In the summer of 2001, sharks were suddenly a big story.
After a boy in Florida was attacked by a bull shark, the media went looking for more. Every new encounter made the news. TV helicopters hovered over beaches seeking images of lurking sharks. The story, and the fear, spread with each report.
We now know, the summer of 2001 was pretty much like every other summer when it came to shark attacks. In fact, the summer before had slightly more attacks and double the deaths. But, the press changed our perception just by jumping on the story and finding ways to keep it alive and dramatic. “If it bleeds, it leads” has never been more appropriate.
“Summer of the Shark” has become the definitive example of how the press can create narratives and change perceptions by choosing what to cover and highlighting vivid anecdotes.
It also highlights our inability to think probabilistically. Numbers are just hard to put in context. Seventy five shark attacks feels like a lot - especially if your news source leads with one every day! But, in context the numbers were nothing unusual, nor was the risk.
Worst of all, once our emotions are committed to an idea, making decisions on that topic becomes unreliable. Cancel that beach vacation!
There is no question these dynamics are impacting our current news cycle. Media stories are now reinforced with endless re-tellings and reactions on social media. As a result our tendency to buy in to a simplified and often exaggerated narrative has grown tremendously.
Take a few of the most recent big stories in our lives.
Gallup recently asked Americans what they believed the chance of hospitalization was for an unvaccinated person who contracts COVID. The answers are pretty stunning. 41% of Democrats and 26% of Republicans said the chance was over 50%. The truth: it’s between 1%-2% (varying of course by age). 95% of the total overestimated the risk, most by 10x or more.
After the George Floyd shooting, one poll asked the public how many unarmed shootings of black men happened in America each year. 50% of liberals and 25% of moderates said at least 1,000 per year. Decent percentages said over 10,000. The Washington Post database detailed 12 in 2019, down from 38 in 2015. Even conservatives overestimated the numbers.
The problem here is not the directional sentiments on display in the poll results. The perceptions highlight real problems. Of course COVID is a serious health crisis. And without question, police brutality and our history of racial abuse are real issues that we should be talking about as a country.
My concern is when you see things as 10x or 100x worse than they are, you can’t have reasonable discourse. And if you can’t discuss it, you can’t make good decisions. If you truly believe there is a 50% chance of going to the hospital should you get COVID, how can you possibly engage in any debate about lockdowns, masks or vaccine mandates. You are living in a world with the bubonic plague. That requires a whole other level of response.
One unarmed man dying should be unacceptable when it comes to police brutality. But we have to put the numbers in full context and in trend to truly discuss how to get to the root problem and drive change. When you think it is 1,000 or 10,000 (and rising), revolutionary ideas like defunding the police go mainstream when disciplinary action and training reforms could actually get done and fix a lot of the problem.
Panic and fear drive action, there is no doubt. The problem is it also drives emotional decision making over thoughtful, data driven problem solving . Extreme events require extreme action. In today’s environment, everything has the imminent and severe threat of a shark attack. Voter fraud, voter suppression, critical race theory, school board meetings, climate catastrophe, income inequality...the list goes on and on. Depending on the echo chamber you live in, you are dealing with different crises. But they all feel existential and demand radical change.
All of these issues are indeed real and require a path forward. But which ones should incite the emotional response of a shark attack? Fewer than you think. Yes, even on your side of the aisle! The world is complicated and nuanced, but the coverage is not. Moral panic sells. It drives clicks...and votes.The higher the urgency the more it feeds our sense of righteousness as we advocate for the side of “good.” But, often we see high-minded rhetoric fueling poorly designed policies that make things worse. Not to mention ending up at each other’s throats.
We have to get better at determining real sharks from simply important problems. If everything is a crisis, nothing is. Let’s save the radical moves and rhetoric for a very small set of issues. Progress has historically worked best in small steps. And in the process we just might like each other a bit more.
We have demonized nuclear energy for decades for some good, but mostly bad reasons, and are paying the price now with unstable and expensive power. The tide is finally turning. Europe and Asia are accelerating next-gen nuclear plants. Where is America? We need to unleash innovation here.
I really enjoy the work being done by the center right team at The Dispatch. Jonah Goldberg laments the further-left-than-expected governing of Biden and the Trump problem it makes worse.
The Fed is printing the money for our social programs (mostly by buying our own debt to keep rates low). The result: the rich get richer. Printing more is not the answer.
Most media outlets have been demonizing meat for years and applauding the rise of soy based alternatives like Beyond Meat. The NYT finally starts to ask the hard questions about plant based foods and highlights the rise of a real solution: regenerative beef.
“I’d love to help the world and all its problems, but I’m an entertainer and that’s all.” In honor of William Shatner’s space trip, revisit the best talk-singing album of all time - Shatner plus friends on Has Been and the timely song Real (video).