Bryan Caplan  

Media, Misanthropy, Murder, and Misery

Values are Subjective... Keynesianism and market moneta...
Scott Alexander elegantly bridges two of my pet peeves: media and misanthropy.
There are over a billion Chinese people. If even one in a thousand is a robber, you can provide one million examples of Chinese robbers to appease the doubters. Most people think of stereotyping as "Here's one example I heard of where the out-group does something bad," and then you correct it with "But we can't generalize about an entire group just from one example!" It's less obvious that you may be able to provide literally one million examples of your false stereotype and still have it be a false stereotype. If you spend twelve hours a day on the task and can describe one crime every ten seconds, you can spend four months doing nothing but providing examples of burglarous Chinese - and still have absolutely no point.

If we're really concerned about media bias, we need to think about Chinese Robber Fallacy as one of the media's strongest weapons. There are lots of people - 300 million in America alone. No matter what point the media wants to make, there will be hundreds of salient examples. No matter how low-probability their outcome of interest is, they will never have to stop covering it if they don't want to.


I feel this way about a lot of things. The media is always giving us stories of how tech nerds are sexist in some way or another. But we may suspect they want to push that line regardless of whether it's true. How many tech nerds are there? A million? Ten million? How many lurid stories about harassment in Silicon Valley have you heard? Do we know if this is higher or lower than the base rate for similar industries? Whether it's going up or down? What it would look like if we actually had access to the per person rates?

Which reminds me.  Suppose you hear about a shocking murder on the news.  Or even a shocking mass murder.  Assuming you have no personal connection to the victims, how should you react?  Well, there are roughly 400,000 murders on Earth per year.  That averages out to more than 1000 per day.  To me, that leaves two attitudinal choices: Either be endlessly miserable until the carnage ends, or consciously refuse to let 1000 daily murders ruin your day.  Social Desirability Bias notwithstanding, I choose the latter course.

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Conscience of a Citizen writes:

Suppose you hear about thousands of people living precariously on $2/day in some faraway country. Assuming you have no personal connection to those people, how should you react? You could spend your savings and free time on telescopic philanthropy, or you could exhort and even try to politically-compel your neighbors to redistribute much of their wealth to distant paupers, or you could consciously refuse to let telegenic foreign poverty ruin your day. Social-desirability-bias notwithstanding, I choose the latter course.

ThomasH writes:

This is one of the reasons that statistics ought to be on the journalism curriculum as on the medical curriculum.

Yaakov writes:

ThomasH, statistics is on the journalism curriculum, and I suspect that is the reason media looks so bad nowadays. Purposeful manipulations are a much better explanation of media behavior than ignorance.

Colombo writes:

It is wise to take care of one's own emotional welfare.

Jameson writes:

I appreciate the rationality of this post, but there has to be a happy medium between the alternatives presented. We should be able to go on living healthy, happy lives and at the same time carry the burden of knowing how miserable life is elsewhere. It may seem like a delicate (or impossible) balancing act, but simply saying, "Don't let it ruin your day," is pretty glib.

Zc writes:

@thomasH. Sadly, just because statistics are included in a curriculum doesn't guarantee that the students actually usefully employ statistics in the future. Many physicians are horrendous at comprehending statistics (source: I am a physician and witness statistically ignorant decision making daily).

ThomasH writes:

@ Conscience

I prefer some of each.

@ Yaakov

If you mean statistics are hard and knowing what sells is easy, I agree.

Chris H writes:

Like a lot of interesting ideas circulating on the internet, Scott Alexander already has a blog post on this.

Brad writes:

The media haven't so much mastered the science of facts, context, and probabilities, but they have mastered the art of sensationalism, hyperbole, and mankind's credulity.

David Friedman writes:

I had a blog post on it too. A week before Scott's.

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