Wednesday, June 17, 2020

How Numbers Drive News Coverage


A picture is worth a thousand words. Though Andrew Cuomo has said a lot of things worth saying through the crisis, this television screen is speaking volumes. As of late April, the pandemic's daily count of infections and deaths had pushed the stock market indexes down into the bottom corner of the screen, where they're barely visible.

The stock market had long been the reigning champion of the screen,  producing a steady stream of new numbers of seeming portent for people to digest. Even when the news was about something else, the digits would parade across the bottom of the screen, rising, falling. Sports and weather also demand attention by generating massive amounts of numbers, but other important aspects of reality simply can't compete. Climate change? Sorry, it may determine the destiny of civilization and much of nature, but it's slow-moving numbers seem disconnected from what we experience day to day, and are either too big for us to fathom or too small to seem of import.

The pandemic on the other hand, offers numbers that reflect a steady shift in daily realities--infections, death--and each day brings fresh meaning as the numbers rise from hundreds to thousands to hundreds of thousands. This is a landscape we can understand, follow and even influence with our own actions as Governor Cuomo explains the significance of each day's new score.

When I was writing and performing climate change theater, I presented the economy and nature as characters in a classic narcissist/co-dependent matchup. The economy would extract whatever it needed from compliant, nurturing, undervalued nature, then tout its numbers, which were far more riveting than nature's boringly gradual buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Unsurprisingly, the man in the play dumps nature for the far more seductive economy, with its ready cash and sexy numbers.

Key to the pandemic's success in displacing the economy and its powerful arsenal of constantly updating numbers is not only the number of people who are dying, but also the fact that the deaths are coming in a steady stream, with each new day providing a fresh tally. A natural disaster, or more accurately an unnatural disaster to which global warming plays a supporting role, does its damage within a few days, and therefore lacks the ongoing drama that a steady supply of numbers can deliver.

Other national traumas were also reported through a drumbeat of numbers. Daily reports on the Vietnam War, whose American death count the pandemic has now surpassed, ritualistically began with a daily tally of dead and wounded. A decade later, evening news anchor Walter Cronkite used a similar daily drumbeat of numbers to dramatize the Iran hostage crisis, announcing each evening the number of days that had passed since the Americans were taken hostage. The number of hostages remained the same, but the passage of time itself became the number factory.


Now that the economy is beginning to reopen, the stock market is reasserting its numerically based power to dominate the screen, displacing the diminishing pandemic numbers with the riveting mania of the market's rises and falls.


In this picture, taken only seconds later, the numbers have already shifted, with each number being the sum of countless other numbers and mini-dramas as each stock constantly shifts in value.

One of the many impacts of the pandemic, then, was its months-long eclipsing of the greatest numerical news factory ever invented. The pandemic numbers have reflected our progress in collectively solving a shared problem. At some point, however, the stock market will once again rule unchallenged, with numbers that reflect not a collective effort to solve shared problems, but a pursuit of private gain.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Repost: Shedding Our Martian Ways: Coronavirus and H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds

This is a repost from PrincetonNatureNotes.org.


A deserted airport. A civilization shut down by a virus. It makes me think of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, in which Martians conquer England with heat-rays and "black smoke", and seem unstoppable until, suddenly and surprisingly, they succumb to lowly pathogens to which they have no resistance.

We have watched as civilization has been taken over by forces alien to reality, as cold and unsympathetic as Wells' Martians, with a rigid ideology that aims all skepticism outward, and denies the connection between combustion and climate change, between spending and taxation, present and future, self and responsibility, words and truth.

For those of us who imagine a civilization that goes beyond fossil fuels, an incremental shifting to renewable energy sources would have been the least disruptive, but the political opportunists and denialists foiled that approach. Failing an expedited incrementalism, the transition would begin instead like our response to the coronavirus, with a reset in which all unnecessary combustion is suspended. Then, in that unaccustomed quiet and new sympathy for nature and our descendants, we would rapidly build up renewable forms of energy, remake our lives in a vastly saner and more stable economy, one that would give us mobility and comfort in the present without stealing our future.

