Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Man Who Bit The Dog

I have seen a great increase in those kind of news stories: the unusual, the extreme, the shocking!, probably because the traditional media is fighting for its survival and one way to get lots of eyeballs is by posting on scandalous and weird stuff all the time. But this is dangerous, because the more something is discussed in the news the more it starts looking like a representative case. The average or the norm, even! Then we might change our lives based on that belief.

The obvious example of the dangers of this approach is the way strangers waiting to abuse children are now feared all over the country, quite out of proportion to the actual risks, and this has much to do with twenty years of media focus on every single awful and disgusting and frightening case. Note that all of the known cases get media attention, but our brains replace that with the idea that what we see is just the tip of some incredible iceberg.

Likewise, if you want to bash a government program, you will draw our attention to any foolish examples that might be derived from that. Once those foolish attempts get enough publicity we start believing that all the parts of the program are like that. Even if the foolish examples are the only ones that could be found after much digging, and even if they don't exist at all.

This trick of picking the most extreme examples of something and then pretending that they are representative examples is a common one. I see that employed by anti-feminists all the time, for example.