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In today’s WSJ, David Mamet writes about expertise and influence, pointing out that experts who get important things wrong, sometimes causing great harm to millions of people, often pay no personal price whatsoever. One example he mentions is the pre-WWII secret British debate on air defense technologies and especially the role played by Churchill’s scientific advisor, Professor Frederick Lindemann.
It is an interesting and important story, and is discussed by the scientist/novelist CP Snow in his 1960 book Science and Government…which, he says, was inspired by the following thought:
One of the most bizarre features of any advanced industrial society in our time is that the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men: in secret: and, at least in legal form, by men who cannot have a first-hand knowledge of what those choices depend upon or what their results may be…and when I say the “cardinal choices,” I mean those that determine in the crudest sense whether we live or die.
Snow discusses two very cardinal cases in which he was personally if somewhat peripherally involved: the pre-WWII secret debate about air defense technologies, and the mid-war debate about strategic bombing policies. The air defense debate had two main protagonists: Sir Henry Tizard, and Professor Frederick Lindmann (later Lord Cherwell.) These men were similar in many ways: both were scientists, both were patriots, both were men of great courage (involved in early and dangerous aircraft experimentation), both were serious amateur athletes. They were “close but not intimate friends” when they both lived in Berlin–Tizard was a member of a gym there which was run by a former champion lightweight boxer of England and persuaded Lindemann to join and box with him. But Lindemann proved to be such a poor loser that Tizard refused to box with him again. “Still,” says Tizard, “we remained close friends for over twenty-five years, but after 1936 he became a bitter enemy.”
Snow, who makes no secret of his preference for Tizard, tells of a conversation with Lindemann in which he (Snow) remarked that “the English honours system must cause far more pain than pleasure: that every January and June the pleasure to those who got awards was nothing like so great as the pain of those who did not. Miraculously Lindemann’s somber, heavy face lit up…With a gleeful sneer, he said: ‘Of course it is. It wouldn’t be any use getting an ward if one didn’t think of all the people who were miserable because they hadn’t managed it.’”
Some people did like Lindemann, though–and one of them was Winston Churchill, who though still in the political wilderness was not without influence. Indeed, the future PM considered Lindemann (later to become Lord Cherwell) to be his most trusted advisor on matters of science. If Snow’s version of events is correct, Churchill’s trust and advocacy of Lindemann could have driven a decision resulting in Britain’s losing the war before it even started.
During the inter-war era, the bombing plane was greatly feared–it was commonly believed that no effective defense was possible. PM Stanley Baldwin, speaking in 1932, expressed this attitude when he said “I think it is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through.” Indeed, the problem of air defense was very difficult–the bombers could arrive at any time, and by the time they were sighted, it would likely be too late to get fighters in the air. Maintaining standing patrols on all possible attack routes was unfeasible. The only detection devices were longhorns with microphones and amplifiers, intended to pick up enemy engine noise a considerable distance away–but their value was limited, to say the least.
In early 1935, the British government set up a Committee for the Scientific Study of Air Defense, chaired by Tizard. It reported to a higher-level committee, chaired by Lord Swinton, who was the Air Minister. One member of that higher-level committee was Winston Churchill, and he insisted that his favorite scientist, Lindemann (who had been quite vocal about the need for improved air defense), should be appointed to Tizard’s working-level committee.
Radar had only recently been invented and was by no means operationally proven, but all of the members of that Tizard committee–with one exception–viewed it as the key to successful air defense. That exeption was Lindemann. While not hostile to radar, he believed the committee should given equal or greater attention to certain other technologies–specifically, infrared detection and parachute mines…the latter devices were to be dropped from above, and were intended to explode after getting caught on the wing or other part of the enemy bomber. He also thought there were possibilities in machines that would create a strong updraft and flip a bomber on its back.