COVID - 19 has shown that such a reset is possible. We are a fabulously adaptable, resilient, resourceful species, and are surviving this shutdown for a virus as we would survive a shutdown to finally stop abusing the planet. That would be the finest way to celebrate the 50th Earthday coming up in April, as we begin to build our way back to abundance--the right way this time--give back to nature as it has so generously given to us, and reclaim a shared future. Let us shed our Martian ways, and become more human and humane, more of and for this earth.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Anti-Science Ideology Destabilizes Economies

My friends have voiced a broad range of opinions about the coronavirus. Some think it poses a big threat, while others think the whole thing is overblown. Meanwhile, the stock market swoons, and our local university with all its magnificent facilities is switching to virtual education for the rest of the semester, and telling students to stay home after spring break.

The swoon in the stock market brings back memories of a similar swoon during the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008. Back then, the great uncertainty was in the mortgage-backed securities--those bundles of home loans. Which loans were bad and which were okay? No one could tell because they came in bundles, sort of like a bunch of passengers on a plane, or students in a classroom. If one person in the group has coronavirus, then the entire bundle becomes suspect.

Someone wanting to protect society and the economy from uncertainty would want to be able to quickly determine how lethal the coronavirus is, and that means aggressively testing the population to see who has it and what percentage die from it. That's where those opposed to science, fact, government, and coordinated global action leave our country and its economy vulnerable to new potential threats like coronavirus and longstanding threats like climate change.

The statistics show just how badly those currently running the US government bungled the job of protecting the nation and economy from uncertainty. In this data from March 1, South Korea has already tested more than 100,000 people, while the U.S. has tested less than 500. South Korea's death rate of 0.6% would seem more accurate, given their aggressive testing of the population, and less worrisome than the US death rate of nearly 6%. But because the US took a dismissive approach towards this global threat, we're forced to make decisions based on poor data that breeds fear and uncertainty.

One other thing to point out: The cancelling of unnecessary travel is reminiscent of what a nation and world would do as part of weaning itself from fossil fuels. Knowing that all that combustion and the resultant supercharging of the atmosphere with extra CO2 poses a big threat to our collective future, economies would aggressively reduce fossil fuel consumption while rapidly building up alternative sources. We are incredibly resourceful and resilient, and would quickly adapt, just as we are adapting to the changes being imposed in response to the coronavirus threat.

In response to threats, the government is to the nation as the brain is to the body. A nation controlled by those opposed to science, fact, government, and coordinated global action is like a body without a brain--essentially unable to foresee threats and react effectively to protect itself. Two presidents--George W. Bush and now Donald Trump--have often preferred to "go with their gut" rather than with facts and data. Even though they have claimed to value the economy above all other concerns, their anti-government, gut-driven approach has left the nation essentially decapitated, and the economy vulnerable to collapse.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Scandalizing, Minimizing, and the False Objectivity of "Both Sides" Journalism

News headlines and opinion pieces flash for a moment on our consciousnesses like fireworks in the evening sky, each making its momentary splash before quickly being displaced by others in an endless stream of efforts to light the darkness. One of the more illuminating opinion pieces, and one whose insight is worth capturing in a bottle to light one's long walk home, is a piece by Nicole Hemmer called "Scandalize! Minimize! Repeat as Necessary." It offers a quick history of what it calls the "conservative media's scandalization project." Dating back to the 1940s and gaining momentum in the 1990s and 2000s, it describes the conservative "effort to create an air of nonstop scandal around previous Democratic presidents and presidential hopefuls."


The scandalization of Democrats is combined with a minimization of Republican wrongdoing, most graphically in recent days by Fox News placing the impeachment of President Trump in a small box in the corner of the screen while Hannity tells his audience that none of it matters.

Now, one could point out that people and political parties are inherently apt to point out others' faults while minimizing their own, and it is this natural human inclination that causes many journalists to declare "both sides do it" and then go home thinking they have fulfilled their obligation to be objective.

