30 August 2018
Away with the rules.
By John Watson
Let’s look at two different stories. The first was splashed all over the front of Tuesday’s The Times. State school headmasters have been manipulating their schools’ positions in the exam tables by excluding children who are unlikely to get good results. Does this really happen? It seems so. How much does it happen? That is hard to say, but bearing in mind that most teachers do go into their profession because they like children, perhaps not as much as one might think from the hoo-ha. Still, even if it only happens a bit it is a good example of what happens when you apply the uncertainty principle discovered by the German quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg to human affairs.
Heisenberg realised that if you observe a particle, you automatically distort its behaviour. Even shining the smallest amount of light on it, or taking other steps to measure its speed or energy, will bounce it around, altering the very things you had hoped to study. Quite how that leads to the position of particles being a matter of probability is beyond the scope of this article, so let’s stick with the first part of the theory: to observe is to change. Now apply that to the performance of schools. Once you have a metric for measuring that, GCSEs grades for example, then the schools’ behaviour will change. Obvious, really: science and common sense coming to the same conclusion. If you have any doubts just read Heisenberg’s original papers on his theory – assuming your German is good enough, that is.
Now flick on through your newspapers to a different issue, the suggestion, supported by most chief constables including the thoughtful Cressida Dick who leads the Met, that the standing guidance to policemen requiring that they should automatically believe those who complain of sexual abuse, should be dropped. On the face of it, the standing guidance is a rather weird rule. You would have thought that the first duty of an officer investigating a serious crime would be to try to get to the truth of it. But no, this rule is deliberately designed to stop that. An assumption has to be made, even when the officer, in his or her heart of hearts, believes it be wrong. As Sherlock Holmes might have put it:
“When you have eliminated the impossible and anything which the guidance does not allow you to contemplate, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”
Only someone with the title of “Victims’ Commissioner” could possibly think that that was sensible.
So what do these stories have in common? Is it simply that they demonstrate the stupidity of the modern world? No, it runs deeper than that. Both are examples of reliance on rules being used to compensate for perceived shortcomings in human intelligence. To test that, let’s make an arbitrary assumption of our own, the assumption that some people are infinitely wise.
Take the schools first. Suppose that those who inspect schools and those who comment on their performance were universally of infinite judgement and discernment and that the public had complete faith in their judgement. How would you expect a report on the school’s performance to be presented? No doubt exam results would be mentioned, but only as an illustration of something much broader. How successful was the school in developing the talents of all the children committed to its care? Did it work for everybody, allowing all of them to flourish as far as their abilities would let them, or were some categories, the very clever or the very stupid for example, not well served? No doubt schools inspectors do indeed consider these things, but what reaches the politicians and the public is much cruder. Good exam results – a successful school. Bad exam results – a poor one. That is how politicians and press judge the schools and why in response those schools distort themselves in order to push up their grades. A crude measure has taken over from something much broader because the press and the public do not have sufficient trust in the judgement of those who carry out and report on inspections.
Over then to police examining a case of sexual assault. Were the officers infinitely wise, there would be no reason for any artificial rules. They would simply make their judgement and the press, courts and public would accept that they had done all they could. It is only because they are not accepted as being sufficiently wise that arbitrary rules have been introduced.
The reliance on exam results in the case of schools and the rule that policemen must make particular assumptions, both derive from a lack of confidence in human judgement and indicate a general principle. You can rely on slightly arbitrary figures and rules if you like, but you would need less of them if you could increase the general wisdom of those entrusted with judgements. How then do you do that? We hear a lot nowadays about the importance of focusing education on jobs, teaching students to use computers and the sciences. We hear much less about the importance of a broader education producing a wiser population.
As the next wave of computerisation creates a surplus of labour, we will have a choice. We can employ it in devising more and more rules by reference to which computer programs can make their digital decisions. Or we can employ more broadly-educated people to exercise their judgement in a manner which will make many of those rules unnecessary.
The first probably requires less effort and cost, but it is the second which could produce a society based on the talents of humanity.