Sunday 3 January 2016

Expert Thinking Or Ideological Thinking?

OK, hands up, I'll admit it. I can't help myself but pick arguments with people who I know full well are as likely to shift their thinking as I am.

I've had a few days off and in between slobbing out in front of the TV watching Bond films and doing some highways maintenance coursework, I have inevitably been on Twitter arguing. I won't dignify those I have been arguing with naming them, but as a sweeping generalisation I will suggest that they have a deep-seated hatred of active travel, the concept of liveable cities, cyclists in particular, speed limits they disagree with and having the opinion that man-made climate change is hokum. All with undercurrents of misogyny and nationalism.

The "discussion" was in response to these individuals and people tweeting for groups having a go at a variety of road safety organisations (lobby groups and campaigning groups) by suggesting that their key figureheads didn't have a CV which qualified them to be there and that they should be sacked (there must have been a huge lump of jealousy too as these people also had received gongs in the New Year Honours). In response, I challenged one individual over their CV and self-appointed status as a road safety expert, but they were unable to provide anything meaningful in reply other than suggest I read their various websites to find out (I have, and I didn't). I gave a hint at my CV and all of a sudden, it was "don't play the man, play the ball".

This term essentially is about targeting an opposition player, often with the intention of putting them out of action (either physically hurting them or marking them to a point where they cannot function), instead of following the movement of the ball and playing the game for its own sake. Well, I am not a football fan and extreme views need to be challenged. The spat went the usual way of abuse and my usual mode of transport was therefore trotted out as an insult;

"You bought a bike, Lycra ,a little hat. That's it isn't it? Yet you question real experience. Weird." 

Don't play the man, play the ball indeed! It was funny, because until that point, my argument was that campaigners do not need any qualifications or experience (a good argument helps of course) and that was fine, but to call oneself an expert requires qualification, experience and life-long learning. So therefore anyone who wants their community to change must by definition be so unqualified as to have no weight in their arguments.

As I have often suggested in this blog, there is something to be learnt from any experience - and I mean learning from experience, rather than using using it to self-validate opinions. I'll give an example - the little cycle track I was recently involved with building had gullies in the track itself. In hindsight and after reviewing the scheme, we found a kerb-inlet gully which has a 45 degree face (to match the forgiving kerbs) and this would be a better way do it in the future. In other words, applying some learning from the experience.

So my learning from this argument (which was one step away from full-blown History Today) was that taking an ideological position is far easier than taking an expert position. The former does not need evidence or rigour through learning; it can exist as sound-bites, insults, the demeaning and dismissal of others who hold other views; and frankly, it is a manifestation of good old fashioned bullying where the strong can shout down the weak. Looking into this in more detail, it is worth looking at the word "ideology";

A set of doctrines or beliefs that are shared by the members of a social group or that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.

Putting it bluntly, this is to have belief in something which doesn't need to be proven, or perhaps continued belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In terms of those against enabling active travel and liveable cities, this essentially means that prioritising the private car must take precedence over other forms of transport; those without a car are not economically important (or important at all); cars generate growth for the economy and anything designed to restrict private car use is an unwelcome interference from the state; as far as transport goes, traditional libertarian thinking in my book.

Of course, ideology is rampant in transport policy and design thinking whether it is the Department for Transport's traffic forecasts being shown up as historically nonsense, despite policies and funding being geared up to try and grow traffic. It also holds at a very local level where the views of a senior person in a local authority (officer or councillor) go unchallenged and lead to stagnation (often for years) in transport thinking. You need to read this excellent post by David Arditti to see what I mean.

There was then the short Twitter debate the other day about cycling being dangerous, so I tweeted (without comment) a photo of a new London Cycle Superhighway. The riposte was that cycles were no good to do shopping or to move the kids about, so I and others tweeted photos of trailers and cargobikes with shopping and kids. The riposte to that was asking if we had insurance for those "contraptions" - yes, the person holds an ideological view and even in the face of evidence (and not clever data, or long and difficult reads, just photos), they reverted to a collective idea that these cycles needed to be insured. 

This brings me onto an interesting thought experiment; The 5 Monkeys.

The story goes like this;

An experimenter puts 5 monkeys in a large cage. High up at the top of the cage, well beyond the reach of the monkeys, is a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas is a ladder.

