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.





Kill your T.V.

22 02 2013

00025 Kill your Television

(click here for link to this bumper sticker)

IRAQ! AMERICAN IDOL! AFGHANISTAN! JERSEY SHORE! OBAMA! ICE ROAD TRUCKERS! MURDER! CONSPIRACY! THE KARDASHIANS! SANDYHOOK!

The media’s actions are understandable, albeit unscrupulous.  The nature of the  entertainment industry, of which CNN, FOX, and MSNBC are part, is to increase viewership.  Increased viewership means increased ratings, which translates to more advertising dollars, which is how broadcasting makes money.  Braodcasting agencies are driven, as is any corporate entity, by what generates profit.

Television “sells.”  We’re all aware of all the advertising that is continually interrupting whatever fine programing it is we’re wanting to watch.  Even though we realize this is simply part of the television experience, how many of us stop to consider the world view being promoted by all of this marketing? This stuff can warp our sense of reality all by itself.  Over and over we are shown that, “all happy people are beautiful,” as in glamour model, does-not-exist-in-reality beautiful, (see my earlier post Evolution?) and that “All beautiful people are successful, and happy because they own product X!” Obviously, my life just won’t be complete until I do, too.

But what about the bill of goods we’re being sold  under the guise of informing us.  I’m not talking about info-mercials.  The insidious part of all that’s being sold is a skewed perspective of our world, and CNN, FOX, and MSNBC are the frontrunners pitching us a load of crap.

We can dupe ourselves into believing that we’re becoming more informed about the world around us by watching the news, but this is a dangerous, misguided belief.  The news that we’re fed is designed to entertain us, and keep us wanting more.  The purposes of informing, educating, or enlightening come in, at most, as a second priority, and only when it helps achieve the primary goal of increasing profits.

Now we also are being inundated with “reality” t.v.  Now there’s an oxymoron.  (I love the fact that I can reference “reality” t.v. with an adjective that includes moronic.)   Fortunately I cannot claim expertise on these shows.  I have NEVER watched an episode of Survivor, American Idol, Jersey Shore, any of the Housewives, Dancing with the Stars, nor the Kardashians.  From the few episodes of such winners as Duck Dynasty, and The Ultimate Fighter  I’ve suffered through, I can verify that they all suck.  (I just tune into the last 10 minutes of The Ultimate Fighter for the fight)  There is very little reality in a group dynamic when you add a camera crew, and the profit motive that comes from knowing you’re gonna hit a big payday for being a dumb-ass.

I remember seeing a bumper sticker as a child that read, “Kill your television.”  For the life of me, I didn’t get it.  I just couldn’t figure out the joke.  Now I’ve got it, and it’s not a joke.  It’s not even remotely funny.  Turn that damnable box off and go do something.  Read a book.  Go outside.  Play solitaire.  Hug your kids.  Workout.  Go for a walk.  Knit a sweater.  Kill your television.  Really.

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Everyone is entitled to their own opinion

24 09 2012

The Sombrero Galaxy

I’m always intrigued when scientists shed a bit more light on a subject,  giving us a more keen insight into ourselves and the universe around us.  We’ve come a long way from the snake oil salesmen of the wild west days, haven’t we?

The advances we’ve made in all fields, from astronomy to genetics to physics is awesome at the least, and often completely mind-boggling.  Since Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe,  and the symbolic start of the scientific revolution a mere 480 years ago, we’ve come to learn that there are other solar systems out there in addition to our own.  We have begun to break down our very genome, and are uncovering new ways in which our 25,000 genes make us what we are.  Physics has taken us from Einstein’s Law of Relativity, to Quantum physics, and now there’s talk of anti-matter. (whatever that might be?)  For more on any of these topics, you had better go somewhere else.  Indeed, they are all fascinating topics, but beyond the scope of this blog, and far beyond the capacity of my limited intellect!

A relatively recent, and very well-known product of science, the  internet, has completely transformed our world.  Never, in the history of man, have we been so connected to one another.  Never have we had immediate access to so much information, nor the ability to share great thought far and wide.  What an opportunity for our civilization to take a huge leap in consciousness, right?

Yet…

There are people who choose to believe the earth is only 10,000 years old. (and probably some who think the “round” idea is a hoax, too, like the Apollo moon landings) There is ongoing debate on the validity of vaccinations, and parents who opt out, fearing their children will become autistic.  Climate change is just a left wing conspiracy.

And this kind of thinking isn’t just reserved for some small segment of our society that has somehow slipped through the cracks.  These folks haven’t been isolated on some island without access to an education for generations over the past few centuries. This kind of thinking has permeated every level of our society.  The aptly-named “Crackpot Caucus” of the Republican Party is a perfect summation of just how pervasive the absurdity has become.  (Much like Jon Stewart, who’s at his funniest when he does nothing more than point out the ridiculous things others have said, this op-ed piece by Timothy Egan is hilarious, albeit a bit scary.)

In his humorous and entertaining book “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free,” Charles P. Pierce offers a great critique of an apparent movement in our country that rejects education, intelligence, and science as being too elitist.

“The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise.  It’s not so much anti modernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter teased out of the national DNA, although both of those things are part of it.  The rise of Idiot America today reflects – for profit, mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power – the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is good.  It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they’re talking about.  In the new media age, everybody is an historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage.  And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.”

Which brings us to our current state in the public forum.  Never before has the fringe had the ability to spread their ideas, no matter how unfounded or absurd, without review, censure, or critique, on a level playing field with all others.  The internet, for all of it’s potential,  has only helped to propagate this condition.  One webpage can look just as official and reliable as the next, and any crackpot with a little technological savvy, can say or sell whatever it is they’re peddling, with as much gravitas as the next.  Mr. Pierce sums the dilemma up nicely with his Three Great Premises of Idiot America:

· Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units
· Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough
· Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it

It seems the internet has been just as much a boon to the snake oil salesmen of our modern era as it has been to everyone else.

I’m reminded of a Chinese Proverb I used to tell students  years ago. “Three men make a tiger” (Chinese三人成虎pinyinsān rén chéng hǔ)  The accompanying parable was a great way to point out the fallacious nature of such reasoning.  Here’s my quick rendition.

An advisor to the king posited this question, ” If someone told you there was a tiger in the market place, would you believe him?”

The king responded, “no.”

“What if two people told you there was a tiger in the market place?” the advisor continued, to which the king responded, after a bit more contemplation, “no, but I would begin to wonder.”

The advisor then asked, “what if three people told you there was a tiger in the market – would you believe it then?”

“Yes, I guess if three people said it was so, it must be so.”

“I see,” said the advisor.  “Then it only takes three men to make a tiger.” 

It doesn’t matter how many people say a thing, nor how loudly and emotionally they all yell it, nor how official looking their website that’s peddling it may appear. None of these factors make that thing true.  As Bernard Baruch admonishes us:

“Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.”








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