Thursday, June 4, 2009

Media Distortion of Cause and Effect (A Rant)

Our perception of cause and effect operates according to five biases—biases altogether natural to us humans, yet biases that the women and men who pushed human history forward have typically stretched past, through the exercise of reason and imagination.

First, we tend to expect causes to be proportionate to their effects, and vice versa, ignoring the truism that oaks grow out of acorns and acorns grow out of oaks. It’s much easier to imagine that a big god made the big universe than to entertain even the possibility that mere chance unfolded the whole drama of time and space—or that the universe was not made at all, but always has existed, changing its form over eons.

Second, we tend to look for the causes of occurrences immediately before and close to the occurrence, ignoring the high probability that the causes may be distant in time and space. Likewise, we look for effects immediately following any effort expended. We are, by nature, shortsighted and impatient—and to be otherwise requires precisely the sort of education and discipline we haven’t the time and patience for.

Third, we tend to forget that non-events have causes, too, no less than the events that actually happen. High consumption of fruits and vegetables, for instance, may cause the non-occurrence of serious gastrointestinal disease. And we also fail to consider that momentous events—say, the events of September 11, 2001—may result as much from the absence of whatever prevented them previously as from the presence of other factors.

Fourth, we tend more easily to identify causes and effects when they match our preconceptions—and rarely adjust our preconceptions to match clear evidence that does not conform to our assumptions. If we already assume something—that a black politician is, de facto, a liberal and quite possibly a revolutionary socialist, even if he never lends the least support in word or deed to either assumption—we will be continuously dumbfounded when facts “mysteriously” appear to defy the hastily concocted “reality.”

Fifth, we tend to ask cause-effect questions about things that strike us as extraordinary, but ignore the causes or effects of ordinary reality. We rigorously debate the causes of homosexual attraction, while ignoring the equally probable point that heterosexual attraction, too, may have a cause, just as mysterious, well worth researching. And we worry (or used to, a few weeks ago) about the health risks of swine flu, while ignoring the devastating effects of the more familiar varieties of flu—which take 36,000 lives a year in the U.S. alone.

Concrete thinking, short attention span, lack of foresight, solid but untested values and beliefs, and superficiality exacerbate these biases.

And television, and the electronic media in general, tend both to confirm our biases and to abet the deficits that nourish them.


The predominance of the pictorial media—movies, television, vlogs—is weening us away from abstract logical thinking. Our imaginations appear to be gradually boiling down to only what can be “pictured,” and the abstract concepts that sometimes flutter round these images—“love,” “democracy,” “excellence,” “freedom,” “hope”—offering hints of “meaning”—ultimately come to mean anything anyone takes them to mean at any given moment, i.e. meaning nothing at all.

The electronic media bombard us with images in flux—with little sense of context and only 9-second sound bite analyses. Even with twenty-four-hour news service, momentous events are pared down to the same incoherent 20-55-second blips used to sell us chicken sandwiches and laundry detergents. “In-depth” coverage stretches to 24 minutes, somewhat longer if padded with celebrity interviews, humorous curmudgeons, and man-on-the-street opinions (“Sir, how would you feel if your community were hit with a magnitude-7.1 earthquake? The public wants to know.”)

In a culture that values only the “new and improved,” wisdom dies. Our memory consists of the flickering images replayed for us. Even if we lived through the sixties, perhaps 80% of what we “know” about the sixties is nostalgia cooked up after 1973. No wonder, then, that most Americans’ concepts of the “traditional family” match the typical television families of the 1950s—not even the reality of family life in the 1950s, much less that of a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago. And as the shelf life of “new” shrinks down to almost nothing—“That is sooo five minutes ago …”—context and the organic growth of ideas become impossible. And the addictive promise that what’s about to happen will be ten times bigger than what just happened distracts most of us from mulling over (i.e. pondering, ruminating, concentrating on) any of it.

Think fast: in a horror movie, when two camp counselors make plans to meet in the woods, get high, and have sex, how much screen time do they have left?

Movie and television entertainment—most of it, anyway—plays to our prejudices—hardly ever challenging our existing values and assumptions about the world. Despite its tremendous potential for changing social attitudes and inspiring revolutionary paradigm shifts—a potential last exercised in the 1960s (as best as I can remember)—popular entertainment recasts aging political hacks as in-your-face rebels and shopworn insults and discourtesies as un-PC provocations. We get twee sentiment about miserable but attractive homosexuals who fulfill all the requirements for the 1930s Motion Picture Production Code before (on cue) dropping dead in the last reel—and it’s sold to us as “fearless” and “cutting edge.” We get depictions of race scarcely more advanced than what thinking men and women used to condemn as stereotypes—and it’s sold to us as “dangerous” and “raw.” We get “smart” and “sexy” chick flics that reassure us that fashion, shopping, and guys are paths to women’s emancipation and empowerment.

The predictability and anti-logic of electronic media messages extend well past entertainment, though. How much of the news is really news? What happens to our sense of cause and effect when better than half the evening news pertains not to the events of the past 24 hours but to what politicians and celebrities will be doing tomorrow? It’s almost as if the weather forecasts have taken over the news, as talking heads debate “Obama’s next move,” “the GOP’s plan to reinvent itself for 2010,” and “upcoming decisions in the Supreme Court,” in lieu of thoughtful, informed analyses of what just irrevocably happened.

The electronic media are dramatic, fast-paced, and madly entertaining, yet they chop up time and space, amplify the miniscule to a deafening roar, and tuck the pressing issues of the day into bumper-sticker-size platitudes. Here’s how style and image get mistaken for issues and content.

Feeding our biases and distracting us from the slow, hard task of thinking for ourselves, they herd us along by zapping our nerves and tickling our funny bone.

Without a capacity to think past our natural proclivities and to comprehend complex, abstract concepts and probable cause and effect, we lose a large part of what makes us human and unique.

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