The monkeys immediately spot the bananas and one begins to climb the ladder. As he does, however, the experimenter sprays him with a stream of cold water. Then, he proceeds to spray each of the other monkeys.

The monkey on the ladder scrambles off. And all 5 sit for a time on the floor, wet, cold, and bewildered. Soon, though, the temptation of the bananas is too great, and another monkey begins to climb the ladder. Again, the experimenter sprays the ambitious monkey with cold water and all the other monkeys as well. When a third monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pull him off the ladder and beat him.

Now one monkey is removed and a new monkey is introduced to the cage. Spotting the bananas, he naively begins to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pull him off and beat him.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The experimenter removes a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaces him with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey begins to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pull him off and beat him – including the monkey who had never been sprayed.

I have no idea if this was ever an actual experiment, but it is a great piece of thinking and shows both how collective knowledge and individual experience can shape ideologies without anyone having any evidence or rational arguments (and if you are as childish as me, you'll also be chuckling at the Finbarr Saunders-esque language - you were thinking it weren't you).

The real-life application of The 5 Monkeys is the statement that "we've always done it this way". It's something that I am sure many people have come across in the workplace and dare I say it within campaigning. It's about "conventional wisdom" which people simply adhere to without questioning and my advice is to never take anything for granted. You'll often hear comments such as "common sense" or "stands to reason" as the sole evidence presented to support an opinion; you know the type of person.

We can often see The 5 Monkeys at work. Whether it is shopkeepers over-estimating the number of people arriving at their shops by car and thinking they spend most (they, don't, it is people walking) or building more lanes solves congestion (it doesn't); the myths prevail. The stock rebuttal to a discussion on cycling (where one party is hostile to it) normally descends into bullshit bingo (thanks James Avery); and cycling seems to be the transport whipping boy, especially where real changes are being made.

It might be because most people don't have the time or inclination to check what people are saying (and that goes for any side of any argument), but a large part must be down to lazy thinking and simply accepting ideology as fact, despite expert evidence to the contrary. As far as making our urban places liveable, there are people out there who are genuinely terrified of change and they are on the defensive and we should at least be sympathetic. Whether it is a black cab driver in London worried about their livelihood because of the threat from Uber, or someone with a failing shop worried about car parking being lost, it is easy to blame others. 

This takes me full circle to the original argument which prompted this post. I was arguing with people who have ideological views and they actively seek "evidence" to support their position. Anyone who disagrees with them will be dismissed (often in an insulting way) and the arguments simply don't stack up to any reasonable scrutiny. They may simply be the collective product of The 5 Monkeys because they know they are entitled to their views, but cannot remember why, or they are people who know very well how the land lies and are the researchers conducting the experiment on The 5 Monkeys.

Perhaps my conclusion has to be that ideology needs to be challenged, but with facts and not other ideologies. It follows that social media might be good at spreading ideas, but it is less good at spreading detail. But in the final analysis, we are basically dealing with bullies and while we're not in the playground now, it is time the bullies picked on someone their own size. That's where expert thinking comes in, sue me if I am wrong.


  1. Typo ?
    "bull-blown History Today" full ? Although it does convey a whiff of BS !

    No, no - it's not they (kippers) that are 'ideological' - it's us !
    To quote them :
    "'We support genuine not for profit or ideologically based expert road safety. Profit and ideology is no basis for road safety' Who can disagree with that?"

    There's another character who seems to have left the club (as of May 2014) - now just known as JP - a speed advocate !
    "Low speed impacts can cause a cyclist/pedestrian to go under the vehicle as opposed to being pushed aside as is if a higher speed."
    (Incidentally, is that why the current fashion is for cars to have a pointed nose - for barging through traffic ?)

    Your 5 monkeys experiment struck a chord - I've been in dialogue on YouTube ( ) with someone that says
    "The danger with highlighting these problems to the Council is that they may attempt fix them… They have shown a considerable lack of foresight in the work carried out, and I have little faith that they would not make the situation even worse.
    Personally, I am an advocate of cycle paths being completely separated from our roads. Cars and bicycles are wildly incompatible, and it surprises me that many cyclists are happy to put their lives at risk by attempting to share our small roads with heavy, fast, dangerous vehicles. "
    This from someone who gets angry over a failed eBay transaction and goes for a drive 'to relax', while recording a video blog !
    "... don't want to crash here, so I've got to be ... pay a bit of attention to the road - OK ... wrong indication, whoops!"
    May be trolling ?

