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February 22, 2000

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Subject:  Re: The horror of Hype
Author:  aaashby

The hype itself is not the problem. The problem is the lack of critical thinking on the part of Journalists and their gullible public.

That link to the story about "the army switches over to Macs" is depressing from a number of different perspectives. One is that the initial report of the army switching over came out at least 4 months ago, if not more. Where was this questioning then? Sadly there have been times where the future of the Mac looked so bleak that I think all of us were willing to suspend our disbelief and cling to good news, whatever the source. I guess you could characterize that as willful gullibility. However, how different is that than TIME magazine's cover story on Angels a couple of years ago, where skeptics were given about two column inches out of a twelve page feature story?

Unfortunately, Journalists are for the most part no better or worse than the rest of us. News today has become entertainment, and absent dissenting voices the actual content is becoming thinner and thinner. Just watch a local news cast here in L.A. where the news typically consists NOT of the facts, but instead is simply an assertion of what you should believe.*

Sadly, the news in the United States is written by professional journalists, just as the schools are taught by professional educators. The problem is that many times the individuals disseminating the information are not truly qualified to analyze the information they are presenting. To a certain extent this is the unavoidable byproduct of the division of labor that has enabled our society to progress technologically and economically to amazing levels relative to the beginning of the last century. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of this is that we are left with television personalities that we call reporters, most of whom simply read a teleprompter, or teachers who parrot information from textbooks that, in my precollegiate experience at least, were beyond the teachers communicating the information. For every great teacher from my youth who would blossom when challenged, I recall at least ten who became threatened and antagonistic when asked a hard question about the subject they were teaching. Because the broad understanding of the subject is missing, a simple request to expand on a subject can be perceived as a threat to the authority of the teacher. For this reason, critical thinking tends to go both punished in our youth and unvalued in our society both by the authorities and the masses.

I sincerely doubt this was significantly different in the past, despite the rose colored glasses we may don when looking backward. Though the pool of knowledge may have been smaller, some people were still using ladles and some were using teaspoons, and simply because you have a captive audience in a classroom or a subscription base or a clickthrough audience is no guarantee that the person you are reading is dispensing more than a thimble's worth, even if they have a ladle hidden behind their back.

Because modern journalists are typically not experts in the field they are covering, they may be easily led by their sources, many of whom have undisclosed agendas. That is why responsible journalists will go to multiple sources, not because it is any guarantee of finding The Truth� (though it helps to get closer) but because you increase your chances to cancel out bias by taking a wider sampling of opinions as well as (hopefully) increasing your level of understanding of the subject.

Which leads us to the environmental movement...

Every environmentalist ought to be required to read "Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare-an ecologist's perspective". For that matter, so should all the skeptics.

-Not because it will change their minds about anything (though it may change their perspective a bit) but rather because it might elevate the discourse to a more reasonable plane.

The doomsday scenarios, the fearful headlines about global ecological disaster everytime there is an unseasonably hot or cool winter or summer, or summer or winter, are painfully difficult to read, or listen to over the lunch table. As with all issues, the most fervent are usually the least informed. Once again, the problem isn't the hype, it is the lack of educational foundation and critical thinking skills which hobbles the level of intellectual discourse and provides fertile ground for baseless fear and complacency. Big scary stories are told to leverage the ignorance and fear of the populace for political purposes. Though the manipulators may have benevolent purposes, I still find the scare tactics distasteful. The worst part about it is that the emotionally manipulative arguments used by the vocal few tend to suppress constructive dialogue about real issues that need to be addressed, or compromise solutions that could satisfy the concerns of both sides.

So yes, hype is horrible, but the solution to hype is demanding more from the purveyors of hype and from ourselves as the recipients of hype. If everytime we listen to a report, or read an article, we ask ourselves "What is the information presented" (assuming there is any, and it isn't just belief pushing masquerading as information), "How is the information substantiated" and "How plausible is the information", we will go a long way toward limiting the usefulness of hype.

The beauty of the internet is that it is now easier than ever to respectfully dissent from the public oracles. I remain hopeful that this will lead to an increase in the level of public debate, though in the mean time I am going to reread Orwell and ponder whether "Newspeak" is"Politcal Correctness".


*(Well, except for the crime stories, those are lovingly rendered in great detail, especially the grizzly murders. Perhaps the news ought to be called "The Real Video News at 11!")

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