Apparent expertise and “the smartest man alive”

A stupid person’s idea of a clever person.

That title has been applied to many people – Newt Gingrich, Stephen Fry, Aldous Huxley. Now there’s a new contender.

In this video went viral yesterday, titled “Fox may have just interviewed the smartest man alive“, an unsuspecting Fox News journalist asks a man on Miami Beach if he’s worried about Hurricane Irma. The man then responds with a long, technical answer that leaves the reporter stunned and debunks all the fearmongering about the hurricane.

TV gold. The replies to the tweet are full of people laughing at the cocky reporter being shown up by “a professor of meteorology”.

Except almost everything he says is nonsense.

The facts he uses are fundamentally correct (although the video was uploaded on 10 September, the position he describes is where the storm was on 9 September – I’m assuming the video upload was just delayed). The storm had just crossed the 80th meridian west, it was about 220 miles south of Miami, and it had been on a bearing of roughly 275°.

But none of that is especially relevant to whether Miami is safe. Hurricanes don’t go in a straight line, and as the forecast shown on screen as he speaks demonstrates, the storm was forecast to veer north towards Florida – which it did.

He makes the confident prediction that the winds in Miami aren’t going to get any stronger, and this is as bad as it will get. In fact, at the time he was speaking, wind gusts in Miami were 26 knots (30 mph, 50 km/h). 24 hours later, about the time this video was uploaded, they were hurricane force, reaching at least 63 knots (75 mph, 115 km/h) – after that, Miami Airport weather station seems to have been destroyed.* The National Weather Service shows Miami just avoided the worst hurricane force winds, but it was definitely within the tropical storm area, and it has suffered storm surge and flooding.

So he was very tragically wrong – and this would have already been clear by the time the video was uploaded. So why did it go viral? Why did it seem like he’s “the smartest man alive”, when he just said he was going to stay in the path of a major hurricane?

For one thing, he’s contradicting the mainstream consensus. Everyone’s worried about the hurricane? Well, here’s a guy who’ll tell you that actually he can see that everyone else is wrong. That makes him cleverer by default.

Secondly, he throws numbers and jargon around. He tells us it’s “crossed the 80th meridian”, which is a fancy way of saying “It’s due south of Miami”. When the reporter says it’s heading west, he contradicts him, telling him it’s heading 275° – which is almost exactly west, but sounds a lot fancier.

Finally, he’s so confident. He may be totally misinformed about how hurricanes behave, but he’ll happily rattle on about bearings and meridians without even a hint of doubt that maybe, just maybe, the storm will turn.

This was just a random guy a Fox News reporter found on the streets. But people like this are everywhere: journalists, columnists, influencers, politicians, all telling you that they are right and the experts are wrong. They’ll use fancy words, and throw them at you with such certainty that it’s hard to believe they’re wrong.

Climate change is a lie, because there’s a hiatus in the satellite data, they say.

Brexit will be easy, because the balance of trade incentivises Germany to create an FTA, they say.

The hurricane won’t affect us, because it crossed the 80th meridian on a bearing of 275°, they say.

* The only working weather station I can find in south west Florida is West Palm Beach, which recorded peak gusts of 84 knots (95 mph, 155 km/h)

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