Legions of determined amateurs are challenging the safe unreality manufactured by the purveyors of professional news and entertainment.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published January 09, 2006
One of my favourite authors is John Updike. He writes about the ordinary lives of ordinary Americans in an extraordinary way. He truthfully reflects reality in his characters and stories.
Since his subject matter is the often adulterous lives of American adults, he frequently writes about cheating and its consequences. Because reading a novel is like living a story, the enormous impact of adultery on his characters' lives also had an impact on me - a very small impact, since a novel is not real life, but it all adds up. Reading about the consequences of bad decisions, and thus experiencing them secondhand, makes one less likely to make them. You can learn from other people's mistakes.
Contrast this faithful portrayal of the human condition to pop culture and advertising. Sex is cheap and easy. Beautiful women are there for the taking. Big cars and bigger houses are what matters. Bling is for winners. Consequences are for losers.
To protect us from this shallowness, we develop mental shields in various ways - from our parents, faithful portrayals of the human condition by great artists and writers, religion, friends, and actual experiences and their consequences. Most likely, it's all these things, combined with an innate sense of morality and judgment, reinforced by common sense and sharpened by humour and irony.
The problem is, as any medieval warrior could tell you, a good shield is too frickin' heavy to carry all the time. The challenge for communicators is how to get the audience - us - to lower our guards.
Catchiness is one way. It's hard to resist a catchy tune. Pretty much everybody thinks Britney Spears sucks, but she still sells records. Even the most jaded twenty-somethings will dance to her after enough beers.
We can like an entertainer ironically, the same way we get excited over a steaming bowl of Kraft Dinner. In the end the joke is on us, because as much as we might mock it, the meal still ends up in our stomachs.
The news media do it much the same way. They seduce us with easy answers, soundbites, expert analyses and reporter summations, all relayed to us calmly and "objectively". Steven Colbert, formerly of the Daily Show, coined a word for it: "truthiness".
Truthiness is what you get when you take actual events and make them "fair and balanced". Truthiness is Judith Miller's reports for the New York Times that laid out the case for WMDs in Iraq.
Maintaining the appearance of calm is key for the news media. We are naturally inclined to listen to people who are calm. We trust people who are cool and collected. They must have a handle on the situation, we think, otherwise they'd be freaking out. This is why news reports on natural disasters tend to go something like this:
NEWSCASTER: Andy, you're right in the path of the hurricane, and we're actually having a bit of trouble hearing you because it's so windy. What can you tell us right now?
ANDY: Well Lou, this is actually one of the largest hurricanes ever recorded. Behind me you can see the giant wall of wind and water that is rapidly approaching. I'm actually being pelted with small bits of debris right now Lou, and I can tell you, that's a somewhat unpleasant experience.
A sensible person who was not trying to maintain the facade that the situation was under control wouldn't be talking into a microphone at all, except to say "Holy crap, Lou, get us the heck out of here!"
The problem is that this display of normal behaviour would bring the broadcast down to a human level, destroying its authority. For the same reason, government figures never cry or show fear in public.
The next person to appear on the newscast or in the article is a welcome figure: the expert. This expert - who could be a doctor, scientist, government official, or professor - has the answers. She is a professional with years of experience. He is a scientist who conforms to the highest standards. When she opens her mouth, she can be trusted.
Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk, a pioneer in stem cell research, is a perfect example. South Korea's most prominent scientist, Dr. Hwang became famous when he announced his team had successfully cloned a human embryo in May 2005. He subsequently cloned a dog called Snuppy, and then announced his team had created 11 distinct stem cell lines tailored for specific individuals.
This last achievement made world headlines as a major breakthrough in stem cell research. It opened up the possibility of growing human tissue custom-made for individuals: the ability to grow skin, muscle, and even organs from stem cells harvested from the patient.
In spite of persistent rumours of unethical practices - like using embryos from women on his team for research and accepting "donations" from staff members - Dr. Hwang's work went unquestioned.
Then someone noticed something odd. Some of his photos showing the 11 stem cell lines were actually pictures of the same cell. A key co-author of the study, Gerald Schatten, asked to have his name withdrawn from it, citing allegations of fraud by someone closely involved with the experiments.
It wasn't long before the entire edifice came crashing down. The landmark achievements were faked. Dr. Hwang was a fraud. He resigned in disgrace, his research and reputation in tatters.
Dr. Hwang is a rare case of deliberate deception. But regardless of the purity of their intentions, most research papers written by scientists are false. At least, that's what John Ioannidis says in a research paper published in August 2005.
His study of highly cited papers published between 1990 and 2002 found that less than half of them were valid, a problem he attributes to "small sample sizes, poor study design, researcher bias, and selective reporting and other problems."
