The World According to a Hammer

22 11 2013

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Back when I was still running a martial arts school, I heard a highly regarded martial art instructor talk about how to “be the local expert.” His idea was simple; be the most well informed, well educated, and thus most qualified fitness/self defense expert in the area, and be recognized as such. The advantages of being the most qualified expert in one’s field should be a no-brainer. Wouldn’t everybody want to train with the best? As in any highly competitive market, the real challenge lies in being distinguished as the top dog.

Here comes the snake oil salesmen

Enter the world of marketing. As anybody who’s ever run their own business will tell you, marketing is almost as important as the product being offered. In my opinion, it is also the most difficult part of being an entrepreneur. Advertising, i.e. Yellow pages, television, radio, mass-mailing, is extremely expensive. Other methods can be less expensive, but more time consuming, taking one away from their area of expertise. For the small operator, the efficacy of where to invest a marketing budget can be a make-or-break proposition.

Another factor in marketing for the martial arts, and I suspect for many businesses, is the waning effectiveness of traditional methods. With all the competition using the same tactics in the same mediums, things like the Yellow Pages, flyers, etc. just quit working. When everyone is offering the same services, with the same prices, and claiming the same level of superiority, how does one stand out from the crowd and sell their goods?

This is where the genius of his idea lie. It went something like this….

Get involved with the local media whenever the opportunity arrises. Write op-ed pieces on your area of expertise. Become the go-to expert in fitness & self defense, whenever a news agency is doing a piece on those topics. Reporters are always looking for engaging sources, and the more accessible the better. If you’re really good, you could work yourself into this niche. Every time there’s a story on fitness, you’d be the name quoted in the paper. Each segment on crime prevention or self defense would include your face, along with your expert advice. You would have the most powerful advertising available, with the implicit endorsement of every news agency you were featured in, and it’s free! For a small business owner struggling to maintain a reliable flow of customers, this is gold.

Indeed this strategy has been taken up by more than just your local mom & pop karate school. Anybody with something to sell, wether a product or an ideology, a candidate or some piece of legislation, can utilize this same method to get their message out. And everybody is getting on board. As much of a boon as this plan may be from a business perspective, however, this arrangement between “the news” and marketing has some serious problems.

What you don’t know won’t hurt you.

Take the martial arts “expert,” for example. For the record, there are absolutely no governing bodies nor regulatory agencies that oversee/verify any martial art school/instructor. Anybody, regardless of qualifications, can hang the proverbial shingle on the wall and state that they are the nth degree grand master of their system. Any certifications an instructor may have are on the honor system at best, and many require nothing more than paying a fee. Some systems may have stringent standards, but there are no third-party agencies to verify any of their claims. That expert from local dojo X, presenting his opinion on your local news, may very well be an expert. Whether that expertise is on the subject in question or in bullshit isn’t clear, however, without serious research into their actual qualifications beyond being  a self-proclaimed “master.”

The recent revelation in September that “Dr.” Elizabeth O’Bagy isn’t really a doctor of anything (she lied about having a PhD), makes my point, When being an expert has market value, there exists the motivation for individuals to exaggerate how qualified they may actually be. It is a bit scary that she was offering up expert advice on the turmoil in the Middle East, and our potential involvement in Syria. It’s even scarier to consider she was being taken seriously by policy makers.

The tail is wagging the dog

Even though spending a few hours watching the news would leave you believing our world is becoming ever more violent, this simply isn’t the case. The frequency of these stories feeds our cognitive biases and leaves us with an inaccurate perception of reality. (see this earlier post) Violent crime in the U.S. has been decreasing for the past 20 years, and that includes the recent upswing the past two years. The media focuses on the extreme stories, however, because this kind of drama is what get’s viewers’ attention.

Martial arts instructors play upon our fears of violence, just as the media does. Self defense is what they’re selling, and if consumers didn’t see a threat, they’d be out of business. Even though it is statistically un-likey that most martial arts students will ever be in a violent situation, martial arts schools continue to sign up people who worry about defending themselves. (this statistical reality is also why the plethora of unqualified martial art instructors go largely unnoticed as the frauds they are – their students never actually have to use their skills)

Who else might be in a line of work that is dependent upon our fear, and uses the media to feed it? O’Bagy is a prime example, but she is just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the “think tanks” we hear about so often are really just advertising agencies in disguise. They are presenting research to support their agendas, expressing opinions as supposed “experts,” when in reality they are often simply pitchmen. Our 24-hour news has been turned into their personal 24 hour info-mercial. The problem is, they’re selling more than a better detergent or the latest workout craze.

In his article The sham “terrorist expert” industry, Glenn Greenwald  discusses “sham experts,” “who have built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism,” and who “can stay relevant only if that threat does.”

