When is a professor an expert ? The answer may be academic…

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University of Edinburgh Old Quad

Professor John Robertson returns to Newsnet.scot with a “buyer beware” warning about the use of “experts” in the media…

“If electors vote for a foul-mouthed slut like M Black, it says a lot about them and none of it is good.”

Mhairi Black: Derided by Twitter's "History Woman".
Mhairi Black: Derided by Twitter’s “History Woman”.

That’s what “top female academic” and “Emeritus Professor” Jill Stephenson of Edinburgh University tweeted about SNP candidate Ms Mhairi Black before the general election. Note she was in the event offending the voters of Paisley too.

A wee Twitter storm developed, ending up with the good professor herself tweeting that she didn’t “give a flying fuck” and a respondent suggesting that as unionist she supported paedophiles! You might like Martin William’s piece in the Sunday Herald today for more of nasty exchanges.

Now, Professor Stephenson has “previous”. In a letter published by the Financial Times on January 13 2014, she wrote of Alex Salmond:

“Certainly, he has his admirers, but in large areas of Scottish society he is regarded as a divisive figure who will make any promise and (mis)interpret any set of figures as part of the imperative of winning the prize of ‘independence’. He brushes potential problems off as being of no account, and he claims that the UK and the EU will roll over and give an ‘independent’ Scotland what it wants. He and his deputy specialise in shouting opponents down. Charisma is not an unmitigated good: history shows that it can bring disaster as well as nirvana.”

Professor Stephenson’s expertise is Nazi Germany so you can see where’s she’s going with the ‘charisma’ comment. She has written on ‘German Christians in the Thuringian Protestant Church (1927-1945)’ so that must have been useful in looking at Scottish 21st Century politics. What about her, ‘Hitler’s priests, Catholic clergy and National Socialism?’Oh come on, we’ve got Catholic clergy. She’s a professor. They know about all sorts of stuff, don’t they?

No, they don’t. I’m a professor of “media politics”. I know a lot about how media, globally, relate to the political power play they inhabit. I’ve done research and published it in peer-reviewed journals. That’s it. When I became a professor only last year, I noticed that more people wanted to interview me, that they were often unduly respectful and that sometimes they would ask me questions beyond my research. It is seductive and I found myself giving opinions (with no evidence) to Russia Today and China TV.

Professor Stephenson highlights a real and wider problem, the abuse of the title “professor”.

A professor should know a lot about something because they have, through hard graft, found evidence to back up or to discredit popular ideas. In the past, all professors were researchers and knew about research methods. Commonly, they taught research methods and supervised PhD students. These days, the professoriate has grown with the title being awarded to a wide range of apparent worthies. So now, educational managers award each other professorships because they like the sound of it. Also, with the increasing penetration of higher education by businessmen and the commercial arts, we get ‘visiting professors’ who know less of research methods than undergraduates. The man from the BBC (Ian Little or Small? I forget) who reported me to my principal for offending the BBC was a “visiting professor” at Glasgow University. Now, he has a background in PR yet he felt able to say my methods were flawed.

Professor Stephenson is an emerita (female of emeritus) professor at Edinburgh University. She’s 71 and retired. Now I’m 64 and near-retired so no ageism here, but at 71 I don’t expect to be at the leading-edge of anything and certainly not of something I didn’t research. She clearly has researched German history but has published nothing at all on Scottish politics and so is less authoritative on that than a researcher currently working on it.

Now they’re not all bad, these “sort-of professors”. I’ve met and talked with the highly intelligent and very likeable David Hutchison who’s a Visiting Professor in Media Policy at Glasgow Caledonian University. In a study of Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland show, caught David expressing strongly, views on the likely cost of an independent Scotland buying-in BBC programmes (April 12 2014). He said:

“It seems to me that you could do a deal but you would not be paying a licence fee of just under £150. It might be nearer £200 or £250. We’ve just heard about the Irish situation, where 50% of the revenue comes from advertising. Their licence fee is slightly less than the UK licence fee so, if you do the sums, we can have a deaI. I don’t doubt that the BBC would want a deal but it’s gonna cost us a lot more.”

Now, David’s guess might be correct but it’s worryingly evidence-free from someone presented as a professor. He should have given us evidence or have been much less certain in his prediction which can only be read as an attempt to influence against the Yes campaign.

Visiting Professor David Hutchison
Visiting Professor David Hutchison

Professor Hutchison’s published output is impressive but I can find no evidence there of research into comparable events anywhere. The same show featured Kevin Backhurst, Director General of the Irish broadcaster RTE and a former controller of BBC news. After telling us that all that RTE take from the BBC is Eastenders, He added:

“To be honest, with due respect the BBC’s a pretty marginal player here, so you’d find during peak-time, for example, RTE would be getting around 60% of the share of the total number of viewers and the BBC might be getting five to 10 per cent if they’re lucky, so RTE still holds a very high share of the audience across the day.”

Professor Hutchison was asked about this and discounted Ireland as having any lessons for Scotland. I’d agree it’s different but is there a better comparison? I don’t think so.

So, dear readers, don’t listen to professors unless you’re sure they really are experts in something. This is especially the case if they don’t refer to an actual study they did, if they’re “visiting” or “emeritus” and if they are also evidently just managers with titles like principal, vice-principal, director or head of whatever.

Real Thang Professor John Robertson, University of the West of Scotland, 5th March 2015

Additional reading:

1. https://newsnet.scot/2014/05/academic-study-reveals-good-morning-scotland-favouring-no-campaign/

2. http://issuu.com/creative_futur/docs/robertson2014goodmorningscotland/1