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Bring on the nerds

Tom Ridge, director of homeland security, is a decent, honorable man. A man's man. The kind of guy who probably is already being eyed by the same agent who discovered former actor and current senator Fred Thompson.

Despite Governor Ridge's ample competencies, however, we must admit that his ascendance in the aftermath of Sept. 11 is at least in part because he looks the part. I don't know about you, but if the scene called for Tom Ridge to order me to charge up a hill, I'd get right to it.

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And, for most national calamities, Mr. Ridge would probably do just fine. But we are now dealing with potentially catastrophic events, vexing crises that seem to defy clear and rational explanations. Or do they?

Recently, I watched Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, calmly explain anthrax. It was the first time I felt I had a brief handle on how the toxin actually works. And I felt ashamed.

You see, Doctor Fauci is roughly my age. As I gazed at his thick glasses and round face, I could imagine me and my elementary school friends tormenting him for always doing his homework, maybe yanking the pens out of his pocket protector. And yet there on my screen was this eminently decent and learned man, exuding a comforting calm. A real change of pace. Someone who actually knew what he was talking about.

Then Ridge came back on screen to announce the latest case of inhalation anthrax, trying to be reassuring. Yet his efforts lacked the most important thing: cold, objective, scientific facts.

As long as we continue to rely on politicians for guidance in such a maze, we will only end up more scared and confused. All their strength of character simply doesn't hack it in a fast-moving scientific crisis.

So bring on the nerds. Make way for the pocket protectors. We need to hear from people who know.

Steven M. Gorelick teaches sociology and media studies at the City University of New York.