Who Speaks for History? Who Speaks for Physics? Lessons from the Battles of Experts over AV in the UK and the Nuclear Crisis in Japan

20 03 2011

The UK is currently in the middle of a debate over electoral reform: a referendum on whether to switch from First Past the Post to the Alternative Vote in Westminster election will take place on 5 May.  The Alternative Vote, which has been used in Australia since 1918, involves voters ranking candidates in order of preference (e.g., Labour 1, Liberal Democrat 2, Conservative 3). Under the current FPTP system, only first preference votes are recorded and the other data about voter preferences is discarded. I would imagine that if the UK votes to shift to this new system, it would increase the impetus for electoral reform in Canada.

The Canadian province of British Columbia used AV for its provincial general elections in the 1950s. It was introduced by a legislature dominated by  centre-right parties as a tactic to prevent a socialist political party from winning a forthcoming general election. Once this threat had passed, the legislature re-introduced the old FPTP system. A coalition of right-wing parties in Australia was also responsible for the introduction of AV in that country, but for various reasons AV became a permanent feature of Australian politics.

Recently, a group of British and British-born historians sent a letter to the Times to condemn the AV proposal as ahistorical, out of keeping with British traditions, and a slap in the face to the generations of men and women who fought for democracy.

Our nation‟s history is deeply rooted in our parliamentary democracy, a democracy in which, over centuries, men and women have fought for the right to vote. That long fight for suffrage established the principle of one man or woman, one vote. The principle that each person‟s vote is equal, regardless of wealth, gender, race, or creed, is a principle to which generations of reformers have dedicated their lives. It is a principle upon which reform of our parliamentary democracy still stands. The referendum on 5th May which threatens to introduce a system of „Alternative Voting‟ – a voting system which will allow MPs to be elected to Parliament even if they do not win the majority of constituents‟ first preference votes – also threatens to break this principle…. For the first time since 1928 and the granting of universal suffrage, we face the possibility that one person‟s casting ballot will be given greater weight than another. For the first time in centuries, we face the unfair idea that one citizen‟s vote might be worth six times that of another…Twice in our past, the nation has rejected any threat to the principle of one citizen, one vote. The last time, in 1931, Winston Churchill stood against the introduction of an Alternative Vote system. As he argued, AV would mean that elections would be determined by “the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates”. He understood that it was simply too great a risk to take.

The signatories to this letter included: Professor Antony Beevor,  Professor Jeremy Black, Professor Michael Burleigh
Professor John Charmley, Professor Jonathan Clark, Dr Robert Crowcroft, Professor Richard J Evans, David Faber, Professor Niall Ferguson, Orlando Figes,  Robert Lacey, Lord Lexden, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Professor Lord Norton of Louth, Dr. Andrew Roberts, Professor Richard Shannon, Chris Skidmore MP, Dr David Starkey, Professor Norman Stone.

Some of these historians are known to have conservative political views (e.g., Niall Ferguson), although this certainly isn’t true of all of the signatories.

You can read the entire letter here.

The anti-AV letter generated a response from historians who are sympathetic to AV. The pro-AV letter reads:

Twenty-five historians, coordinated by Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, have written to the Times, claiming that AV would be a betrayal of the sacrifice of past generations of democracy campaigners. But claiming to speak for the dead on a referendum they never contemplated seems to us a betrayal of academic standards that we as historians hold dear.

They claim to speak for historians, indeed for history, in defending FPTP. But as on any such serious political question, historians are as divided as the population at large. The notion that “History teaches us to vote ‘No to AV’”, as the Times headline put it, or that it gives any such clear lesson on the rightful configuration of the voting system again leads us to question the signatories’ scholarly acumen in supporting this petition.

The signatories to this letter included a number of historians, some of whom are associated with the political left:

