Friday 5 August 2016

Monkey Business

During the build up to the referendum, Michael Gove warned of the prognostications of experts. He was pilloried for it because, after all, don’t we rely on the experts to inform us, advise us and generally teach us how we should behave? Should I take an umbrella? Is it the right time to buy, or should I keep renting? Should I invest in solar panels, or electric cars, or nuclear power? Is the planet warming or cooling, or both at the same time? Given that whenever the experts all agree it has proven wise to adopt a healthily sceptic stance, Gove’s much denigrated remarks were bang on the money.

We get good at something by repetition, but blind repetition of an ineffective action is the opposite of expertise; it makes us dumb followers. I seek to educate my trainees to be healthily sceptical of glib explanations and spurious reasoning. For instance, many electricians will tell you that the death of an MP’s daughter was the catalyst for a piece of legislation they despise, yet have never read. The truth is that legislation was already in place and scheduled to come into force before the tragedy and furthermore had been more than a decade in the planning.

Similarly, there a few common misconceptions around the science behind electrical installation design and I take a somewhat perverse delight in managing to illicit a predictable, yet wholly incorrect response from entire classes to some pet questions. It’s entertaining – for me at least – it gets them thinking and hopefully, it produces better educated technicians than might otherwise be the case. Monkey see, monkey do may work for digging holes, but red-to-red, black-to-black often results in ‘blew to bits’.

To drive the message home I tell them about the devout monk in a monastic order which takes vows of silence and celibacy so they can dedicate their lives to a pursuit of the holy truths. For many years the monk lived in seclusion until he was at peace with his soul and comfortable in his solitude. Later he worked in the monastery garden, silently tending the rows of carefully nurtured vegetables, mouthing psalms as he hoed and occasionally kissing the earth in tribute.

As he aged and his back grew bent he joined the rows of elders faithfully copying out ancient texts to the accompaniment of distant bird song and the scratching of goose quill on vellum. For many years he toiled diligently, assuming that, like his predecessors he trod in the Lord’s footsteps. But one day he released that he was not finding enlightenment by merely copying the last copy he had made. What if, way back, he or another had made a mistake and was now just passing it on. Familiar with the concept of Chinese Whispers he decided to go to the cool dry basement where the original manuscripts were kept and begin a new, pristine copy.

Oh, bollocks...

Some hours later, having been missed at evensong and at supper, his absence became cause for concern and his fellow supplicants set out to search for him. After a while they find him in the basement, weeping. He turns to them, tears streaking his cheeks and holds aloft an ancient, faded but beautifully decorated piece of parchment. The Abbott breaks the vow of silence to ask him what is wrong and the monk says “The word is CELEBRATE... not CELIBATE!”

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