Experts? In global discourse, loud prevails

AP News
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Posted: Dec 16, 2009 3:00 PM

The leader of the Maldives, an Indian Ocean island nation whose very existence is threatened by global warming, was emphatic. "In all political agreements, you have to be prepared to negotiate," he said in Copenhagen this week. "But physics isn't politics."

Passionate, emotional and desperate, President Mohammed Nashid was also wrong. These days, everything is politics. Everyone who's talking insists at high volume that they're right. And now, amplified by the Internet, anyone, knowledgeable or oblivious, can talk to the entire world.

Once, not so long ago, the planet's prevailing voices were those of the experts _ the people who, right or wrong, had years of training to back up what they said. Then came the Internet, and everything changed.

Consider the global warming debate: The skeptics shout. The skeptics' opponents shout back. The scientists insist they have research in their corner. And public debate shifts from the provable and the empirical toward the spectacle of argument.

Democracy in action? That's one way of seeing it. But is something deeper afoot? As the amplification of human opinion becomes more democratic, is the suspicion of the expert and the intellectual _ a long-held trope in American society _ going globally viral?

Because whatever side you're on, to sample the worldwide conversation in the age of the broadband connection and the constant, instantaneous comment is to be confronted with one recurring thread: Knowing what you're talking about ain't what it used to be.

"What you have is the (presumption) of expertise by ordinary people who feel their opinions are as valuable as anybody else's. And at the same time, you have experts behaving like gods beyond what they know," says Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent and author of "Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?"

"Society," he says, "has authorized everybody's opinions."

As an ideal, direct democracy has great appeal. Everyone has their say, and truth and justice prevail. It doesn't work quite that way in the real world. That's why most operating democracies are representative democracies, where the people choose the men and women who will speak and act on their behalf.

Nevertheless, the notion that the everyman's wisdom can trump formal training is a powerful one. In the United States, it is more than two centuries old _ gestated during the Revolution and institutionalized by the populist maneuverings of Andrew Jackson.

It lives on in modern political discourse. Exhibit A: Sarah Palin. Running for vice president in 2008, she made a habit of targeting "so-called experts" who, she said, were out of touch with the needs of "the real America."

Palin injected that idea into the climate debate last week with an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that criticized "so-called climate change experts." Then, later, she used tactical quotation marks around the word "experts" to suggest she believed they were nothing of the sort.

Greil Marcus, an American cultural historian and co-author of "A New Literary History of America," remembers watching TV in the 1950s, "when there were all these TV dramas about science vs. religion." And, he says, "science always won."

No more, Marcus says. Instead, cacophony now prevails and the right to be heard trumps what is being said. "Welcome to the new Dark Ages," he says.

The climate conference in Copenhagen has underscored and crystallized the wariness of expertise. As a polarizing force, climate change is both preposterously intricate and relevant to billions of people _ and unfolding just as social media use is exploding.

In The Climate Pool, a Facebook page about the conference run by 11 news agencies, including The Associated Press, debate rages in thousands of comments by those who have staked out positions on global warming. Some cite science, some pseudoscience, some simply their own beliefs.

But one question recurs in different ways: Do trained experts have any idea what they're talking about? Can a deeply held conviction be asked to compete with an empirical truth? "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions on anything," said one commenter, Matt Cox, "but no one is entitled to their own set of facts."

Cox, a Georgia Tech graduate student who studies energy and environmental policy, sees expertise as "largely disregarded" in the discourse on climate change.

"It's such a complex issue that it's easy to float an alternative hypothesis out there and say it hasn't been investigated," he says, "but it really has no bearing on the science."

Nevertheless, science is administered by, interpreted by, discussed by human beings. That's where things get messy.

Many scientists are not, by their own admission, effective communicators. And with the democratization of publishing tools, even the most outlandish wingnuttery can achieve that polished look that, until quite recently, has been associated with rationality and credibility.

"Anybody can change a wiki online. It may get changed back, but at least they have the ability to change it. And you can put virtually anything you want on a Web site and make it look credible," says Chuck Niederriter, a physicist at Gustavas Adolphus College in Minnesota.

He runs the Nobel Conference, a public think tank that encourages communication between scientists and citizens outside the scientific community. By helping the two groups relate, he says, understanding might replace reflexive polarization.

"There are a lot of public folks who don't relate to scientists or don't relate to what scientists do, see them as different and mistrust them," Niederriter says _ although, he allows, "there may be reasons in some cases to mistrust scientists."

It's all very confusing. We have, as a race, spent the three centuries since the Age of Enlightenment establishing common, reason-based foundations upon which to debate important matters. Those processes, and the experts who use them, have always been questioned vigorously.

But now _ well, now we can question them wholesale. And in the confusing cacophony, complex truth struggles to compete.

"What do you do in a world when a conspiracy theory seems as plausible as something that has been arrived at by deliberation. How is this resolved?" says Furedi. "It's one of the big open questions of our time."

And one that has surfaced in other times, too. Technology changes, but human nature? Not so much. Consider the case of the Italian physicist faced with a barrage of criticism from skeptics to the point where he faced legal action that dogged him for the rest of his life.

We know him as Galileo, the father of modern astronomy.

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EDITOR'S NOTE _ Find behind-the-scenes information, blog posts and discussion about the Copenhagen climate conference at http://www.facebook.com/theclimatepool, a Facebook page run by AP and an array of international news agencies. Follow coverage and blogging of the event on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/AP_ClimatePool