But what if pathology seeks cover within the natural variability of political behavior, just as fundamental changes in climate remained disguised for decades within the normal variability of weather? If one political party is primarily responsible for an ongoing abuse of political norms, then the "both sides" meme shows not journalistic objectivity but an overt bias in favor of those who exhibit the worst behavior. As journalists seek safety within a false "all sides" pose, the mainstream media provide cover for a mounting threat to democracy. Periodic opeds like Henner's cannot compensate for the hardwired "both sides" orthodoxy that controls daily reporting.

A healthy political climate depends on conscience, regulation, judgement, truth, and a sense of decency and fair play to keep behavior within bounds. That political climate, like the earth's climate, is vulnerable to the cumulative effect of relentless abuses small and large. The normal background tendency to accuse or minimize has morphed into a steady stream of lies and fabrications intended to erode our capacity to recognize bad behavior and reward good.

Henner's conclusion:
"To write off Mr. Trump’s wrongdoing as run-of-the-mill politics, then, requires both minimizing what he has done and scandalizing what other politicians do. As an added bonus, the strategy damages Americans’ faith in government and public service, bolstering the Republican Party’s anti-government agenda. As such, it’s a powerful, effective political strategy — and a deeply nihilistic one."

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

False Strength and the Artificial Polarization of Our Era

Most of the polarization of our time is due to people's failure to direct their skepticism inward. Skepticism is associated with strength of mind--an ability to resist and scrutinize what others accept as true. But people who claim, for instance, to be climate skeptics are merely pretending to be tough minded, because they practice one-way skepticism, aiming it all outward. True skepticism, the kind that demonstrates strength of mind, is directed inward as well. The current president is an extreme example of directing criticism outwards but none inward. He's tough on others, soft on self. Scientists have an incentive to practice two-way skepticism, because the rigor of their profession requires that they look for flaws in their own data and conclusions, lest they later be discredited by their peers. They have to be tough on themselves, as well as others.

Independence of mind runs deep in the American tradition. It, too, is associated with strength, since it involves resisting the mainstream flow. But for those who don't want to accept that we are faced with a climate crisis, the pose of strength is in fact a clever game rigged to make the denier always win. The usual tactic is to find flaw in the overwhelming consensus by cherry picking which evidence to pay attention to. That demonstrates not tough mindedness but rather a finding of excuses to continue thinking what one wants to think, a clinging to false notions that generates artificial polarization. Though resisting the herd mentality can be a useful instinct, there are also times when accepting consensus is justified. We become stronger, as individuals and collectively as a nation, by confronting tough realities rather than running from them.

Truth is a potentially unifying element in society, and thus is a threat to those who wish to promote and sustain division. To survive, those who thrive on political polarization must find ways to dismiss truth by creating resentment towards those who are most likely to speak it. When one political party ignores the overwhelming evidence about the cause and risk of the climate crisis, and additionally continues to claim that tax cuts will pay for themselves, the result is artificial polarization rather than an authentic divergence of views.

There is dismissiveness towards truth, and then there are active lies, which are meant to fill the void left by the rejected truth. When a political party fails to call out its president for being a prolific liar, the solidarity is sometimes interpreted as strength, but is another indication that a political party is artificially creating polarization where none need exist. In a way, the American tradition of independent thinking has been hijacked. Truth has become the new oppressor from which people must gain freedom. In the information age, when truth is so close at hand, just a click away, false reality built on lies is the new frontier people are being encouraged to populate.

In recent years, politicians who make false claims have chosen not to acknowledge their mistaken views, but instead to double down and become even more fervent in their false claims. This brand of stubbornness and rigidity can also be mistaken for strength--a tribal solidarity that becomes its own truth. The sort of humility that we value in friends and associate with quiet strength does not play well on the political stage. The double down behavior is another step in the unmooring of politics from reality and traditional values.

Harsh criticism of others also comes across in the political realm as strength. The harsh critiques that Trump supporters view as strength most clearly originated in Newt Gingrich's training of fellow Republicans to use emotion-laden language that was aimed not at disagreeing with a political rival but at burying liberalism altogether under a sea of negative connotation. That weaponization of language, that shift from fact-based to emotion-driven thinking, from denotation to connotation, and the refusal to consider the possibility that the other side had any legitimacy at all, has continued to this day among Republican leaders. It is rooted not in strength but in insecurity, for acknowledging that the other side has validity is the start of a very slippery slope back to the pre-Gingrich era of Republican minority status.

