The Doctors of Spin

11 04 2013

IMG_1182

I was just reading this blog post from Peter Brown Hoffmeister, entitled, “On School Shooters – The Huffington Post Doesn’t Want You to Read This.”  How could I resist the temptation presented in such a title? I guess they changed their minds.

I found it quite an insightful read, considering his personal experiences, formerly as an angry, gun-toting teen, and coming full-circle to that as a teacher.  I’m also in total agreement with his assessment that kids need to get back in touch with nature. (I would add that we all do, and regularly.)

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir quoted by Samuel Hall Young

His is a down-to-earth rumination on the issue of gun violence from his very personal perspective.  Interestingly, he points out what he considers a major difference between his angry teen phase and that of the young shooters in recent history; he didn’t play violent video games.  In this matter-of-fact manner, he suggests a connection between violent video games and acts of violence.

This “potential” connection  is an accusation that pops up from time to time, it’s re-emergance seeming to coincide with a rise in gun control rhetoric. Anybody remember the Brady Bill and the congressional hearings on violent video games during the Clinton Administration.  (could these two issues have something in common, I wonder?)  This time, however, the gaming industry was prepared, hiring yet two more lobbying groups to help steer the conversation in their favor. (Huffington Post)

Enter the Spin Doctors.

The Spin Doctors (not the band), like to play a “shell game” with words and ideas, obscuring the issue for their own aims or gain. The corporate-owned media does it because it gets them the ratings they need to reap the advertising dollars they profit from; nothing puts “butts in the seats” like an intense battle royale between good and evil. Lobbyists do it whenever the actual facts don’t back their side of the issue. This is what their clients are paying for, whether in an attempt to maintain the status quo, or in the name of change. Politicians march in lockstep, thereby padding their own personal 401k’s, and war chests for the next election cycle.

The tobacco industry started doing it 60 years ago in a relatively effective attempt to thwart growing public awareness that smoking causes cancer.  They were able to postpone the eventual outcome for a few decades more of profit, and indeed, there are still those who dismiss the scientific evidence.  (Does the climate “debate” sound vaguely familiar to you? If you’re over 30, and can remember when they first started putting health advisories on cigarettes, it should)

Creationists have been spinning it to combat evolution, even getting some school districts to consider teaching the two side-by-side. (uh, yeah, the earth is only 10,000 years old)  I wonder if their literal interpretation of “god’s word” also includes selling their daughters into slavery or stoning their neighbors to death for working on Sunday?

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source: jamespowell.org

The climate change – deniers are doing it to negate public acceptance of the very real human impact on our climate. See the chart  here as proof that there’s not complete consensus on the science of climate change. Shouldn’t we therefore discount and disregard the other 99.8%?

The entertainment industry argues against any serious causal relationship between what we view on television and our actions. (Yet In 2011, the total U.S. TV ad spending was a whopping $71.8 billion, and it’s only expected to increase)  Can anyone explain to me why so much money is spent on advertising when it doesn’t influence our purchasing decisions?

See any similarities in these examples?  I do. I see people wanting things to be a particular way, and resisting the scientific fact that they’re not.

And the Spin Doctors are getting really good at giving the people what they want. All the while the general public, it seems, is getting worse at sorting through it all, and recognizing the truth from the hype, fact from fiction.  Let’s take this current debate on the relationship between violence in the media and video games, and violent behavior.

There’s already been a lot of research on this relationship.  But as with all behavioral sciences, one can’t account for the multitude of variables and forces at play.  There is no control group. Apparently there are some ethical issues with keeping people completely isolated from all but the desired inputs or something of that nature.  Which leaves the scientists in the less-than-ideal position of, “Well, yes, but…” A recent article in the New York Times entitled Shooting in The Dark,”  sums up the results of a number of recent studies this way:  “No one knows for sure what these findings mean”

Whether this is a result of the Spin Doctors at work, or just an example of a lazy-ass reporter being unwilling to take a stand, I don’t know. “No one knows for sure what these findings mean,” is just a chicken-shit half-truth.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, is a retired Army Ranger, West Point psychology professor, and an expert on the psychology of killing. He has testified before the U.S. House and Senate, and his research was cited by the POTUS in the wake of the Littleton school shootings.(www.killology.org)  His two books should be the definitive resources on this topic.  Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie, and Video Game Violence, and On Killing, both delve into the psychology of killing from the perspective of one who’s job it was to train soldiers to kill.

A quick synopsis of the salient points of Lt. Col. Grossman’s research. (or go to this article he wrote for a more in-depth look)

  1. We, as with other species, are hardwired not to kill each other. WWII rifleman had a 15-20% firing rate against an exposed enemy.
  2. Our military recognized and ‘fixed’ this problem. In Vietnam, the rate had risen to 90%.
  3. The training methods the military used to overcome this human trait include:
    • brutalization
    • classical conditioning
    • operant conditioning
    • role modeling.
  4. Violence on television and in video games provide the same things.

As responsible citizens, we’re faced with a plethora of serious issues.  We need to take the time to intelligently arm ourselves with knowledge in order to make the right choices. Who should we be listening to? The Spin Doctors?

