When the experts begin to love themselves – Oliver James

One of the adjacent villages to our own is trying to raise funds for a new village hall. To do so they have broken free from the usual gamut of bring-and-buy and summer fetes and instead for the last year or so have been hosting some quite extraordinary talks. The speakers have ranged from international figures to quiet experts and many have lived in, or close to, the village. The subjects have been diverse, the discussion lively, and the views sometimes controversial. They have attracted the attention of the national media. If you happen to be interested then their website is www.woottontalks.co.uk.

Last night’s speaker was Oliver James, a well-known clinical psychologist, who has been broadcasting on matters psychological since 1982. James was the epitomy of the 80s phenomenon of self-publicising experts. That’s not a criticism. Until then, it had gently been expected that someone with genuine expertise would somehow be recognised and their audience would gravitate towards them. He was one of a new generation of academic who realised that this would not happen. Instead they saw the importance of the popular media in shaping their careers and set about making it work for them.

Today, this is not at all uncommon – why, even last week, I was harrassed by advertorial emails to take part in a ‘webinar’ by an “Internationally famous” builder of professional practices for chiropracters, for goodness sake! The speaker’s authority was all self-proclaimed and his advice was simply to do as he had done and promote yourself widely as an expert to your own community of (in his case) chiropracters and other complementary health professionals.

Within the mainstream academic communities there is a more respectable form of this through the numerous chairs in the public understanding of science and similar roles that bring science into society. One of whom, Baroness Susan Greenfield, hit the news headlines for the wrong reasons just before Christmas, when she was unceremoniously evicted from her Royal Institution grace and favour flat amid rumours that she had squandered the limited resources of the Institution on un-warranted and ill-managed ‘renovations’.

Personally, I feel it is a little unfair to castigate someone for poor management when it was a different quality that led them into their position of authority, though this IS the basis of the Peter principle and perhaps Greenfield, and others like her, should be better able to recognise the boundaries of their abilities and bring in experts in other areas when the need arises.

Other problems though crop up when the addiction to popularity drives its junkie to seek more and more material with which to work. This seems to have been the case when another of this generation of science and medicine popularists, Professor Raj Persaud, an extremely well-known career psychiatrist, was brought before the General Medical Council in 2008, after persistent complaints that he was plagiarising the work of others. The panel’s conclusion, before striking him off for three months, spelt out the boundary that such personalities must be so careful with:

“You are an eminent psychiatrist with a distinguished academic record who has combined a clinical career as a consultant psychiatrist with work in the media and journalism. The panel is of the view that you must have known that your actions in allowing the work of others to be seen as though it was your own would be considered dishonest by ordinary people. The panel has therefore determined that your actions were dishonest in accordance with the accepted definition of dishonesty in these proceedings. The panel has determined that your actions, in plagiarising the work of others, were liable to bring the profession into disrepute.”

In between these extremes are a plethora of authorities who straddle the fence between popularist interpretations of their discipline and the academic rigour that gained them entry to this position in the first place.

Of course, there have always been such characters. Perhaps more so in the arts and music than the sciences and medicine, but the approach is certainly not unprecedented. A local example would be William Morris, who moved to nearby Kelmscott in the late 1860s. Morris was already a well-established and widely respected designer, manufacturer and architect. Although he had always had a passion for social reform, it wasn’t until his name had been well defined professionally, in the late 1870s, that he began to take a leading role in the emerging liberal/socialist movement. Morris was clearly able to see the links between his philosophy of design and his political stance, and wrote about them, but he didn’t use the former to justify the latter. Despite some obvious radical tendencies, and a general approach to life that put him on the edge of ‘society’, he never appears to have lost the rigour of his thought or confused the boundaries of his professional expertise.

In the last few years, as some of the self-promoting academics has begun to near the end of their working lives, they have produced books that might never before have been accepted for publication. In the past, an academic who wrote one last tome away from his field of expertise, might have found an obscure publisher who would take a limited risk and produce a small print run, but it would have stopped there. Today, publishing is a very different business and, let’s face it, many books are bought with an intention of being read but never get opened. The publishers are driven by a profit motive and know that an author who has self-promoted in the past will have a residual market of prospective buyers who will invest in the book by virtue of the author’s name rather than any rigour in the content.

Sadly, this has meant that a few academics, whose reputation in their field was rock solid, have been tempted to branch out into popularist topics without necessarily having the peer structure or basic foundation on which to build their arguments.

