Sunday, February 14, 2010

When Science Ignores The Real World That’s Right In Plain Sight by Anthony McCarthy

In the paper this morning is a serious seeming, seemingly well researched piece about why a majority of Americans are convinced that crime is rising, even though the most reliable statistics - and they’re a lot more reliable than opinion polling - shows that crime is decreasing. What the piece shows is how badly wrong the believe in the efficacy of the behavioral sciences can lead a newspaper column.

But as the crime rate has dropped, Americans have missed the news*. The number of people who told Gallup that crime is getting worse climbed to 74 percent last year, a figure higher than any year since the carnage of the early 90s.

The piece, typical of the Boston Globe’s Ideas section, is full of sociological theory linked to the evo-cog-sci fad.

Part of the reason for this divergence is what sociologists call pessimistic bias: the unshakable conviction that things are not just worse than they are, but also worse than they used to be. Humans appear to have a hard-wired tendency to compare contemporary life with largely fictitious good old days, in which all schools were top-notch, politicians had integrity, children behaved, and crime was nil. This happens in good times and in bad.

Well, I don’t know. Have they seen these hard wires to back up this idea? But that’s not news to anyone who has been exposed to the various denominations of contemporary soc-sci. As the predominant practice of mid-brow science-based journalism, it hardly seems worth going over it again. Your eyes glaze over.

There was one thing that jumped off the page like a hazard sign, and it wasn’t because it was there. There was no mention of the role television and movies play in shaping the beliefs of Americans.** The focus on some, apparently, biologically based pessimism while ignoring the depressing effects of watching non-stop images of violent crime is ridiculous.

When the subject is the world in which people imagine they are living, what that image is made of IS THE SUBJECT. How could any serious scholar of American attitudes and beliefs could ignore television as the mould in which the collective American mind is made?

The Nielsen Co.'s "Three Screen Report" -- referring to televisions, computers and cellphones -- for the fourth quarter said the average American now watches more than 151 hours of TV a month. That's about five hours a day and an all-time high, up 3.6% from the 145 or so hours Americans reportedly watched in the same period last year.

Television executives ...have the recession and the heightened interest in election coverage to thank for the increase in TV watching. People are staying in and watching the boob tube rather than spending money outside the house

.... Newfangled distribution methods are adding to the total: an extra three hours on the Internet for people who watch online video, and four hours on cellphones for those who watch mobile video, the report said.

How many hours a week do Americans spend reading newspapers, books, magazines? How many hours do Americans spend in church or meetings of civic organizations? How many hours do they spend in classrooms?

How many hours do Americans spend talking to each other without TV being on? How much of that actual human conversation is about what they've seen on TV? How much of what goes into forming our ideas comes directly out of the box?

For anyone to ignore the impact of the explosion of alphabet soup, "reality" crime-show crap on TV as THE CLEAR MOVER AND MAKER OF THE AMERICAN MIND boggles the imagination. For scholars to start inventing some metaphorical and invisible “hard wiring” when the cables, dishes, antennae and broad band are right there to be seen in the real world is hard evidence that these would be scholars are seriously out of touch with real reality.

I wonder if these scholars and the reporter can’t see the real way in which American mind is formed and functions because their focus is on theories they are professionally and socially invested in. The extent to which social science training might bias the observations and analysis of professionals, and those who have deep faith in them, would make a really interesting topic for a serious, and brave, researcher.

* Maybe that’s because the news they watch is made of sensational crime coverage.

** Buried at the end of the piece is this telling passage:

One encouraging finding of the Gallup poll is that people have a far more accurate sense of crime in their own neighborhoods than they do about the rest of the country: When asked about their immediate surroundings, a smaller percentage believe crime to be going up. In other words, we are capable of processing this type of information, as long as it’s gained through firsthand experience.

So, when people can see past what the TV is drilling into their brains, by seeing it first hand, they are more capable of sensing local reality.

The role that TV has played in the backlash against feminism and civil rights is too little studied.