Dazed and confused by the media bull

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Over the years of travelling around the globe and speaking at all sort of forums, Swedish public health expert, the late Dr Hans Rosling, would conduct an informal experiment, asking the gatheredĀ a series of multiple choice questions on a variety of topics of importance in international public policy: population growth, poverty, health, education, environment, and so on. As he wrote in his books “Factfulness” (one of The Daily Chrenk’s “25 Best Books I’ve Read in 2020”),

I have tested audiences from all around the world and from all walks of life: medical students, university lecturers, eminent scientists, investment bankers, executives in multinational companies, journalist, activists, and even senior political decision makers. These are highly educated people who take an interest in the world. But most of them – a stunning majority of them – get most of the answers wrong. Some of these groups even score worse than the general public; some of the most appalling results came from a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers. It is not a question of intelligence. Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong.

Not only devastatingly wrong, but systematically wrong. By which I mean that these test results are not random. They are worse than random: they are worse than the results I would get if the people answering my questions had no knowledge at all.

Take one of Rosling’s questions as an example: In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has a) almost doubled, b) remained more or less the same, c) almost halved?

The correct answer – and one of the great success stories of the 21st century – is that extreme poverty has almost halved. And Rosling was right – a random answer would have a 33% chance of being correct. Yet no nationality informally polled by him had reached even that guestimate level. The most knowledgeable were Sweden and Norway, where 25% gave the right answer. In the United States only 5% did. Conversely, a staggering 95% of Americans thought that extreme poverty internationally either hasn’t improved or has been getting radically worse.

Rosling’s conclusion was that our educators and our media are failing us. He speculated that an “overdramatic” way of seeing the world was an evolutionary development, the mind’s shorthand towards survival, not dissimilar to the way we overindulge on fats and sugars as a legacy of past scarcity. Not only is this instinct not necessary nowadays, but instead of trying to eliminate it, institutions in our life reinforce it for a variety of reasons, some ideological, some commercial (drama sells and “if it bleeds it leads”), some even well-meaning (if we realise things are improving we might be less motivated to make things even better).

The fact remains, however, that majority of people are woefully ill-informed about the world around them, be it the next suburb over or another continent, and yet are required to make important decisions (including voting) based on an often completely inaccurate perception of reality.

I was reminded of Rosling’s work (and I can’t recommend his book highly enough – even if Bill and Melinda Gates do so too) when I came across these tables fromĀ  a study by McCaffree and Saide “How Informed are Americans about Race and Policing?” Skeptic Research Center, CUPES007, 2021 (hat tip: Zach Goldberg):

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I guess the short answer to “How Informed are Americans about Race and Policing?” is: not very well. A slightly longer answer is: oh dear God, this is absolutely terrible.

Every fatal police shooting of an unarmed black individual, whether it’s 13 or 27 (indeed any individual), is a tragedy and one too many. Police forces, as well as the society and the government, should be striving to reduce that number as close to zero as humanely possible.

The problem is that the Black Lives Matter agitation has been led by people, half of whom believe that American police last year gunned down at least 1,000 and maybe even as many as 10,000-plus unarmed young black men, and this blue-on-black carnage accounts for a majority of those killed by the police.

No wonder that with such detachment from reality the United States has witnessed months of the costliest rioting in American history, with some $2 billion of damage and dozens dead as a result. No wonder, when people think the casualties are in four figures, there is a talk of “structural racism” that animates law enforcement, graffiti screams ACAB (all cops are bastards), and activists are calling for the police to be defunded. Most of these people are labouring under a misapprehension (the separate issue is how this misapprehension is created) that there is an open season on black males (for it is overwhelmingly males), with the American police racking up kills that would make Latin American death squads blush with envy. It’s a war out there; an existential crisis.

In fact, in 2019, 2,906 black Americans were victims of homicide. In 2,574 of these cases they were killed by another black American. This is the real horror and the black lives that don’t matter to political activists and agitators. It does not fit the neo-Marxist agenda of dismantling “structural racism” and “white supremacy” (the way capitalism was once going to be in and of itself and not as merely a by-product of whiteness) to radically remake the American society (and others).

All too often ignorance is bliss and ignorance is blessed as it aids a particular political agenda. Most people don’t realise they are basing their opinions and motivating their actions using incorrect – often outrageously so – data. There is no one there to correct them, because what matters to activists are the ends, not the means. That they are being aided and abetted – by commission or omission – by the media, educators and other opinion-makers, is one of the greatest scandals of the modern era.

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