The ‘data scientists’ advising government and sitting on SAGE are not all from a background which comfortably implies they are qualified to discuss virology or immunology. In the background lingers the fact with such a new virus, with so little known about it, expert knowledge in a narrow sense, is undoubtedly in its infancy and will probably require some degree of hindsight later on.

In the past week one of the UK’s leading experts has resigned from his job after breaking his own guidance. Meanwhile the public watched Matt Hancock ‘snap’ at an opposition MP in parliament. A woman who despite being no more of an ‘expert’ than himself, at least has experience as a qualified A&E doctor to base her opinions and views on. It seems last week’s experts and heroes are this week’s victims in the ongoing witch-hunt for someone to blame.

I’ve started to wonder if labelling someone an ‘expert’ is something other people do to install confidence that a piece of research being relied upon is credible, rather than the experts referring to themselves that way. There’s almost an assumption of arrogance for anyone who dares to protest that their knowledge should be recognised with a title, outside of the academic world anyway. Maybe people simply don’t understand what it took to reach that level of knowledge in the first place.

I’ve looked a lot at ‘labelling’ within the criminological context and it seems to me the labels that are attached to us, almost always seem to come from someone else. In an age of self-proclaimed ‘internet experts’ the real experts, it seems are hard to find.

Reference

Russell, Bertrand (1927/1942) cited in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell: A Fresh Look at Empiricism, 1927-42, edited by by John Slater and Assisted by Peter Köllner, (London: Routledge)

Have you been radicalised? I have

Sylvia-Pankhurst_1

On Tuesday 12 December 2018, I was asked in court if I had been radicalised. From the witness box I proudly answered in the affirmative. This was not the first time I had made such a public admission, but admittedly the first time in a courtroom. Sounds dramatic, but the setting was the Sessions House in Northampton and the context was a Crime and Punishment lecture. Nevertheless, such is the media and political furore around the terms radicalisation and radicalism, that to make such a statement, seems an inherently radical gesture.

So why when radicalism has such a bad press, would anyone admit to being radicalised? The answer lies in your interpretation, whether positive or negative, of what radicalisation means. The Oxford Dictionary (2018) defines radicalisation as ‘[t]he action or process of causing someone to adopt radical positions on political or social issues’. For me, such a definition is inherently positive, how else can we begin to tackle longstanding social issues, than with new and radical ways of thinking? What better place to enable radicalisation than the University? An environment where ideas can be discussed freely and openly, where there is no requirement to have “an elephant in the room”, where everything and anything can be brought to the table.

My understanding of radicalisation encompasses individuals as diverse as Edith Abbott, Margaret Atwood, Howard S. Becker, Fenner Brockway, Nils Christie, Angela Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Gilroy, Mona Hatoum, Stephen Hobhouse, Martin Luther King Jr, John Lennon, Primo Levi, Hermann Mannheim, George Orwell, Sylvia Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, Pablo Picasso, Bertrand Russell, Rebecca Solnit, Thomas Szasz, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Benjamin Zephaniah, to name but a few. These individuals have touched my imagination because they have all challenged the status quo either through their writing, their art or their activism, thus paving the way for new ways of thinking, new ways of doing. But as I’ve argued before, in relation to civil rights leaders, these individuals are important, not because of who they are but the ideas they promulgated, the actions they took to bring to the world’s attention, injustice and inequality. Each in their own unique way has drawn attention to situations, places and people, which the vast majority have taken for granted as “normal”. But sharing their thoughts, we are all offered an opportunity to take advantage of their radical message and take it forward into our own everyday lived experience.

Without radical thought there can be no change. We just carry on, business as usual, wringing our hands whilst staring desperate social problems in the face. That’s not to suggest that all radical thoughts and actions are inherently good, instead the same rigorous critique needs to be deployed, as with every other idea. However rather than viewing radicalisation as fundamentally threatening and dangerous, each of us needs to take the time to read, listen and think about new ideas. Furthermore, we need to talk about these radical ideas with others, opening them up to scrutiny and enabling even more ideas to develop. If we want the world to change and become a fairer, more equal environment for all, we have to do things differently. If we cannot face thinking differently, we will always struggle to change the world.

 

For me, the philosopher Bertrand Russell sums it up best

Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man (Russell, 1916, 2010: 106).

 

Reference List:

Russell, Bertrand, (1916a/2010), Why Men Fight, (Abingdon: Routledge)

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