Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Confirmation instead of information

I admire Dr. Atul Gawande.  So, when I read a Tweet by him that a book he was reading was gripping but giving him nightmares, I looked the book up and downloaded it. It is "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America" by George Packer.  I only read about 5% of the book and then stopped.  I was not impressed.  It tries to show the poor state our country is in.  Personally, if you want to do that, I recommend you use lots of good evidence and facts and figures.  I realize the county is more than 313 million people so I don't doubt that using vignettes and colorful language, a picture of a great many people can be constructed with some truth in it. I thought it ironic that the book includes this quote:

And he saw that the voters no longer felt much connection to the local parties or national institutions. They got their politics on TV, and they were not persuaded by policy descriptions or rational arguments. They responded to symbols and emotions. They were growing more partisan, too, living in districts that were increasingly Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative. Donors were more likely to send money if they could be frightened or angered, if the issues were framed as simple choices between good and evil— which was easy for a man whose America stood forever at a historic crossroads, its civilization in perpetual peril.

Packer, George (2013-05-21). The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (p. 23). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

It seemed to me that the selected quote applies very much to the book itself.  I am not against emotion and colorful language but it seems to be a Chicken Little situation for an author to simply start sketching dramatic scenes.

I do agree that I frequently see both words and images that are clearly meant to elicit feelings rather than reveal important truths.  I am actually a bit sympathetic to efforts to persuade or to simply be memorable using colorful and gripping ideas, contrasts, facts and pictures.  I am confident that getting a point across requires memorable examples.  But I realize that basic points need to rest on strong foundations of evidence, facts and statistics.  When I watch the news, which I rarely do, I see that most media organizations aim to stir feelings, especially along lines their audiences have come to expect.

Recently, I also started reading "The Information Diet" by Clay Johnson.  It seems a much more valuable book, to me. Johnson is a technologist and a strong advocate of what is often called open source government and transparency in government.  He explains that he is technically overweight and he isn't happy with that.  He realizes that over the past century, agriculture, food processing and food marketing have worked rigorously to find out what foods people will eat and eat and eat.  He compares the current situation with the national media to that of empty calories, salt, fat and sugar that lure people to eat.  He and a few others sense that "people prefer to have their ideas confirmed to being given news". So, the same strategy that gets people to eat lots of munchies gives the media outlets lots of audience members.

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