“Almost from the moment that Lindemann took his seat undisturbed in the committee room,” says Snow, “the meetings did not know half an hour’s harmony or work undisturbed.” Exercising his novelistic talents, Snow imagines what the meetings must have been like:
Lindemann, Hill, and Blackett were all very tall men of distinguished physical presence…Blackett and Hill would be dressed casually, like academics. Tizard and Lindemann, who were both conventional in such things, would be wearing black coats and striped trousers, and both would come to the meetings in bowler hats. At the table, Blackett and Hill, neither of them especially patient men nor overfond of listening to nonsense, sat with incredulity through diatribes by Lindemann, scornfull, contemptuous, barely audible, directed against any decision that Tizard had made, was making, or ever would make. Tizard sat it out for some time. He could be irritable, but he had great resources of temperament, and he knew that this was too serious a time to let the irritability flash. He also knew, from the first speech that Lindemann made in committee, that the friendship of years was smashed.
As Snow tells it, Lindemann just wouldn’t shut up about the wonderfulness of infrared detection, aerial mines, and so forth. “For twelve months Lindemann ground on with his feud on the committee. He was tireless. He was ready at each meeting to begin again from the beginning…Tizard went ahead with the radar decisions and they let Lindemann register his disagreements. But gradually they got worn down…In July 1936, when the committee was preparing a report, Lindemann abused Tizard in his usual form, over the invariable issue of too much priority for radar, but in terms so savage that the secretaries had to be sent out of the room.”
Blackett and Hill couldn’t stand it anymore and were either on the point of resigning or actually did resign, depending on which source one believes. Tizard himself wrote to Swinton “that I must ask you either to remove Lindemann from the committee or accept my resignation,” citing “Lindemann’s “querulousness when anybody differs from him..and his consequent insistence in talking about matters which we think are relatively unimportant.”
A decision of world-changing significant now lay before Lord Swinton. He was an experienced administrator with some tendency toward out-of-the-box thinking: after graduating from Oxford with a law degree and a plan for a career in mining law, he had actually worked in a coal mine for six months–surely a much more hands-on approach than that of the typical aspiring lawyer, then or now. Clearly a highly intelligent man, Swinton was himself no scientist–“his particular academic skills (at Winchester) were in classics and modern languages (French and German); an early mathematical ability apparently being dissipated by bad and eccentric teaching.”
Swinton’s action was decisive. He dissolved the Tizard committee and reconstituted it–still with Tizard as chairman, but this time without Lindemann. In place of the latter was now E V Appleton, an expert on radio-wave propagation. The change sent a very strong signal about the priority which was to be attached to radar. Britain’s radar defense network, known as Chain Home, was aggressively built out and became the centerpiece of an innovative air-defense network, with data from the radar stations sent to Filter Rooms, at which the positions of enemy and friendly forces were plotted and orders transmitted to the fighter squadrons and AA guns.
When Snow’s book describing the radar conflict came out, there were several strong objections to its portrayal of Lindemann. One of those who felt Snow had been unfair to Lindemann was Sir Robert Watson-Watt, the primary inventor of radar. In a Saturday Review article (excerpted here), Watson-Watt stated that “the Lindemann I knew was astonishingly unlike the abominable Snowman,” that Lindemann supported the development of radar all along, and contrary to Snow’s “melodramatic stage character,” he was an able, intelligent administrator.
Snow’s response is included as an appendix in later editions of the book. “The confusion has arisen very largely because most people are not familiar with the nature of scientific-military arguments. The technical dispute on the Tizard Comittee, like eight out of ten scientific-military arguments, was about priorities…(Lindemann) was actively interested in Watson Watt’s (radar) work, but he was not prepared to give radar the near-absolute priority that the Committee had already settled on. The Committee’s preoccupation–its all-important preoccupation–with the operational use of radar meant nothing to him. He had his own order of priorities.” Snow cites a memo written by Lindemann himself, to Churchill:
The only part of the Committee’s work which has so far been successful has been the development of methods of detection and location…I suggest however that the only way of making progress with the equally important development of aerial mines and the related question of shellburst which remains effective for some reasonable period is to put them in the hands of some enthusiastic believer who is not compelled to come back to the Committee every time he wants to make a fresh experiment.
