Monday, December 21, 2015

How Today's Media Hijacks Our Species' Threat Assessment Mechanisms

This post could be subtitled "why most people ignore data when deciding what threatens them."

Back in September 2015, husband (also a sociologist) was driving me to a doctor's appointment to get my recently damaged hearing evaluated.  I had been exposed to extremely loud, percussive sounds of an AK-47 shooting blanks less than 15 feet from me, during an "active shooter training" session at the college where I teach. We were discussing the extent to which most of the people we knew, both college colleagues, students, and neighbors persistently ignored or refused to acknowledge all the accumulated data on crime in the United States that violent crime has declined steadily for many years. 

Overall violent crime, as recorded in the Uniform Crime Report of the FBI, as steadily and consistently declined from 1993 to the present, both in total numbers ( a decline of at least 700,000 per year from 1993 to 2012), and in rate (a decline from a rate of 747 per 100,000 in 1993 to only 386 per 100,000 in 2012) (FBI Uniform Crime Reports). Violent assaults on police officers, and officer deaths and injuries from assault have declined from 2004 to 2013 (National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund). 

School shootings, the ostensible prompt for the "Active Shooter Training" that damaged my hearing, are no where near as common as media and the public imagination figure them to be. There does appear to have been some uptick in such shootings in recent years, but many media, social and political discussions of such shootings overstate the numbers by 100 percent,  both since Columbine in 1997 and since Sandy Hook in 2012.

Even the trends of the death of civilians at the hands of law enforcement officers - a topic much in the news - is not at all clear. The Bureau of Justice Statistics gathered data on "arrest related deaths" from 2003 to 2009. But the BJS determined in 2014 that the validity and reliability of the data was not good, and "that the data collection likely did not capture all reportable deaths in the process of arrest" and suspended further data collection and the publication of any reports after 2009 (Bureau of Justice Statistics).

The data suggests that for the most part, the risks of violence in our society have declined in the past thirty years, not increased.  Yet nearly universally Americans have greater fear and anxiety about violence.  Why is that? 

The human species, Homo sapiens, evolved over millions of years in dangerous environments, where they were often the prey of other species, and beset by a wide range of perils. The Homo sapien brain is wired by this evolution to respond to the sounds, sights, and other sensory input from our immediate environment.  Threats from poisonous snakes, spiders, loose rocks, cliffs, torrential streams, large predators, even other humans, had to be evaluated on the basis of patterns of sound and sight. Frequent sightings, increased the threat. (See an interesting NPR piece about sound and the evolution of the human brain).  

The ancient foragers survival in their environment was based on evaluating immediate sensory perceptions, not on the dispassionate analysis of statistical data.  Today, our immediate sensory environment is circumscribed within man-made buildings, walks, roadways, and man-made media.  Every where we go, in every home, in every office, in every doctors' waiting room, every public space we are exposed to sights and sounds of television - mostly news programs, and at least in this part of the world (central Appalachia) almost always Fox News (although it is hardly limited to Fox News).  The news programming that we see is mostly about dangers - dangerous people, dangerous events.  A single event is covered 24 hours a day for multiple days, the same images of threat (explosions, gun shots, shouting, fighting, confrontations, rubble) are repeated over and over again. The human brain is wired to evaluate threat based on frequency of occurrence. While the higher functions of the brain can remind us that this is all one incident, one discrete moment in time, usually a very long ways away from us, the old "reptilian" parts of the brain simply process the nearness of the sounds and sights that repeat over and over again over long periods of time. It is not surprising that most people interpret this sensory input from media as an increasing threat. Especially when there are leaders (with lots of media coverage) who encourage the fear and anxiety as a means to gather followers and political power. 

Zombie America - Installment 6

Four years ago, while thinking about conditions in the U.S., the phrase "zombie America" popped into my head. What is a zombie? The original use of the word is for a dead body, devoid of real life and soul, that is reanimated and caused to walk around by witchcraft or dark magic. In the ever popular science fiction of recent years, the concept of zombie has evolved to mean a person who has as the result of infection or exposure to unspecified substances been robbed of their humanity - of their personality, intelligence, soul and will - and transformed to a monster that kills and feeds on uninfected humans (especially their brains). Those that are not killed are also infected and become zombies themselves.

Zombies are variously referred to as the "undead" and the "walking dead," phrases that I think can be applied to American economy, politics and society at large. The nation is still lurching and weaving about, animated but no longer truly alive, dead (or dying) but because still animated, so that many observers still imagine it to have life. 

New evidence that American society is "walking dead" is constantly presenting itself. Through out the month of August 2015 stories about teacher shortages have popped up almost daily as many states struggle to put teachers in front of classes with the beginning of a new school year ( ). Thousands of veteran teachers are leaving the classroom every year and no where near enough new teachers are coming up through the pipeline to replace them.  Veteran teachers are deserting the profession due to low pay, lack of classroom resources, schools obsessions with testing, proliferation of regulations and paper work, and lack of real instruction time in the classroom.  This is just one of the ways in which the American educational system is being hollowed out. 

The former center of automotive manufacturing in America in Western Michigan has become the canary in the coal mine for the rest of American society.  Flint, Michigan has recently (December 14, 2015) declared a formal state of emergency as the result of a wholly man-made disaster: the dramatic increase in lead in the cities water supply. Substantially increased levels of lead are showing up in blood tests of the cities children.  The increase in lead poisoning came when the city switched to the Flint River as a water source. Lead exposure in children is irreversible and impacts intelligence and general mental functioning, creating long term educational issues for communities with declining educational resources, not to mention the human tragedy involved.