The right and part of the center of the blogs are hopping all over Bill Keller's kind-of explanation of his paper's reasoning to go ahead with the story on the program to track financial records of terrorists. While Keller makes a better case for himself than most of his critics contend, he isn't doing himself any favors by the condescending attitude of much of his letter.
It's becoming more and more popular for those in the media and among the intelligentsia of various disciplines to speak about democratic ideals and information while proclaiming their own expertise and making it well known that if one wishes to dispute certain methodologies, one damn well better have a particular degree or imprimatur in some form or another.
Too many of our experts consider themselves not public advisers and opinion setters, but infallible prelates speaking to a great mass of bumpkins. We are told that data is inviolable and that facts are facts. But taken and agreed-upon facts often change with time and data, and, well, I'll just hint at the Disraeli remark on statistics.
Now, before I get branded with some lowly moniker, I will point out that I have spent much of my work life, and all of the last ten years working with data of some sort, and am now working with specific data to follow specific trends (sorry that's all you're gonna get). What is so interesting about trend analysis is that one is always working with a moving target. Therefore, it is not only perilous, but fundamentally foolish to assume that the data will give one a straight-line prediction.
Witness this article on TIME's recent global warming story:
WASHINGTON - The Earth is the hottest it has been in at least 400 years, probably even longer. The National Academy of Sciences, reaching that conclusion in a broad review of scientific work requested by Congress, reported Thursday that the "recent warmth is unprecedented for at least the last 400 years and potentially the last several millennia."
Now, I have no expertise and no reason to doubt this conclusion. If this is what the data is telling us, then this is what the data is telling us. Who would want, say, a doctor to inform us that one of our loved ones was still alive when in fact they had died five minutes earlier? Stick with the truth, people.
However, let's say that we are the warmest we have been in 400 years (I will not address the "potentially the last several millennia" because this veers into conjecture). Would that not mean that sometime around 1600 or so the earth was in the grips of a period of scorching temperatures? Who the hell was driving the SUVs then?
Of course we must rely on those trained in specific fields. To do otherwise would be folly. And to blindly criticize because the known data does not line up with our own assumptions and prejudices does in fact make the general populace seem a bit stupid from time to time. But it is incumbent on our scientists to acknowledge the difference between theory and fact. Many scientists, after all, are human.
What does this have to do with Keller? Only that with this letter, he further removes himself from the public he purports to serve. I do not doubt that Keller actually sees himself as a protector of the public's right to know, and I would rather have a press that distrusts government as much as I do. What we don't need, however, is a press that sees no reason not to publish every story that comes its way.
So I do not call for the heads of the New York Times editorial board, and would just ask that they keep their heads about them. I am more concerned with governmental apparatchiks that take it upon themselves to anonymously harm counter-terror efforts.
That said, I also allow for the possibility that this leak was unofficially official and that the administration is protesting too much. This president is his own expert, you see, and as the Decider-in-Chief, he doesn't hold a much higher opinion of you and me than Keller does.