Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Simon Heffer is pointless

The dead tree press seems to devote a remarkably large amount of space to the opinions of the conceited. Some proclaim their conceit with wit: Julie Birchill for example; some with noxious venom: Jan Moir; yet others are not only conceited but also ignorant and just plain dull: step forward Simon Heffer of the Daily Telegraph.

Today's hurricane of bombastic ignorance covers a detailed and complicated subject that Mr. Heffer knows nothing about, namely high speed rail. In Mr. Heffer's world ignorance of a subject does not preclude having the most forthright and determined opinions. So, despite having no understanding of the economics or the engineering of transport, he is able to share with his readers his clear view that a high speed line in the UK is "pointless folly".

I have no clear idea as to whether or how a high speed rail network in the UK makes sense, but I am equally sure that Mr. Heffer has the same or less knowledge of the subject as I do. I am prepared to consider the argument on its merits. Heffer, however, has MADE UP HIS MIND.

On the other hand, Heffer has made up his mind on quite a few subjects. His considered views on grammar were published last September as "Strictly English: the correct way to write... and why it matters". The problem was, despite his obviously trenchant and settled views, he kept contradicting both himself and the most respected sources on the subject. It was, in short, a classically amateur confusion. Far from revealing himself as an authority on the subject he came across as a slightly bumbling bore.

But then, that is Simon Heffer all over: he confuses having opinions with being right.

Sure he is paid to have opinions, but the least he might do is carry out more detailed research, instead of treating his own ill informed prejudice as some kind of moral compass.

Alas, that is the problem in most of the leadership positions in the UK at the moment. Columnists or politicians do not seek to construct arguments that fit the facts, but rather they select facts to support their own pre-conceived ideas. Evidence based policy making is martyred to the ignorance and populism of soi-disant opinion formers like Heffer, Moir and the whole rank crew.

So in fact I must correct the headline I have chosen for this piece- an echo of Heffer's own piece in the Telegraph today- Simon Heffer is not pointless: he is malign. For as long as we continue to give credence to the witless wittering of this pompously ignorant man, then we are committing ourselves as a society to ignorance and repeated poor decision taking. We, the people, must learn to do our own homework and not rely on the predigested leavings of fools like Heffer and the rest of the them.

If we want to strengthen our democracy we need to do more of our own homework and to seek the advice of the genuinely informed- not merely those with the most insistent views or the loudest voices.


Tim Fenton said...

The inherent difficulty that Simon "Enoch was right" Heffer has with the world was summed up in his recent column where he bemoaned the coming of decimalisation in 1971.

His final flourish - to show his mastery of pre-decimal maths - was marred by his getting his sums wrong:

On high speed rail, he's probably seen the arguments of the so-called Taxpayers' Alliance and sided with them, rather than consider the issue, as you appear to be prepared to do.

Adam Bell said...

The thing is that the sort of approach to argumentation that you ascribe to Heffer could easily be ascribed to many of the people who buy his comic - sorry, newspaper. They'll read him for confirmation not simply of their opinions, but also the meta-opinion that one forms one's opinions based on hearsay and arbitrary pieces of data. In this sense, he's really quite clever, just like Goebbels, if he wanted to sell papers rather than just force people to read them.