1.     Dr Joan Allen
2.     Philip Begley
3.     Jane Berney
4.     Professor Stefan Berger
5.     Dr Lawrence Black
6.     Professor Huw Bowe
7.     Dr Kate Bradley
8.     Professor Christine Carpenter
9.     Professor David Cesarani
10.  Dr Elaine Chalus
11.  Professor Peter Clarke
12.  Dr Tim Cooper
13.  Dr Surekha Davies
14.  Dr Lucy Delap
15.  Professor Richard Drayton
16.  Dr Amy Erickson
17.  Dr Martin Farr
18.  Professor Steven Fielding
19.  Matthew Francis
20.  Dr. Francis Graham-Dixon
21.  Dr Matthew Grant
22.  Dr Simon Griffiths
23.  Dr Joanna de Groot
24.  Dr David Hall-Matthews
25.  Professor Edward Higgs
26.  Professor Matthew Hilton
27.  Dr Katherine Holden
28.  Professor Geoffrey Hosking
29.  Dr Michael Jennings
30.  Dr Martin Johnes
31.  Dr Jenny Keating
32.  Dr Charles Littleton
33.  Dr Peter Lyth
34.  Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal
35.  Dr James Mark
36.  Clare Mulley
37.  Dr Scott Newton
38.  Dr Lucy Noakes
39.  Dr Nicola Phillips
40.  Professor Geoffrey Plank
41.  Dr Martin Polley
42.  Professor Bernard Porter
43.  Dr Virginia Preston
44.  Dr Alejandro Quiroga
45.  Dr Pedro Ramos Pinto
46.  Dr Tim Rees
47.  Dr Alastair Reid
48.  Dr James Renton
49.  Dr Sarah Richardson
50.  Dr Mark Roodhouse
51.  Dr Dominic Sandbrook
52.  Dr John Seed
53.  Dr Peter Shapel
54.  Dr Sally Sheard
55.  Dr Virginia Smith
56.  Dr Naomi Standen
57.  Professor Simon Szreter
58.  Professor Pat Thane
59.  Professor Jim Tomlinson
60.  Professor Richard Toye
61.  Professor Frank Trentmann
62.  Professor Jeffrey Weeks
63.  Professor Noel Whiteside
64.  Dr Troy Whitford
65.  Dr Chris A Williams
66.  Dr Angus J L Winchester
67.  Professor Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska

Please check out the blog post on this issue by Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal, who is the editor of openSecurity, openDemocracy’s security coverage section.

This battle of experts on AV raises a broader issue, namely, the role of experts in public debate. During the recent nuclear crisis in Japan, experts flooded the 24-hour news channels, bombarding us with contradictory assessments of the seriousness of the crisis. Was it worse than Chernobyl or merely a Three Mile Island? Is now the time to flee Tokyo?

For those of us without expertise in nuclear physics, we must rely on experts to answer such questions. It is therefore distressing when we find that some of the experts being quoted in the media actually don’t know that much about the subject at hand. For instance, very early in the nuclear crisis, Josef Oehmen, an academic at MIT issued a public declaration that there was no risk to human health. Because he was identified as an “MIT research scientist” in the media, Oehmen’s statements were regarded as authoritative and were reported all over the world, including in Japan.   MIT, after all, has a global reputation for excellence in science and technology.

Fukushima Power Plant in 1975

Oehmen, alas,  has no special expertise in nuclear power, although he is a mechanical engineer with expertise in drinking water.  A few days after Oehmen’s public statement, MIT held an open forum on the crisis in Japan. Several faculty members with relevant expertise were invited to present, but Oehmen was not one of them, perhaps because he has already been roundly criticized in the media for speaking out of turn.

Oehmen is a mechanical engineer, not a nuclear engineer. I will admit that he probably knows more about nuclear power than someone with a doctorate in history, but he still isn’t an expert in the field of nuclear power. The problem is that the average newspaper reader may not be aware of how specialised the division of labour  and the resulting division of knowledge within academe is. Pretty much anyone with the title professor in a remotely relevant field may be regarded as an expert.

I think that there is a lesson here for historians who participated in the debate over AV. The vast majority of historians work on topics that are essentially unconnected to issues of institutional design. Antony Beevor, one of the signatories of the anti-AV letter, is a first class military historian. He knows Russian and German. His book on the downfall of Berlin in 1945 is great. However, I’m not convinced that he is especially qualified to speak about electoral reform. The same might be said for some of the signatories of the pro-AV list.

The historians most qualified to speak about AV are probably Australian, since Australia is the only country to use this system for the lower house of its national legislature. Sadly, I think that neither of the petitions has any signatories who are Australian citizens or residents, which means that both sides are probably speaking from a position of great ignorance about how a system of AV has actually operated.

For some historical background on AV in Australia, see here.



3 responses

20 03 2011
Jason Broadhurst

Fascinating debate. I doubt there is a perfect system, and for the reasons the anti-AV group suggest, that may not be the answer. However, it has always been difficult for me to accept that our governments are selected when the majority of the electorate do NOT vote for them in a FPTP system.

21 03 2011
Kevin D Tennent

A good post – as Tim Leunig always says, ‘you always know more’! Which is probably why the mechanical engineering guy spoke to the media. Of course, expertise is always relative, and the media loves a ‘barmy boffin’ to entertain the public for a few minutes. So academics should always be very careful when invited to speak to the media, because their interest can easily spill into caricatured ridicule. A certain British business historian only narrowly escaped having a picture with a tray of beers on his head published in the Telegraph, for example, when someone at the same conference said something more controversial.

21 03 2011

Hey! I want to know more about the beer tray incident– tell me off line, of course.

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