15 November 2019

Grenfell Tower

  According to the Phase 1 Report from the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, residents of the Tower were initially advised by the Fire Brigade not to evacuate the building. A few residents chose to ignore this advice. With hindsight, it seems it would have been better if they had all ignored it.

It appears the initial advice of the Fire Brigade would have been appropriate if the building had conformed to required building standards. However, the building did not conform to required standards, rendering it more flammable than expected.

It has been suggested that ignoring the Fire Brigade’s initial instructions might have had something to do with common sense. It is not clear that there are any conclusions of this kind to be drawn. Anyone, however risk-averse, might well have decided to follow official advice in a situation of this kind. If there are psychological implications, they seem more likely to be about a culture of faith in experts than about common sense.

We are constantly pressured to consult professionals, with regard to a wide range of everyday matters. To solve our relationship problems, we require relationship counsellors. To solve our psychological problems, we need to to consult the psychiatrically trained. Problems with children require parenting or child counsellors. We are pressured to get tested for possible diseases, and to receive professional advice about the results.

On the packaging of practically every over-the-counter remedy, there are exhortations to consult your doctor, either before use or in the event of an adverse reaction. Considered in aggregate, these exhortations are grossly unrealistic. Much of the time, the average GP would probably have little to contribute to such cases. If all the warnings given on packaging were rigorously followed, doctors would be even more overwhelmed than they already are.

The demand that we should believe in the power of expertise, and follow authorised opinion, has the effect of infantilising and disempowering us. We feel we must bow to the superior knowledge of the trained official. We cannot be allowed to think for ourselves, because there is always someone who knows better.

The cult of the expert is founded on various ideals that do not stand up to scrutiny. E.g. the theory that training necessarily turns someone into a person with superior powers of judgment. In relation to state services, it depends on the thesis that different parts of the bureaucratic machinery can each be relied on to do things in the agreed way, so that one part can safely assume that another part has behaved according to published standards.

In fact, the various parts of the state apparatus are subject to intense cost pressures, as well as human error. This is before we even consider the lack of economic incentive to operate to standards that go beyond the immediately obvious.

It is not just the public who are liable to become overconfident about the validity of assertions made by professionals. Professionals themselves are liable to place too much confidence in the assertions of other professionals. Particularly in crisis situations, they may be required to place excessive reliance on mechanical instructions provided by manuals and training courses, rather than on their own judgment.

  Electable government officials compete for power by offering voters benefits. For example, more social housing. At the same time, voters are reluctant to have their taxes increased to pay for these additional benefits. The result is pressure to achieve readily countable targets (e.g. number of new houses or apartments built) at minimum cost and hence with minimum attention to background safety and durability aspects. Deficits in background aspects will not necessarily be discovered until much later, if at all.

In the absence of obvious incentives not to cut corners, it falls to government officials to develop an internal culture in which safety is given more priority than is likely to be appreciated by voters in the short term. In this, they need to be supported by the media.

For example, in relation to the current election campaigns, parties might avoid offering to expand public services unless at the same time they give weight in their campaigns to (a) the effects of any such expansion on taxes and (b) the hidden costs of ensuring that services are provided to an adequate standard. The media might insist that these aspects of social welfare offerings be given adequate attention.

In particular, the question should be asked whether any expansion in UK social housing should be offered to voters, unless accompanied by a commitment to first investigating all existing social housing, with regard to fire and other risks — and rectifying any problems that are identified.