I have to admit it. I am an optimist. I like to create things. I hate hearing the word "no", which exlains why I am the boss. A personality defect, really. Of course, that road started with being self-employed. If you hear the hated word "no", you go elsewhere until you hear the word "yes". No nagging regrets of goals or ideas left behind. What could have been.
In any case, I was at an industry luncheon last week with some very interesting people ranging from Washington energy policy makers to major oil VP's to University researchers. A good, eclectic mix. I pompously held forth on my world view, as I am want to do from time to time, that people are fundamentally decent, at least in our Western society; that we live in a good place; that the only reason we think otherwise is because we depend on a media whose viability is entirely dependent on either scaring us or titillating us for its income. We don't get objective truth from the media, because we don't want the objective truth. We want to be scared. We want to be titillated. We want the Freak Show.
I was asked, quite reasonably, for an example to support this thesis.
OK, I said. Every day, billions of acts of grace are performed without notice or fanfare in the US alone. 99.995% of us follow rules of engagement demanded by civilized behavior. We honor lines. We pay our bills. We don't run over people at street lights for the thrill of it. 99.999% of us don't even think about gunning the accelerator and smashing into the potentially unlucky pedestrians walking in front of our car, that, for all practical purposes, rely on this state of grace for their very lives. We couldn't be more lethal in that instance as drivers to those innocent pedestrians if we were standing on the street corner with a locked and loaded AK-47. Yet we let them live. We don't even consider for a microsecond the thought of killing them. It is repugnant to us.
It is the breathtakingly small minority, the 0.001% that don't feel the need to abide by the rules of civilized society that constitute the News. That tiny minority of sociopaths among us. Another 0.004% have defective brakes or senile dementia. They didn't mean it. THESE folks, collectively, comprise the News. They are News exactly because their behavior IS so rare. We then make the cognitive association between that News and what is happening to society at large.
A lot more mass murders these days, we might say. Country going to hell in a hand basket. Could it be because we are just more efficient at distributing awareness of these defects in the social fabric? Our microscopes are that much better? Is this the proper analogy? Does the biologist, upon getting a microscope that magnifies 100x greater than his or her old one say "wow, there are a lot more bacteria today than yesterday. And those suckers have gotten huge! Must have been an explosion of bacterial growth last night. The microscopic world is a-going to hell in a handbasket. Call Al Gore!". Of course not. Unless he is an Aggie. Heh heh.
But if you slowly changed the magnification of the microscope on the biologist without telling him or her, the biologist might understandably come to that conclusion. It is still entirely wrong, but it does fit the facts. That is why facts are so important to the scientific method and why we get annoyed, as scientists, when those facts are intentionally hidden or "cleansed" to fit the conclusion. Without the raw facts, the objective reality becomes much harder to discern.
For example, I had a tremendous amount of personal freedom as a child, as I suspect any of you growing up in the 60s had. We roamed widely around the neighborhood with our friends and, later, on city buses, around the city. The rule was simple. We had to be home at 6:00 for dinner. And we had better not have generated any trouble. Nice. Simple. I would suspect that NO child today has that same freedom because "we live in a much more dangerous world". That begs the question. Do We? Because, if we don't, we are cheating our kids in order to satisfy our own factless neuroses, regardless of how legitimately we have acquires such neuroses.
Below is a graph of crime rates since I was born, along with some consequential milestones of my coming of age.
This would suggest that todays world is not more dangerous than my idyllic youth, although probably more dangerous than my parents youth. In any case, our behaviors and fears are shaped by the RAREST events! This isn't healthy for a species, because we then spend energy and time protecting against the extremely unlikely, and these resources come from the same store that should come from dealing with likely events.
The media, then, is just like fast food. We crave it, it meets our ID needs, but it is not a healthy diet from which to form our judgements.
I have also included a link to a compelling talk by Steven Pinker on "The Myth of Violence" at a TED conference. It addresses this issue from a millennium and century scale, and also compares and contrasts our reality with our myth of "Golden Ages" and "Noble Savages".