These “terrorism experts” form an incredibly incestuous, mutually admiring little clique in and around Washington. They’re employed at think tanks, academic institutions, and media outlets. They can and do have mildly different political ideologies — some are more Republican, some are more Democratic — but, as usual for D.C. cliques, ostensible differences in political views are totally inconsequential when placed next to their common group identity and career interest: namely, sustaining the myth of the Grave Threat of Islamic Terror in order to justify their fear-based careers, the relevance of their circle, and their alleged “expertise.” Like all adolescent, insular cliques, they defend one another reflexively whenever a fellow member is attacked, closing ranks with astonishing speed and loyalty; they take substantive criticisms very personally as attacks on their “friends,” because a criticism of the genre and any member in good standing of this fiefdom is a threat to their collective interests.

Let the buyer beware.

We view advertisements with a lot of skepticism, knowing that the advertiser has financial incentive to “stretch the truth,” as they tell us how much better our life will be when we own their product. We don’t apply this same level of doubt to the statements of an expert in a news interview, but we should. What if they have a financial stake in the message they’re delivering? If they’ve got financial incentive to influence your opinion, how is their testimony any different than a spokesperson from brand z telling you theirs is the best? Again, if the reporters were doing any in-depth, investigative journalism, they should be pointing out these potential conflicts-of-interest, and if egregious, completely dismissing the credibility of said expert before, if ever, giving them access to their pulpit.

The risks from getting advice or instruction from a less-than-qualified martial artist are, for the most part, benign. You may not achieve the fitness levels you’d hoped for, or your child may learn some cheesy techniques that lose them a trophy at the local tournament. Higher up the spectrum, perhaps you get injured doing inappropriate exercises. Worst-case, you find yourself using bogus techniques to unsuccessfully protect yourself in a violent attack.

The stakes for society at large are much more serious when the experts being touted on CNN, FOX and MSNBC are proponents of, say, bombing another country.  Picture the fictional gazillion-aire industrialist Tony Stark (pre-moral paradigm shift) publicly pushing an aggressive military policy. Would we be willing to accept his “expert” advice to go to war, knowing he’s the guy getting rich off of the deal? If comic-book fiction isn’t you’re thing, how about this. Back in September, about the same time Ms. O’Bagy was coming clean, Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, was making the argument for U.S. military involvement in Syria on CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. According to a report by the  Public Accountability Initiative,

“In each case, Hadley’s audience was not informed that he serves as a director of Raytheon, the weapons manufacturer that makes the Tomahawk cruise missiles that were widely cited as a weapon of choice in a potential strike against Syria. Hadley earns $128,500 in annual cash compensation from the company and chairs its public affairs committee. He also owns 11,477 shares of Raytheon stock, which traded at all-time highs during the Syria debate ($77.65 on August 23, making Hadley’s share’s worth $891,189). Despite this financial stake, Hadley was presented to his audience as an experienced, independent national security expert.”

Mr. Hadley wasn’t alone.

To a hammer, everything’s a nail.

Karate, Taekwondo, Kung fu, Muay Thai, and Jiu Jitsu are just a few of a long list of martial arts available to the consumer. Each style will present a different set of skills and methodology. For the devoted practitioner, training in the arts can become a lifestyle, in which hours a day are devoted to the mat, and the ideas & principles from training become infused with the rest of their daily lives outside the gym. The time spent with teammates, together with the common experiences “on the mat” build a strong camaraderie. Students come to identify with their fellow training partners; there are those who train, and those who don’t, their school and other schools, their style and other styles.

All of this makes the students natural marketers. “Do you want to lose weight? You should try our style,” or ” Do you want to get stronger? Come try our classes.”  The martial arts will cure pretty much whatever ails you, especially according to a believer. The passion with which they believe combined with the growing number of believers just makes their story that much more compelling. Their belief becomes sold as fact irrespective of it’s actual validity. Add this bias together with the profit motive of an entrepreneur and you’ve got someone who’s hammer is the answer to all your problems.

Now extend that same mentality to a group of like minded people who make their living off of the nation’s fear of terrorism. Mind you, it’s the perceived threat that we’re fearful of, because the average joe has absolutely no way of knowing what the actual threat is. Also keep in mind that our perception comes from none other than those that stand to profit the most from it’s existence. Can anyone say “conflict of interest?” Whether they come to believe their own hype or if they see it for what it is, the fact remains that it is in their interest to pitch whatever they’re selling as much as they can.

The harm that may befall us individually from believing some less-than-qualified martial arts instructor pales in comparison to the global impact of our decisions in the ballot box. We, as the voting public of the most powerful nation on the planet, have a moral duty to make informed decisions. As Thomas Jefferson stated,

“Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

The problem is, we’re relying, in large part, on a rigged system to provide us with the information we need to make those decisions. As compelling as the story may seem on CNN, FOX, or MSNBC, we need to remain cynically skeptical. The very nature of that medium (entertainment & sales) makes everything they say suspect, and the added testimony of supposed experts is no help, as there’s a good chance they’re just trying to sell us a hammer.





Television – an alternate reality.

25 02 2013

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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.

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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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