    1. Whoops, yes corrected now, but quite possibly BS!

      20's Pointless look like a fun bunch, but I will resist the urge to follow them as it really wastes effort going up against these people all the time, although the odd pop and then their silly responses (as with the people I haven't referred to in the post) can turn people off them.

      Even today, I returned to work and had an utter rant in response to a cycle track consultation, so these views are out there in the public body!

    2. Looking at his post of today, I doubt if anyone would support him. He is wrong from his basic facts right through to his conclusions.
      "oppressive, vexatious and abusive" seems pretty accurate.
      "Maybe ... we are not killing enough people on the road" was in his post on Christmas Day. At some point they might go away if we ignore them.
      And yet, recent exchanges in the House of Lords, internet comments, mainstream media (serious and 'light') and interactions on the road show that the views are widespread.
      What can we actually do ?

    3. The effort to refute this stuff far outweighs the effort to spout nonsense in the first place, but we must make the effort and this extends to writing in our trade press (for engineers, architects etc), writing to local newspapers, responding to consultations and so on. London hasn't been getting its cycle tracks in the last year through people sitting on their behinds!

    4. Great post and reply Ranty! To some degree I share Eric D's pessimism… …yet there are Lords who get it, and I'm happy to, as you say, make the effort - what's there to lose? What really. really gets up my nose about the naysayers though is that they are unthinkingly committing their children to a life of unnecessary misery. I live in an area where there is extensive access to a network of motor vehicle-free trails on heaths and commons where kids can basically roam wild - as they should do - and I'm proud that mine and their pals did, often on their bikes. Arguing for urban motor traffic-choked hell-holes as an acceptable alternative where kids are not even seen let alone heard is simply insane. That is all.

      Prof. Q.A. Wagstaff
      (aka Jitensha Oni)

    5. You'll find no disagreement from me!

  2. What you are referring to is what I termed “car supremacist” ideology. It is a belief system embraced by profesionals . It was described by John Adams in his “Transport planning: vision and practice” 30 odd years ago. You can also refer to it as the “Mobility” paradign that John Whitelegg dissects in his recent e-book of the name.

    The thing is that it is also held by most ordinary people.

    While polite refutation is necessary, you have to remember that you won’t get very far by doing this – because of the domoination/hegemony of this ideology.

    Unfortunately, it isn’t just the peer pressure of the 5 monkeys – it exists, as I say, among ordinary people who want the freedom to drive where they want, when they want, how they want.

    SO: what I’m saying is that you should go for the rational argument, but remember you’re not going to get very far without agreement that car supremacist ideology is a problem/wrong.

    An example: racism (OK, I know there’s a diference, but I have to use analogies). WE spent a lot of time years ago explaining in the “Race and IQ” debate that black people were not inherently less intelligent than white people using rational argument. The issue was then that some people want to believe that because they have no interest – or even benefit - from thinking that they as white people are superior to black people. It makes them feel better.

    Similarly, a lot of people just get a psychological boost from feeling that they should be able to dirve where, when how, why they want. That’s what it is about. It isn’t about anything else.

    I wouldn't push the "expert" it too much. Most official "experts" on safety on the road don't pass the kind of tests that Adams puts up for them. Also - we are ALL experts in that we adapt to our perceptions of danger in the road environment - everyday experts if you will.

    Dr Robert Davis, Chair Road Danger Reduction Forum @CHAIRRDRF

    1. Sage counsel as ever Robert! I recently read Whitelegg's book and found it to be very informative indeed - knowing the "enemy" and all that. I suppose the big frustration for me is that I really should be able to get on a throw tarmac about, but increasingly I find my self drawn into the higher arguments. Don't get me wrong, it is all very interesting, just so time consuming!

      As I have suggested to Eric D above, I think there must come a point when bullies need taking on, if not to change their views (we won't), but to empower others to question what has been spouted and perhaps change their positions.

