The Columbo Gambit: Just One More Thing

The TV detective Columbo had a favorite ploy: he would allow his suspect to seem to outwit him, and then, as he was shambling out the door in apparent defeat, he would turn and say, “Oh, just one more thing.” And that question would crack the case like a hatchet applied to a year-old egg.

I highly recommend yielding the hatchet of “one more question” as we wend our way through the age of fake news and truthy information. In many cases, the suspect’s prepared answers all indicate innocence, truth and utter reliability, until we can think of that “one more question” that reverses the magnetic field and exposes the guilt.

A recent, pretty spectacular example: The suspect says he has discovered a worm that eats plastic, so all we have to do is cultivate the worm, set billions of them to work, and we can continue, guilt-free, to litter the planet with water bottles. Almost out the door to buy a case of water, we think to ask: wait, worms are larvae, what does the moth eat? Guilty response: the moths eat beeswax, and any significant increase in their numbers would doom bees and thus humanity. Hmmm.

A personal example: I had a conversation with a doctor associated with leading-edge research into the genetic origins of a certain neurological disease. The suspect answered all the questions deftly as he built the case that genetic research — and very expensive genetic tests on patients — offered great hope for future treatment. (And thus, of course, was worth the millions of dollars being appropriated to study the issue.) All went well until someone — okay, it was me — said “One more thing. If I spend the money, and the test says that I have the gene, does that mean that I will certainly get the disease?” Answer: No. “If I don’t have the gene, does that mean I definitely won’t get the disease?” Answer: No. Hmmm.

A humdrum, well-worn example: Suspect John McCain, on national TV on Sunday, said that nuclear power is the cleanest way in the world to generate electricity. His prepared answers to the follow-up questions made the case that America and the world need more nuclear power plants. The “one more thing” that nobody asked was, “If you include the problem of the expended fuel, which will be dangerously radioactive for thousands of years, would it still be the cleanest in the world?” Answer: Hell, no.

A true crime example: two years ago in Waller County, Texas, a pretty young black woman was roughed up by a state trooper who stopped her for a traffic violation. She was charged with assaulting a police officer — a charge not supported by bystander accounts and phone videos — and jailed. Three days later she was found hanged in her cell. What was her initial traffic offense? Changing lanes without signalling. Almost no one asked the one more thing that reverses the polarity of this case, but someone did: “Why did she change lanes?” Answer: to get out of the way of the trooper, who had executed a high speed U-turn to come up behind her. She assumed he was on a call and tried to get out of his way. Hmmm. (The trooper was indicted for perjury and fired; the county lost a wrongful-death lawsuit and paid the family big bucks.)

An energy example: The relentlessly happy corporate media are full of stories about the oil and gas industries roaring back after a brief (okay, maybe it’s three years now) price setback. The suspect goes on and on about the rising number of wells drilling for gas (for example), which has in fact doubled since last fall. Wow, that means new confidence and recovery of the markets and happy days are here again, right? Well, one more thing — what about production? Funny you should ask. In the Marcellus shale formation, for example, they are getting about half the gas they produced a year ago. Hmmm.

No matter how many factoids are lined up for us to drive us to a certain conclusion, it is often the case that just one more fact — one more question asked, one more website consulted, one more story read all the way to the end — may reverse the polarity of true and false, right and wrong, good and evil. We must always go for that one more thing.

Thanks, Columbo.  

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8 Responses to The Columbo Gambit: Just One More Thing

  1. Darrel says:

    Brilliant. “Just one more thing.” I like that. The trouble is that, based on the argumentative theory, people embrace ideas which support their contention and refute anything that runs contrary. In other words, with most politicians or “arguers”, winning the argument is more important than truth. People don’t want to hear the truth. People want to hear confirmations of what they already think so as to refute what they don’t believe! It’s all about winning and losing. Columbo was about truth and justice. The smallest inconsistency can reveal a truth.

  2. Rob Rhodes says:

    The Wrinkled Wraincoat turns back to the assembled national and international energy agencies: “Do any of you even attempt to calculate net energy? anybody? even just a broad guess? are you afraid of the answer?”

  3. SomeoneInAsia says:

    We’ve basically come to the point where the truth is so inconvenient and hurts so much that many if not most of us just don’t want to face it anymore and prefer to settle for comforting lies. We can have a whole army of Columbos in this respect and it won’t change that. Recall the closing words of a letter by Linus to the Great Pumpkin: If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.

    All we can do now is prepare to save our own asses (and those of our loved ones). If we can. And while we can.

  4. Denis Frith says:

    My question is what happens to the 89 natural resources that are used by industrialized civilization to provide services, produce goods while being used to build, operate and maintain the infrastructure that society has become so dependent on.
    I know the answer! It all ends up as waste, even when some is recycled at ecological cost.

  5. Tom says:

    Great points everyone, to this spectacular essay by Mr. Lewis. I too watched that show and remember his sly ways and twinkling wry smile.

    There’s no way out of our predicament. Try as we might, from “geo-engineering” to solar power, all solutions create more problems. The bottom line, of course, is that we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, yet we continue along as if we will.

    As Denis points out, our pollution ALONE is enough to wreck the biosphere (as mounting evidence piles up to corroborate this – 5 at last count, giant plastic gyres in the middle of the
    oceans, and unstoppable lethal Fukushima radiation continues to be released every second, on top of all the other radiation we’ve spewed since opening that Pandora’s box of “free

    True too, as your Asian guest states, nobody wants to hear the underlying truth of our civilization, because we’re having so much fun (I guess) and it would “harsh our buzz” or some
    such. Unfortunately, there won’t be any “saving” of anyone’s ass in the (probably very near) future. It’s really hard to sustain oneself when there’s nothing to eat, the water is foul or gone completely, and everything is contaminated, including the air. Just this past weekend, one aberrant weather situation cost the U.S. 20% of the wheat harvest, and yesterday THOUSANDS of cattle were killed in a recent (out of “season” – as if they still exist) cold snap.

    Thousands of cattle killed by spring snow storm in Colorado

    On every front it only gets worse by the day.
    Enjoy your time, while you can.

  6. Kate says:

    Keep these insights coming, please! Every morning I check this site for a new entry. Always gratifying and rewarding to find one.

  7. RE says:

    Just one more thing…

    When will the collapse blogosphere exit the Fringe and actually get some decent readership?

    • JJgrey says:

      Mainstream, in depth, collapse discussion on line (leaving the fringe) will probably never happen. If it does it will be brief lived as the infrastructure for leisurely on line discussion and time available for the people with the interest will vanish quickly.
      Most people will do their best to ignore the totality of an awful situation in favor of focusing on only a single aspect, or ignoring the whole for some pleasant illusion, until it is far to late to respond with any but the most extreme emergency measures.
      I too am guilty of much of this.
      I am building my families remote rural homestead around a full time job and attempts to maintain some sort of current ‘normal’ life for the family.
      Failure of maintaining all 3 things is almost guaranteed. -^[]^-