Calvin & Hobbes

source: Watterson, Bill (1995) The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, Kansas City, Missouri: Universal Press Syndicate





Television – an alternate reality.

25 02 2013

Photo on 11-11-12 at 2.46 PM

Well, here it is almost March, and I’m only getting to my second post of the year.  I’d planned on starting the year off with a number of more positive, uplifting posts.  I’d also intended to avoid writing about the terrible tragedy in Newtown, CT, along with all the predictable, explosion of dramatic media coverage. However, with the equally predictable debate regarding guns in America currently being held in the public forum, I can no longer refrain.  Perhaps it’s just not in my nature to be that upbeat.  Or maybe I’m moved enough to write only by the things that frustrate me.

Firstly I have to state what I would consider obvious: the death of all those people in Connecticut was a horrendous tragedy.  As a parent, and fellow human being, my heart goes out to all of those who had to suffer so terrible a loss. Although any such act and it’s results are immeasurably awful, it seems especially acute when it involves children and those we would consider innocent.

With that said, the all-too-typical media spectacle that followed, along with the current public debate regarding gun control are completely disproportionate, emotional, knee-jerk reactions to the tragedy.

The headlines were bold and eye-catching, using words like “slaughter” and “massacre,” and articles about a mass shooting “epidemic.”   The 24-hour bombardment of visceral images, gripping live footage, and heart-wrenching testimonials surely kept the viewers glued to the t.v., gawking morbidly like passers-by at a car crash, and thereby getting the ratings broadcasters need to make a living.  However, as they attempted to wring every last drop of opportunity out of such a tragedy, did they help us gain a healthier, more enlightened, realistic, or reasonable perspective of our world?

I would argue, “not at all.”

This entertainment disguised as “news” is only a more deceptive form of “reality t.v..”  It helps create a distorted perception of reality under the guise of being informative.  By airing hour after hour of in-depth coverage, live footage, personal interviews, and “expert analysis,” media outlets are able to turn a 10 minute story into a two week mini-drama.  In so doing, they create a bigger-than-life version of reality, thereby warping our sense of perspective.

If the amount of time the media spent were proportionately representative of the frequency, or statistical significance of the events being reported, we would see a much more broad spectrum of subject matter, and given what goes for entertainment these days, it would be pretty boring by comparison.  We would see hours upon hours of discussion about such exciting topics as heart disease, strokes, respiratory infections, bronchitis, and diarrhoea. (the top 5 killers worldwide)

WHOdeath

from: The World Health Organization

If we wish to focus on the national level….

U.S. death stats

from: Centers for Disease Control

Watching the “mainstream media” would be more like watching CSPAN, and, except for policy wonks, how many people would be interested in spending hours watching that?  Sure, these are very serious issues that need to be discussed, studied, and remedied, but let’s face it; they’re so boring! How is a news anchor supposed to spice up the subject of heart disease or cancer?  Compare that to a psycho shooter in an elementary school.  Now THAT”S a made for television hit!

Mass shootings, as tragic as they may be, DO NOT happen that often, and although Columbine and Newtown are fresh in our memories, they happen in public schools even less.  Nor are they on the rise.  This is just our own cognition playing with our minds. (pun intended)  Just as our confirmation bias reinforces those preconceived notions we believe to be true, the Availability Heuristic also clouds our ability to make sound judgements.  The Availability heuristic is the tendency to asses the truth or frequency of something based on our ability to recall similar examples.  With these two forces at play, and the deluge of information from the media, it’s no wonder that people feel like these types of crimes are happening all of the time, and are on the rise.

Accidental death pie

But that simply is not the case.  Just look at the numbers.

As per the 2011 U.S. Census, the U.S. had a population of 311,591,917.  According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report (2011), there were 12,664 murders.  Of that number, 8,583 were caused by firearms, or just .0028% of the total population.  The tragic deaths in Newtown account for but a small fraction of that, at .21% of the total murders in that year, or .0000083% of the total population.

For a comparison, look at this breakdown of the “accidental deaths” category from the CDC. Nearly 35,000 of the 37,275 transportation deaths were automobile accidents. That’s over four times the number of gun related homicides, yet I don’t hear a national discussion about it, nor do I see anybody discontinuing, or at least modifying their driving habits. (and trust me, there are plenty of people here in the burbs of Norcal who need to)

Here’s some more perspective on”rise” of mass shootings in the U.S.. Clicking on this chart will take you to a really good op-ed piece by James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University.

Mass Shootings 1976-2011.jpg

The bottom line is, mass shootings are not on the rise.  As repugnant as these crimes may be, there is no epidemic.  Only our perception of these atrocities has ballooned, with the aid of the media, and cognitive psychology.

Perhaps if the media actually meant to educate instead of entertain, we wouldn’t be as ignorant as we are.  As much as we would like to criticize mass media, however, the final blame rests with us, the consumer.  The media coverage is what it is because that’s what sells, not because of an “epidemic” in gun crime that needs reporting.  Television is a market driven enterprise, and the mass media is just providing what the market demands.  Apparently, the masses only wish to be entertained.








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