One of the participants in the Tizard Committee meetings, A V Hill, wrote up notes of the meetings in the style of the Earl of Derby’s 1864 translation of The Iliad (!), which Snow includes in his appendix as supporting his view of what transpired. Not a bad poem–I’ve excerpted some of it below. Key characters: Sigma=Tizard, von Alpha-Plus=Lindemann, Odin=Churchill, and Phi= A V Hill himself.
The Elders of the City: Omega
And Theta and von Alpha-plus and Phi
By age exempt from war, but in discourse
Abundant as the cricket that on high
From topmost bough of forest tree sends forth
His music: so they sent their Minutes forth
And all men wondered, even Odin wept
With tears of joy that Ilium was safe
Von Alpha-plus arose and thus began
“O ancient Sigma eminent in war
And in the counsel wise: thy present words
No Trojan can gainsay; and yet the end
Thou hast not reached, the object of debate
This city cannot be immune from war
Until a hail of parachuting mines
Descend unceasing at its eastern gate
So shall the long-haired Greeks remain at home
Nor lay their infernal eggs upon our streets
Thus angrily, and round his body flungHis cloak, and on his head a billycock
Then passing cocked a snook at Lambda-Mu
Last called his shiny Rolls of eighty steeds
And soon without the tent of Odin stood
Him, from his godlike sleep, he sought to rouse
Loud shouting: soon his voice his senses reached:
Forth in his slumber-suit bearlike he came
And spoke to deep designing Alpha-plus
“What cause so urgent leads you through the camp
In the dark night to wander thus alone?
The poem continues with von Alpha-plus complaining to Odin (Churchill) that Sigma and his associates “have no mind to fill the sky with mines attached to parachutes: and precious days they waste in vain experiments with RDF (radar.)”
“Many, indeed, and fierce, the bombs I’ve dropped,
But never 2-oz mines attached by wires
To parachutes, by day and night alike
In billions at our eastern gate. The like
Has never been before. We two will take
This tidings to the Minister of State.
With Odin Lord Almighty of land and sky and sea
And Alpha-plus to help him, how happy all will be!” So ancient Sigma and his stag-eyed crew
Theta with bright ideas, Phi with none
Rho with the Minutes, weary Omega
Sat long and silent in the deepening gloom
While Lambda-Mu went out and hanged himself
Snook-cocked by Alpha-plus of deep design
At last with downcast visage Sigma spoke:
“The game is up. Without von Alpha-plus
Of wily counsel and of deep design
Who speaks with politicians and the Press,
And soon may be MP for Oxenbridge
All hope is gone and many-murdering Death
Will hunt his victims in our streets.” To which
Theta of bright ideas, Phi of none
Rho of the Minutes, weary Omega
Had nothing printable to add. But set
A day to meet Geheimrat Alpha-plus
And pray for mercy from his mighty friends
From Odin, godlike son of destiny
And from himself, the man of deep design
Then ancient Sigma and his stag-eyed crew
Will make submission to von Alpha-plus
(Except for Lambda-Mu, who hanged himself)
Your present is requested at 11:
The number of the room is 008.
David Mamet was right to call up this incident as an important case study regarding the use expertise in decision-making. It would have done no good at all to tell Lord Swinton to ‘believe the scientists’…two eminent scientist-administrators were arguing for different paths, yet the decision had to be made.
I don’t think Mamet was correct in referring to Tizard as having ‘helped to develop’ radar; he was not involved in the development work, but in the equally-important decision making as to how, and to what extent, this technology should be used. And he’s a little too hard on Lindemann when he refers to him as having ‘mocked’ radar…the question was one of relative priorities, not about whether radar was of any use and should be employed at all. Still, it’s nice to see the role of expertise in decision-making discussed in a prominent publication and to see the radar case referenced in this context. (And I’m once again impressed by Mamet’s range of knowledge and interests.)
CP Snow also wrote about another Lindemann/Tizard conflict of the WWII era, this one concerning the relative importance of strategic bombing of cities versus allocations of aircraft for other roles such as antisubmarine warfare. It’s on my list to write about one of these days.
The above post was originally posted at Chicago Boyz, and is updated here to discuss the Mamet article.