Doing what you’re told

There was an article in The Times earlier this week which suggested – it was the subject of some research at an American university – that, if a financial adviser mentioned to you that they were ‘an expert’, then you were putty in their hands. And of course – and why any research was needed, I have no idea, I mean, what next, evidence that passing a fridge makes you want to open it? Evidence that birds like worms? Evidence that if you are a politician, and you are submitting your expenses, your husband will have banged a couple of DVDs on to the list for the public purse to pay? How obvious can you get?

If someone puts on a white coat and says ‘I am a doctor’, you accept it. Same with a dentist.

I had a dentist once who used to torture me, in fact, but I didn’t complain. Not in a Laurence Olivier kind of  ‘Is it safe?’ sort of way, not that kind of drill-swivelling kind of torture. No, what he did, when he’d got my mouth wedged open, was to play Chris Rea records. Chris Rea, for God’s sake. I would rather he had tied every tooth to the door-handle with a piece of barbed wire, and extracted every damn thing in there. Anyway, apart from that, he was quite pleasant. He used to tell me about conferences he had been to. Now you may wonder what they talk about at dentistry conferences, and I will tell you, and, obscurely, it may come as a surprise. They talk about teeth, about gums, about drill-bits, and about the assistants they generally patronise so badly. You might think they meet up to talk about anything but orthodontics, but no, that’s their one chance to chat about the subject. Anyway, as my dentist told it, at one conference, they were passing round X-rays of a woman whose teeth had been (look away now) knocked in using panel pins. What had her dentist been on? Easy.

Yes, easy. He wasn’t a dentist at all. He had masqueraded his way into a practice, and exercised his right as an amateur to do the business. Not until he tried the panel pins out was he rumbled – he couldn’t be struck off, of course, because he wasn’t on the list in the first place. There are doubtless all kinds of unqualified professionals out there who have got away with it for years (I have certainly met a teacher who lied his way into the profession, and, if you remember, it came out at the trial of Sion Jenkins that, although he was innocent of killing his step-daughter, he certainly wasn’t qualified as a teacher – but had become a deputy head).

The point is that the woman in the chair allowed the panel pins to be hammered in, because the man in front of her gave every impression of knowing what he was doing, and was wearing the correct coat. The same is true of those who dress up as policemen, or who pass themselves off, for all I know, as lollipop ladies. In other words, as with the ‘research’ in America, people believe experts if they are told they are experts. I hate quoting Shakespeare, but he’s right when he has Lear say ‘A dog’s obeyed in office.’

I have a far funnier stort about the power of a white coat, but it will have to wait till tomorrow.

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