Thursday, June 9, 2016

No Single News Story "Proves" Your Worldview

Stop reacting to singular news events as if they were massive social trends. No single instance of a privileged white kid escaping justice, or of a young black man being abused or killed by cops, or of a cop escaping justice after clearly breaking the law, necessarily indicates a larger social problem. No matter how extreme the injustice, it’s still a single event. And it’s in the news *because* it’s so extreme.

None of this is to say that those larger social problems don’t exist. I’m sure that rich/white/privileged people get better treatment than poor minorities from the justice system, and I’m sure that black people get treated unfairly by the police, and that cops who misbehave get let off the hook too easily. But you probably need some statistics to prove it. Your blinding outrage at a single news story doesn’t quite cut it. Don’t confuse the intensity of your outrage with the probability of your correctness. If anything, the relationship between those two items is an inverse one.

I’ll make the caveat that some “single events” involve the cooperation of so many people that they really do indicate an institutional problem, and these events startle the line between “data” and “anecdote.” For instance, if a police officer *clearly* breaks the law and the entire department covers for him, I recognize that this is strong evidence of a much larger problem. It’s a single news event with dozens of sub-events, so one might treat the many sub-events as data. Then again these can always be rare flukes, so you’re much better off comparing the number of these that you actually see to the number you might expect to see by sheer chance. Also remember that what you see as a clear-cut injustice looks to many people like a borderline case (and to many others a clear-cut case of justice being served). Step outside yourself for a moment when you feel moral outrage coming on. It’s worth shutting off your “moral outrage” mode and turning on your “analytical” mode once in a while.

File this post under, “Stop posting this shit, it makes you look gullible.”

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