USA Today, August 8, 2005
'Experts and Geniuses' want to rule your lives.
If only we could all be so smart.
It didn't matter that most of these people were either single or childless; nor did it
seem relevant that they had no idea what they were talking about. Their
commentary was as persistent as it was uninvited. My wife and I secretly dubbed
them the "Experts and Geniuses."
It's only August, and already 2005 has become the Year of the E&Gs, as a bold,
new wave of know-it-alls continues to pop up on the cultural landscape.
In March, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist declared Terri Schiavo's brain happily
functional from the Senate floor, a by-the- video diagnosis that eventually brought
into question Frist's own brain activity. A few months later, Tom Cruise began
proselytizing about postpartum depression on national TV, without so much as a
community college psychiatry degree—or a uterus—under his belt. Then Robert
Novak, in the wake of his self-inflicted CIA-leak scandal, waxed philosophical about
journalistic integrity, when his signature brand of slash-and-burn "reporting" bears
as much resemblance to respectable journalism as I bear to Angelina Jolie.
Even as recently as last month, E&Gs on both ends of the political spectrum were
out in full force, spending millions of dollars on media campaigns that praised, or
denounced, the president's nominee for the Supreme Court—before he was even
Meanwhile, the en masse bloviating that accompanied the shuttle mission—by
commentators whose collective knowledge of air travel is limited to courtesy
peanuts and vomit bags—brought E&Gism to new heights.
Of course, recklessly spouting off is nothing new. Public feet have fit comfortably
into public mouths throughout history, dating to A.D.303, when Roman egghead
Lactantius Firmianus declared, "The mad idea that the Earth is round is the cause
of...imbecile legend." And now, thanks to the proliferation of blowhards on cable
news, most Americans have learned to take uninformed windbagging with an
economy-sized shaker of salt.
Nonetheless, when the smarty-pants contingent jumps the fence from punditry to
policy—when dubious, partisan opinions begin to shape the laws of our land—it's
time to worry.
Take children's television. One of my favorite kids' shows is the whip-smart reading-
readiness program Between the Lions, which was conceived with the help of no less
than a dozen education and literacy experts. These scholastic bona fides have
helped Lions become not only popular children's TV, but also a proud feather in the
cap of PBS.
Along comes Kenneth Tomlinson, the new White House-appointed chair of the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting, who for reasons that have little to do with
educational programming (and all to do with politics) decries PBS for its "deafness
to issues of tone and balance."
The upshot: Shortly after Tomlinson delivered his public wrist- slap, the House
Appropriations Committee recommended slashing PBS' budget, including the
elimination of its $23 million Ready to Learn program. The latter could relegate
Lions (and Sesame Street, Clifford the Big Red Dog and others) to the scrap heap.
The Senate is trying to restore the funding, but the message is clear: The future of
educational TV lies not in the hands of real academics who know a thing or two
about teaching kids, but in those of agenda- driven legislators who tend to behave
more like cartoons than those who actually watch them.
A more complicated, and nefarious, strain of the E&G phenomenon erupts when an
expert in one field uses that clout to hold forth in another. Such was the case in July
when Vatican bigwig Cardinal Christoph Schonborn publicly dissed Darwinism,
effectively ratcheting up the fight over the teaching of evolution. As the archbishop
of Vienna, Schonborn has certainly earned his theological stripes. But isn't labeling
the foundation of modern biology "not scientific at all," as he did, somewhat outside
the man's purview? Talk about monkey business.
And then there's sex, a favorite topic of the E&G brigade if ever there was one.
Since the rise of the evangelical movement in this country, I've watched in
amazement as disinformation about sex has been disseminated as freely and
indiscriminately as Hare Krishna pamphlets are at the local airport.
The Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, recently launched a
website, www.4parents.gov, to help moms and dads discuss sex with their kids. A
noble effort, to be sure—were it not for the fact that the site's only non-
governmental source of information is the National Physicians Center for Family
Resources. Among the NPC's more controversial stances are its roundly criticized
assertion that breast cancer is linked to abortion and its hell-bent advocacy of
abstinence over condom use (on its website, NPC claims that contraceptive-based
sex education is a "prescription for continued disaster").
In March, 150 real experts and geniuses—from the Alan Guttmacher Institute to
Planned Parenthood—petitioned Health and Human Services Secretary Mike
Leavitt to take the site down. So far, it's still up and running.
Then again, when it comes to E&G finger-wagging about sex, I like to remember the
(truly) expert advice of Simpsons creator Matt Groening, who once said: "When the
authorities warn you of the dangers of having sex, there is an important lesson to
be learned: Do not have sex with the authorities."