This morning, The Guardian has published an excerpt from Steven Pinker's latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Pinker is not an eternal optimist. But he has argued for quite awhile that things aren't as bad as we think. The reason we view the world darkly, he opines, is that our media are persistently negative:
Every day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, drug abuse and oppression. And it’s not just the headlines we’re talking about; it’s the op-eds and long-form stories as well. Magazine covers warn us of coming anarchies, plagues, epidemics, collapses, and so many “crises” (farm, health, retirement, welfare, energy, deficit) that copywriters have had to escalate to the redundant “serious crisis.”
A constant diet of doom and gloom produces what psyhcologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman call an Availability Heuristic:
People estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. In many walks of life this is a serviceable rule of thumb. But whenever a memory turns up high in the result list of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency—because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting—people will overestimate how likely it is in the world.
Plane crashes always make the news, but car crashes, which kill far more people, almost never do. Not surprisingly, many people have a fear of flying, but almost no one has a fear of driving. People rank tornadoes (which kill about 50 Americans a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than 4,000 Americans a year), presumably because tornadoes make for better television.
Over the years, he writes, The New York Times has gotten progressively gloomier:
The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970s to the present day.
And that kind of coverage has consequences:
The consequences of negative news are themselves negative. Far from being better informed, heavy newswatchers can become miscalibrated. They worry more about crime, even when rates are falling, and sometimes they part company with reality altogether: a 2016 poll found that a large majority of Americans follow news about Isis closely, and 77% agreed that “Islamic militants operating in Syria and Iraq pose a serious threat to the existence or survival of the United States,” a belief that is nothing short of delusional.
Consumers of negative news, not surprisingly, become glum: a recent literature review cited “misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization, and in some cases, ... complete avoidance of the news.” And they become fatalistic, saying things like “Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help,” or “I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.”
I don't know if I buy Pinker's argument. When it comes to climate change, for instance, things are getting progressively worse. However, I do think he deserves a serious hearing. And I do know that you have to pick the sources you rely on carefully.