Trust me, I'm an expert

Academics are responding to the crisis with all kinds of advice. But, Roger Dobson asks, do we need guidance on the science of flag-flying?
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With all those extra pages to fill, few academic experts have missed out on media exposure in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

In many cases, they didn't even wait for the call. While some were content to react to specific invitations, droves of proactive academics, mainly in America, were offering their services and comments to the world's media through press releases, agents, publishers, websites, e-mails and telephone calls.

Some experts, such as Dr James F Smith, found that they were able to offer more than mere academic speculation: "The finance professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School can share an eyewitness account of the destruction and death he saw on Tuesday in New York City from his hotel room across the street from the World Trade Centre,'' said the press release.

"He can also share his opinions", it continued, "about the economic impact on the national and state economies from his perspective as the nation's most accurate economic forecaster – a title The Wall Street Journal has given him three times in the past five years.''

Many experts whose speciality has no immediately obvious link with the attacks also found time for unsolicited comment. Take, for example, Dr Mel Silberman of Temple University – described by his press release as an expert in interpersonal communication – who was keen to report cultural changes he had spotted: "People absolutely are being nicer to each other. We are amazingly nice to each other when we feel a deep sense of commonality. This event has stamped us as common Americans.''

With the attack being given saturation coverage on TV, James Garbarino, professor of human development at Cornell University, offered advice to parents on how they could help their children to cope with the television news of terrorist attacks. "If adults are psychologically unavailable, children will suffer. This is a major issue. The message to parents is clear: don't become glued to the television and unavailable to your children when they need you,'' said the "author of 18 books, including most recently... "

At the end of the first week, expert opinion lurched, for a moment or two, toward the plight of pets. Susan Duncan, an animal-rescue specialist, offered: "As we deeply mourn the loss of so many lives, grieve the end of our collective innocence and reflect on our sense of shaken security, let us take a moment to remember the cherished animals of those lost in the attack. The little ones who lived with the victims of this despicable act of terrorism will wait patiently, in countless homes and apartments, for those they love, but who will never return.

"As we send our caring thoughts to the victims' families so devastated by this national tragedy, let us remember the loyal animals whose lives were also changed for ever.''

British experts, while perhaps not as quick to hawk their opinions around, have still found themselves called upon to comment on such pressing issues as shopping. Dr Hugh Phillips, who researches the psychology of shopping at Bournemouth University, warned that the attacks would have a knock-on effect on buying habits. "The post-shock trauma in consumer behaviour will be felt most at the luxury end of the market," he said, pointing out that trustworthy brands will become more popular, as well as organic food in the supermarket sector and well-designed durable goods including washing-machines.

Back in the US, expert advice on flying the American flag was on hand, too: "If you are hanging the flag from a building, it should be hung with the star end attached to the building," said Alexie Velazquez of the University of Alabama. "Looking down at it while you're hanging it, the stars should be on your right, which means from the ground you would see them on your left."

The same university also fielded Professor Henry Panion III, who went much farther than simply offering comment and analysis. He wrote a hymn and published it on the university website. "I wanted it to be easy enough so the average person could sing it, and so congregations could sing it without a piano," his press release said, adding: "I wrote the hymn to share it as a gift. People can take it, sing it and pass it along."