When I began my own brief academic career, I was based at the Middlesex Hospital in London. One of the great anatomists of the day, Professor Lewis Wolpert, ruled the department in which I worked. While, to some, he might have seemed a polymath, he was actually at the core an anatomist but he was absolute in his understanding of the peripheral issues surrounding his subject, and especially the ethics of medical research. I can’t disclose the circumstances in which he demonstrated this one day at the Middlesex, but let it just be said that one cohort of medics will never forget the lesson they learned that afternoon. Later in his working life, Lewis suffered from depression and, in coming to terms with it, he wrote a popular book “Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression” which has received almost universal acclaim from sufferers of the disease. As a psychotherapist myself, working largely with highly intelligent and fully functional clients, I hope that you will see that I have profound respect for Wolpert and how he applied his considerable prowess as a communicator and anatomist to address a topic in which his expertise was primarily that of the patient, but was after-all on the peripheries of his field too. Just a little later, he wrote another popularist book “Six impossible things before breakfast, The evolutionary origins of belief“. Sadly, from my perspective, this book took him beyond the disciplines in which he was authoritative and into a wholly different sphere.

The study of the super-natural, into which religion and mysticism falls, is well-defined and has a strong body of knowledge. By moving from anatomist-communicator to popularist of a different discipline would be one thing, but Wolpert committed the sin of taking an opinion-based stance, and it was this that undermined his credibility. On the basis of this he became a Vice-President of the British Humanist Association and was invited to speak at the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology in Sigtuna, Sweden. His talk was reported as follows:

“Lewis Wolpert’s plenary address entitled “The Origins of Science and Religion” was provocative, amusing and from a totally materialist perspective. In his view, religion arose from the uniquely human need for causal explanations, and neither religion nor philosophy contributed anything of importance to scientific undersanding. … ESSSAT is to be congratulated for offering its platform to a strong-minded materialist, but in the end Wolpert proved unable to enter serious debate with the conference theme or its participants.”

It’s a sad day, when someone you respected highly, steps over the boundary of their own authority and seeks to use this to influence opinion in another field without realising what they are doing.

So, yesterday, I went along to Oliver James’ talk in Wootton with great expectations. I respect James’ perspectives on mental health, his evidence-based criticisms of many treatment protocols, even his perception of underlying social conditions that predispose many in society to mental health problems. Indeed, I draw on some of his theoretical views on the predominance of very early nurture in determining many personality traits, in my own work on the behaviour of leaders. Views which, incidentally, are now being seen to have considerably more scientific substance than had previously been supposed.

So why did I choose to be one of the first to leave the Hall, to get away from the atmosphere that this man had created in the space of an hour and a half? I can tolerate most (though not all) bigots. I can work with -ists of most dimensions, racists, sexists, ageists, and, of course, narcissists. But what I found most offensive in the rhetoric of this man was the way in which he had distorted his science, distorted his evidence, to somehow support his own uniquely cynical political viewpoint. His stance was so twisted that there were probably elements of it that almost everyone would resonate with, indeed could even appreciate the irony in, and yet he somehow distorted these views to the point that there were other aspects that, I sincerely hope, almost everyone would find equally abhorent.

In one sentence he would express empathy for the social conditions that led a generation of immigrants to be dominated by mental health issues, and then damned 75% of them as players of the social welfare system. In another, he would invoke a delusionist argument for religion, and then credit churches for their role in addressing social needs. There were countless more examples. He derided Harriet Harman for her poor attitude to mothering on the basis that “I know”, “Her mother used to live around the corner.” He derided Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Margaret Thatcher, Geoffrey Howe, Peter Mandellson, and countless others, for their poor grasp of the economy and kept referring to, what one member of the audience generously described as, ‘an over-romanticised’ image of Europe.

And, all the time, he offered the thinnest threads of psychological evidence to support his themes.

Even those that appeared to be close to his real field of expertise were quite extraordinary extrapolations. In his preamble he slipped in an example that he has been picked up for elsewhere. He presents, as a fact, that nearly half of 15yr old girls suffer from anxiety and that a quarter have full-blown depression. Yet, this is a gross extrapolation from a single study of adolescent girls in Glasgow.

He suggests that there is overwhelming evidence that maternal anxiety during the third trimester of pregnancy leads to raised cortisol levels in children for 10 or more years, which accounts for them having “attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD). There is actually only one scientific paper that VERY tentatively suggests a CORRELATION (not causality) between maternal anxiety and ADHD.

There are plenty of articles now building up that criticise James for his opinionated, politically naive, psycho-babble. I shalln’t add more to this.

What interests me is how seemingly authoritative individuals, can suspend their self-critic, and project themselves as experts in other fields without recognising that they are crossing boundaries.

I have no conclusions, but I would like to draw attention to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Manual (DSM-IV TR) which defines the narcissistic personality disorder. In this, the narcissist is described as being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, and prestige. There are a number of criteria, most of which could be recognised among this group of self-promoting scientists. I suspect that the learning, if any, that we need to take with us is that while these extreme and needy individuals may be very articulate, amusing, and persuasive, they are characteristically unable to see things from another person’s perspective especially emotionally, and are often interpersonally exploitative, in other words they take advantage of others to achieve their own ends. See them as entertainment, but do not fly too close.

I am happy to comment, or deliver keynote sessions, on any of the topics that I post about.
For media and speaking enquiries, please call me, Graham Wilson, on 07785 222380.

Best wishes

Working behind the scenes, helping leaders achieve more by reading themselves, people and situations differently

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