The threatening man in the sky

For what possible reason does the BBC’s latest update on the Somali pirates-and-Saudi tanker situation have the title ‘Experts’ lead Saudi tanker talks? Why not Experts lead Saudi tanker talks? Is there anything in the article that suggests they aren’t experts, that they are (in one of the more hideous and over-used expressions in modern parlance) ‘so-called experts’? Not that I can see, although I do note that there’s almost no actual news in the story, just rumour being peddled by ‘correspondents’ (that means other journalists), and a lot of weasely sentences that are true no matter what the reality of the situation is.

Of course there’s no way of knowing, but this feels like authority figure fear (or “threatening man in the sky effect”, which is what I’d like everyone to call it from now on). Ben Goldacre, both in his excellent book ‘Bad Science’ (I couldn’t bring myself to read his blog, because it updates all the bloody time: I waited for the novelisation, on the basis that a film probably isn’t forthcoming) and elsewhere (I can’t bring myself to subscribe to Guardian feeds either), has been talking about this in the context of science: scientists are seen as authority figures, unfathomable beings issuing pronouncements from on high. I’m sure this view would have shocked Richard Feynman, who would work through important theories himself rather than rely on the authority of other scientists (the story is The 7 Percent Solution, in “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman!”), but it does seem to be the way many people – or at least much of the media – think.

Right now, for instance, a Google News search for ‘scientists’ turns up the following headlines:

  • Scientists take a step closer to an elixir of youth
  • Scientists find way to calculate people’s real age
  • Scientists test effects of high heels on the body
  • Scientists find ‘cure’ for ‘werewolf boy’

I’m sure at least some of them rail against these authority figures for bothering to look at trivia such as high heels and absolute age, or will in editorials once they’ve had a chance to think about it. But I don’t think it’s just scientists, and I’m not entirely convinced that the media is responsible for replacing science in the public consciousness with a parody of itself. I think people are simultaneously comforted by the idea that there are experts out there – in whatever field, be it politics or science or entertainment or whatever – and threatened by the same thing.

The thing is, most people are venal, suspicious, selfish and foolish, just like everyone on 24, which I was watching last night and hoping represents in no way whatsoever the reality of the Department of Homeland Security. Or, for that matter, everyone on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, including the robots, which I’m watching as I write this and hoping represents in no way whatsoever the reality of what happens when we accidentally invent a conscious computing network and discover time travel. I don’t want to live in those worlds – but maybe a lot of other people do.

Which is a problem, frankly, because although people may be blind to logic and science, current evidence suggests that the universe isn’t. This means that people are deliberately putting themselves at a disadvantage by denying themselves the tools to better understand and think about what they have to deal with out in the real world. Of course, they don’t think of it like that – maybe they think they can delegate all that ‘hard stuff’ to authority figures, or maybe they suspect that really it’s all smoke and mirrors, and the scientific method can’t tell them anything. Or maybe they think that invisible dinosaurs rule the earth, or that physics is just like in JJ Abrams‘ head, or that actually all our actions are ruled by evil thoughts from before time began. In which case there’s probably not much we can do for them.

But, seriously. Even the robots are stupid. Who wants to live in a world like that?

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