We think we know our battles. Brits love to quote the dates: Hastings was 1066, Crécy 1346, Waterloo 1815. But do you know when the Battle of Astronomers v Astronauts was fought?
Well, I reckon it’s going on right now. The battlefield is our radio and television studios, the columns of magazines, the pages of newspapers and, of course, all over the web. Astronomers are pitched against astronauts, and their fortunes have suddenly reversed.
Years ago, when I was the junior presenter on Newsnight, we had a huge directory that just contained contact details of astronomers. We liked them, these serious people with their heads in books and their eyes on planets. They could talk with authority about any constellation. The bigger the telescope, the more impressive the astronomer. These people were on programmes day in, day out.
Oh wait, I should clarify. Although I’m calling them astronomers, what I actually mean is experts more generally. There were experts on every programme.
For years our media have been a playground for experts. Want to know about parenting? Ring a professor. The Highway Code? Ring the chap who published it. The Falklands War? Ring a military historian. And so on. Want to know about the moon? Call an astronomer.
Experts are distinguished by a number of things. They usually have titles. Most seem to be blokes. They speak with what lawyers call gravitas. They are paid for their knowledge. They proliferate – no one is ever told they are no longer an expert, so the numbers keep going up. They also get things wrong. Badly wrong.
Where do we even start with the list of expert screw-ups? The Bank of England’s chief economist recently apologised for its “Michael Fish moment”, admitting its doom-laden warnings about Brexit did not come true with a reference to Mr Fish’s famous hurricane-denying weather forecast in 1987.
Then there’s the health advice we were given for years. “Fat makes you fat.” “Only eat two eggs a week because of the cholesterol.” Again, all wrong. While we avoided fat, we gorged on sugar, the real enemy. “Fat-free yoghurt” was the biggest con trick of all.
As for the egg warning – in 2016, the world’s oldest person died. Emma Morano, the last person alive born in the 1800s, said she lived to 117 by eating three eggs a day. Poor eggs. Avoided for years by the health-conscious when there was never anything wrong with them.
Then there was the country’s foremost paediatrician whose miscalculation of the probability of cot deaths contributed to the jailing of innocent mums. And the inventor of a bomb detector that was sold to warzones around the world before anyone realised it was nothing more than a modified golf-ball tracker. The “expert” who designed it earned millions for himself while explosives went undetected and people died.
The problem used to be that we had no alternative to experts. Who would you ask about the moon if not an astronomer? They had a lockdown on expertise. No one but them was qualified to speak. They owned all the telescopes.
How things have changed. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, Phyllis Capstick rang my Radio 2 show. A pensioner listening in Sheffield, she had been infuriated by the man in the studio. He was an expert on the monarchy who said it was unlikely the Queen would be pro-Brexit. “I don’t care about the royal expert,” she said as the poor man sat there. “These [Brexit supporters] are people who have common sense. The experts built the Titanic.”
I recently discovered I had taken an incredible 25,000 calls on my programme. Out of that has come a book, What I Learnt: What My Listeners Say – and Why We Should Take Notice. Those callers are at the centre of it. In the past they might have been described as “ordinary people”, but not any more. If experts are astronomers, my listeners are astronauts. Astronomers study the moon; my listeners actually walk on it.
One example for you. During the Arab Spring we spoke to a professor who had written many books on Egypt and described the reasons for the uprising there. He was followed by a mum who had been to Egypt only once. She described how, “bare-footed children would chase us around the street. And they wanted pens because they wanted to learn to write. So we stuffed our pockets with pens.” She became tearful as she went on: “It makes me cry because it’s sad. They’re just nice people and they had to live with goats and chickens in their houses to survive.”
The professor was the astronomer. The young mum was the astronaut. That is the battle between expertise and experience.
There are dangers, of course. The first-person account is entirely subjective and comes freighted with emotion. It’s the opposite of science. That cannot be a good thing.
Recently a massive study of statins concluded they were safe. The academic who did the research came to the studio and explained his methodology. The first caller was a man from Wales. “After starting to take statins,” he told us, “my mother became suicidal and lost control of her bowels.” The two worst symptoms imaginable. The effect was like a truck hitting a bicycle. Everything the expert said was lost.
What has caused this fascinating conflict between telescopes and moon boots? It’s partly technology, allowing every single person an equal voice, making it possible for experiences to be shared as never before. It’s also that our antiauthority streak is back at punk-rock levels.
Bankers are surely to blame for much of this. I had my savings in the Co-operative Bank until it was revealed to have a black hole in its balance sheet. The bank’s former chairman, Paul Flowers, was asked by a select committee of MPs how much the bank was worth under his watch. “Just over three billion,” he replied. The true figure was £47bn. It was laughable, but somehow not surprising, that a man could be £44bn out when trying to guess how much his own bank was worth.
So you want to know about parenting? Ring a mother of five. The Highway Code? A trucker with a clean driver’s licence. The Falklands War? A veteran. And above all, if you want find out about the moon, call an astronaut.
By Jeremy Vine
Jeremy Vine’s show is on weekdays at 12 noon on Radio 2
To buy his book, What I Learnt: What My Listeners Say – and Why We Should Take Notice, call 0344 245 8092 quoting ref RTBOOKS37