Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Experts with a remote control

    The year was 1993, and I was being besieged by experts.

     I never knew so many people knew so much until that year — when a raid on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco went so seriously afoul that the standoff ended up a nightly fixation on CNN and the networks.

    In the same way that Waco became the media center of the universe, the local paper's opinion page, whose content was my responsibility, became the crossroads for a world of expertise. 

       I was struck by the number of people from across the country who knew exactly what happened and who was to blame. That was intriguing, because our newspaper was in on the story before it was everyone's story, and we were still wondering what happened.

       And how did they gain their expertise? By watching a few seconds of video on TV — the same clip shown over and over, federal agents firing and being fired upon on a roof out in the wind-blown Texas countryside. So many experts from so little information. It continues today.

       It's the kind of expertise the Associated Press acknowledged in a recent story about a particularly cold day in January and the issue of global warming.

       The story was about scientists' task of explaining the recent cold snap — a killer freeze in Beijing, icicles hanging from Florida oranges — within the template of global warming. The story acknowledge this fact: Without considering the bigger picture, a lot of people shivering through a week's very cold temperatures would be hard to convince that, yes, the planet is warming unnaturally. The people who study this matter every day could explain it easily. As Deke Arndt of the National Climatic Data Center explained, "We'll still have record cold temperatures. We'll just have fewer of them."

        This, of course, is immaterial to the type of expert who becomes one with a remote control in hand.

          Such expertise helps explain why the Pew Center recently found a decline in the number of Americans saying there is strong scientific evidence that the Earth has gotten warmer over the past few decades, from 71 percent a year ago to 57 percent. A Pew spokesman speculated that this is because people are concerned about the economy. I can understand one not wanting to be concerned about said matters when one is trying to feed one's family, but how does it bear on evidence about an ominous global concern?

         The question about discerning the reality of global warming is far different from the question of whether man should do anything about it, policywise. Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton says no. His solution: "Get shade."

          Barton will believe what he wants, and will look the other way when science presents something that would give him discomfort.

          Quite a few climate deniers, remotes in hand, will cite a recent made-for-Fox-News tempest in which hacked e-mails between climatologists were portrayed as undermining the numbers about global warming.

           It makes for good TV, but analysis of the 1,073 e-mails in question, involving a team of five Associated Press reporters, found "the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked."

          "Don't confuse me with the facts," could be a slogan for the modern-day understanding of expertise. Or what's a Sarah Palin for? A "contributor" for Fox News, that's what. This is an expert who, according to the new book Game Change, had foreign policy tutors explaining, "This is how the Cold War worked," as well as the actual wars preceding, after John McCain's campaign manager came to them saying, "She knows nothing."

         You might say this is an asset. It is one thing to be a pointy-headed academic who spends his time poring over books, newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, data — you know, the stuff of understanding. It is another to be confident enough in what one sees on TV to know it all.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:  

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