The irony of a research paper that says most research papers are wrong is obvious, but it doesn't take a scientist to see the problems with many studies.
In a study published in the October 2005 of Biological Psychology, Meredith Chivers from Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and J. Michael Bailey from Northwestern University, claim that straight men are only aroused by women, but straight women are aroused by all human sexual activity and some non-human sexual activity. In this case, non-human means bonobo monkeys.
Eighteen men and eighteen women participated in the study. Devices intended to measure sexual stimulation were attached to the participants, and then they were shown a variety of video clips showing sexual activity, including one scene featuring bonobos (bonobos on bonobos, that is - no "interspecies" videos were shown). The men were not aroused by the monkey business but according to the study, the same could not be said for the women.
The researchers concluded that what turns people on is "less specific in women than in men," but it's hard to escape the offensive notion that what they're really saying is women like bonobo sex a little more than is normal. Even if their tiny, crackpot study supported their conclusion, could it be any more useless?
This research is at best pointless and at worst degrading, but that won't stop it from being perpetuated. Even if it is proved wrong at some point, or its authors disgraced like Hwang, it will still be fodder for lists of rare "facts" or ammunition for beer-fuelled disputes with feminists in university pubs. Science is thus turned against itself: meant to be a shield, it can disarm us instead.
Few people disarm us as expertly as experts, especially when they start talking about the future. The glib pronouncements of newscasters are easy to ignore, but when the expert gets on the show to make predictions, we're all ears.
When they're important enough experts get interviewed at home, and they always choose a spot right in front of a huge bookshelf. "Look at me," they are saying. "Not only am I an expert, but look at all the other experts whose books I read."
I wonder how many of those bookshelves contain Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? by Philip Tetlock. This recently published work contains the results of a study (uh-oh) he started twenty years ago that tracked 284 experts whose livelihood is "commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends".
His startling conclusion: experts are no better than non-experts at predicting the future, even in their fields of expertise. In fact, asked to choose between three possible futures (e.g. "the economy stays the same", "the economy improves", or "the economy worsens"), they performed no better than random. In other words, rolling dice was as good as the experts at predicting the future.
According to Tetlocke, "In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals - distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on - are any better than journalists or attentive readers of the New York Times in 'reading' emerging situations." In fact, Tetlocke claims that the more famous the expert, the worse they were at prediction.
This is the cult of professionalism, where expertise is worshipped.
In contrast to this safe and smooth unreality stands the Internet, where traditional media, corporate advertising and the experts fight for attention against blogs, forums, and content ranking services that are created and populated by amateurs. The importance of a new study is not determined by the editor of a newscast but by the number of people who share it with others on the web.
This isn't good news for everyone, especially those who make their living peddling truthiness and calm "objectivity", making expert predictions and coming to questionable conclusions. In an article called "The Amorality of Web 2.0", Nicholas Carr criticizes the "cult of the amateur":
The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional. We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity. Perhaps nowhere, though, is their love of amateurism so apparent as in their promotion of blogging as an alternative to what they call "the mainstream media."
He is right that there are problems. One that Carr does not discuss is that the cult of the amateur ritualizes the worship of popularity. From search engines to content aggregators, information on the web is ranked according to how many people like it: the number of people who link to a site, or the number of people who recommend an article, is what brings it to the forefront. But the truth is frequently unpopular, especially when it says something about us we don't want to hear.
That said, there are plenty of amateurs who shout unpleasant truths from Internet rooftops. The truthful information I find online, put there or made more prominent by amateurs, is often far more scary than what I hear on television from professionals. But to Carr, what's scariest is that the professionals might be replaced by amateurs:
Of course the mainstream media sees the blogosphere as a competitor. It is a competitor. And, given the economics of the competition, it may well turn out to be a superior competitor. The layoffs we've recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can't imagine anything more frightening.
I don't need to use my imagination to think of things that are much more frightening. Those we have trusted - the newspapers, television, government officials and experts - have created a world for us that bears little resemblance to reality. In spite of our best attempts to shield ourselves with skepticism and disbelief, we are often seduced by this vision of unreality.
After all, John Updike makes no claims that he is telling the truth - his work is fiction. I learned from his stories anyway. The fiction created for us by professionals is told to us as truth. We try not to believe it, but we are immersed in it so fully that it is hard for us not to. Our shields are not waterproof. They will not save us from drowning.
And so, although the cult of the amateur has its problems, it also brings with it great benefits. It is a lungful of fresh air for an almost submerged populace. But the cult of professionalism will not be defeated so easily. The battle is just getting started.
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