      Expert is a loaded word and there are well qualified and experienced exerts who spout utter tosh (in all walks of life), but the nuance here was to suggest the people I was debating with are not experts, but campaigners (which I have no problem with).

      At some point if one is putting themselves up with such a status, they must be willing to prove it!

  3. When it comes to the Five Monkey, I agree with the Marxist analysis. That's Goucho, not Karl...


    1. Brilliant!

      People instantly hate something before they even know what it is!

    2. People in the US all too easily bash socialism without having a clue what it is. Even Nordic socialism. I heard of the local Marxist Lennonist party. That would be Groucho Marxism and John Lennonism.

      Learn from other's mistakes. You won't live long enough to make them all yourself - Groucho.

  4. Most of the people who read this blog are probably already persuaded that encouraging active travel and making for more livable communities would all be to the good. One of the things which concerns me, however, is that in regarding the mote in other people's eyes, we do not neglect to consider the beam that is in our eyes.

    You're suggesting that people who have ideological views believe in things which don't need to be proven. When you stand up to these people, you say, like when you stand up to bullies, it quickly becomes obvious that their arguments fall apart in the face of reasoned scrutiny.

    Take, for example, the LCC's claim that the cycling network - which is still a million miles away - must be designed in such a way that it would suitable for any type of cyclist. Now, the LCC say that they are "convinced" that it would be a mistake for any elements of the network not to be built to this standard. What do they mean by "convinced"? They mean that have have been moved by argument or evidence to belief.

    Okay, so what is the argument or evidence which says that providing for the needs of a group of people who would like to start cycling but don't yet is more pressing than providing for a different group of people who are already cycling (albeit not every day) and would like to cycle more often? You've already said that taking an ideological position is far easier than taking an expert position. You've also said that people who have ideological views believe in things which don't need to be proven. But the LCC have been convinced. So what convinced them?

    In the comments to the Kats Dekker article you linked to, vreadhead said: "We don’t even have a workable joined up cycling network in London." In fact, there isn't a single town or city in the UK which does. If we understood our target audience correctly, we wouldn't still be in this position.

    1. I too believe that the cycling network must be designed in such a way that it is suitable for any type of cyclist, just like it is in The Netherlands.

      I am somewhat curious as to who you believe should be excluded by the infra.

    2. Thanks for your query, Kevin.

      First thing to say is that there is no dispute about the destination. Like you, I would like to see the network developed in such a way that it is suitable for any type of cyclist. The question is, how to get there from where we are now?

      Now we can keep doing the isolated pieces of high-quality infrastructure, and hope that one day it will all get joined up. This is known as a bottom-up approach. Or, we can plan the network, get it up and running, and then develop it further such that it appeals to more and more people. This is known as a top-down approach. (The key here is sustained investment.)

      All of the evidence is in favour of a top-down (or holistic) approach. And I mean all of it. By necessity this means that, to begin with, the network would not be suitable for everyone. Nonetheless, according to TfL figures, 89% of regular cyclists and 75% of occasional cyclists feel safe cycling in traffic. Admittedly, these figures fall to 47% and 33% when cycling on busy roads, but you can see that even with just a bare bones infrastructure in place, the potential market for cycling is still quite large.

      And yet, we are not targeting these people. We're not working out what these people want and striving to meet their requirements. No, without even putting the basics in place first, we're going to try and crack the toughest nut of them all.

      The worst of it is that these high-engineered schemes, isolated as they are, will not encourage to start cycling a single one of the people it is aimed at. The people who say that they would like to start cycling but think it is too dangerous will still say that cycling is too dangerous. What? you think that someone who has never cycled in London before is suddenly going to jump on a bike just because there are now some protected cycle lanes in place? Surely not.

      I would like to know why the LCC are not campaigning for these high-engineered schemes to be developed within the framework provided by a functioning cycling network. I've asked them I don't know how many times, and they simply refuse to answer. Of course, another feature of ideology is self-deception, or denial.

  5. So the idea of the monkey experiment is an analogy in how once people actually wanted to build cycle paths like the Dutch, and they got bashed by vehicular cyclists and oil tyrants, it kept happening until they learned not to do it anymore, and then the engineers got replaced enough that while they learned what predecessors did, they never got the bashing themselves. And when other people like yourself want to do sensible things, they bash you?