How We Choose Experts on Matters That Matter
NATURE’S EDGE NOTEBOOK
Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions
By Bill Blakemore
Imagine you’re reading Shakespeare on an unseasonably warm evening while sitting on a dune looking west across the sea at sunset.
Who really wrote that poetry, what caused that extra heat, and what’s really happening out on the horizon?
You’ll need experts for all that.
On sunset, scientists now have news this reporter finds it hard to keep a grip on.
You watch the reddening sun move down toward the horizon until the bottom edge of the bright disc drops behind the rim of the sea. The still visible portion of the sun morphs into various shapes as it moves inexorably down until it’s just a tiny point of light. Then, as you can plainly see, it is suddenly gone as the sun travels even further below the horizon.
Experts now tell us none of that is true. The sun isn’t moving down at all!
Instead, the earth beneath you is rolling backwards so that its rounded bulk is slowly rising up between you and the sun.
Incredible. You don’t sense this motion. The earth seems to be the steady one.
Of course, experts have long told us this — ever since Galileo’s trial in 1633 for concurring with astronomer Copernicus on the matter. And we believe them.
And yet, I still need to remind myself each time (if I think of it at all) when watching the sun set that it doesn’t.
We and our school teachers believe this counterintuitive news from scientists (and now from some rocket engineers and astronauts) because they’re clearly the best experts on this question.
They are open about it, willing to explain to us non-scientists until it makes sense to us, continually risk being tested by their peers, and have a record — which anyone can check — of changing their assertions when new evidence seems to require it.
But how do you decide which experts to credit in the so-called “Shakespeare Authorship Question,” now given new life by the film “Anonymous,” which depicts the Earl of Oxford as the real author.
Why not take the word of Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and two living U.S. Supreme Court justices (conservative Antonin Scalia and liberal John Paul Stevens) that the commoner Shakespeare was a fraud?
Accomplished as they are, their CVs show little to suggest they’re the best experts on the voluminous and ever-increasing 400-year-old hard documentary evidence.
It’s painful to think that famous and “otherwise intelligent people say dumb things,” as professional Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro of Columbia University puts it. Yet many have.
In more than 35 years observing this authorship “debate”, this reporter has never found a credible professional scholar who says there’s anything to it. (See my ABC News.com piece, and our TV report on “World News.”)
Some people appear to let themselves run with Shakespeare authorship fantasies, not asking which experts may be more qualified, because they feel it doesn’t really matter (many professionals disagree) — and anyway, it was all in the past.
Manmade global warming isn’t.
According to all the apparently competent experts this reporter has found on the matter after more than seven years following the story across the United States and around the world, manmade global warming is well under way, already extremely destructive, and on track to grow steadily worse for at least the next three decades, even if humanity does manage to drastically cut carbon emissions. (This is due partly to lag-time factors such as new heat working its way through deep ocean currents before surfacing.)
Clearly, on this subject, it matters greatly which experts we listen to.
Virtually all the world’s roughly 3,000 professional climate scientists paint a psychologically daunting picture of the world in which today’s toddlers are growing up.
Estimates of people now dying who would not if there were no manmade warming are in the hundreds of thousands. The United Nations now estimates hundreds of millions of disruptive “climate refugees” in less than 40 years. Across the U.S., more frequent drought in southern regions and intensifying downpours and floods in the Midwest and Northeast fit patterns projected by climate experts 40 years ago. In the United States and worldwide, increasing food prices and insurance rates, and expanding species extinctions and ecological disruptions, are directly linked to the warming by climate scientists and other professionals who work closely with them.
Please note, that’s “climate scientists.” This and other reporters following the story have been surprised to see a few great scientists in other fields, including Nobel Prize winners, publish contrarian views that — by all appearances — climate scientists easily show to be simply wrong.
But which journalists should you believe on the experts?
That’s up to you, of course.
Constant skeptical assessment of the credibility, pertinence and intellectual independence of experts is at the core or our professional promise.
In the climate story, this currently includes assessing reports that describe confusion and intimidation campaigns funded by fossil fuel and ideological groups trying to delay regulation of greenhouse emissions.
Any restrictions on your freedom to choose which journalists — and climate experts — to listen to are obviously bad.
Of course, surprising new evidence about the climate — or the journalism — could always turn up.
So you need an open mind. It’s just important to keep it that way.