The result is an increase in the nation's vulnerability as liberal concerns about climate change and pandemics are summarily dismissed, and an entrenched, artificial polarization. These weaknesses and vulnerabilities are sustained by counterfeit notions of strength.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A-Team and B-Team Politicians--Looking and Listening Beyond the Words

Looking back across the tattered landscape of American politics, in my case extending back to the 1960s, is like having witnessed a six decades-long military convoy under attack. Politicians from Kennedy to Clinton slog forward as potshots and straifings generated by media and political opponents come from all sides. Some endure the onslaught, while others lie burning along the roadside. Some politicians in the 60s were dropped by real bullets, but character assassination has proven just as potent for eliminating potential leaders. The focus here is on candidates' varying capacity to survive intense scrutiny and brazen lies.

Across that arc of six decades, it's possible to see that some had a gift that lifted them above the rest--a resonance of voice, charisma, a compelling message that allowed them to survive attacks by connecting at a deeper level and with a broader swath of voters. While some of us vote according to which candidate best represents our beliefs, there seem to be many who are drawn more by an emotional connection to the leader, and this can cause the ship of state to lurch back and forth, from left to right, from election to election, according to the political heft and magnetism of those running for office. As the rightwing in particular becomes more radicalized, whether in the U.S., Brazil or elsewhere, these swings from left to right develop an increasingly destabilizing quality.

Gifted politicians at the presidential level, what are here called the A-Team, are rare. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama--they may have been attractive to some, repugnant to others, but they had a quality of voice, and something consistently present in their faces that drove home a message and lifted the spirits of their followers. Donald Trump also has that combination of vocal resonance and dependable facial expression that may help keep him politically afloat.

Range of facial expression, by the way, would be an interesting phenomenon to study in past and current leaders. Is that range particularly limited in Reagan and Trump, and does that give voters an impression of strength, a steadfast quality that people want in a leader? The capacity to communicate a broad range of emotions, from joy to despair, which is an advantage in private life, may not translate well to leadership, where people may seek an unflappable, granitic consistency more akin to Mt. Rushmore.

The shift in the Democratic Party from A-Team to B-Team candidates was particularly apparent at the ends of the Bill Clinton and Obama presidencies. During those campaigns in 2000 and 2016, the outgoing presidents had by then honed a compelling message that somehow went missing in their chosen successors. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, for all their extraordinary A+ abilities and experience, lacked the qualities of voice, aspect and message to connect with a sufficiently broad swath of humanity. They still might have won if not for lie-based character assassination and electoral quirks, but they would have won despite themselves.

And so, as Democratic candidates debate on stage in Iowa over who has the best plan for healthcare, it can be useful sometimes to listen not to the words but to the quality of voice that carries them, and sometimes to turn off the sound altogether and scrutinize the visual. Who, for instance, has a sufficiently resonant voice? Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg, maybe Klobuchar, sometimes Warren but sometimes not. Certainly not Steyer. I thank him for making climate change his number one issue, but somehow all those billions have not been able to buy him a clear throat. In terms of facial expression, most are consistent, but Steyer keeps nodding in a way that makes it hard to connect with his eyes. Buttigieg's face is destabilized in less obvious ways. His eyes can change quickly, in mid-sentence, suddenly smiling then shifting to something more complex and not necessarily supportive of his words.

Ideally we'd look beyond voice and facade and make judgements based on vision, knowledge, and temperament, but an emotional connection matters more and more in determining who will show up to vote and who they'll vote for. There are ways to learn some of this. Though I've never run for office, I've found that training in acting helped me to connect more directly and authentically with people. Someone unfamiliar with acting might think it teaches you how to be something you aren't, and Reagan's acting experience may well have enhanced his capacity to put an appealing face on cruel policies. In my case, it helped me grow a voice, and open up inner and outer channels of communication, so that the words I spoke were better connected to the emotions behind them. Maybe I was just lucky to have a resourceful and creative director, or maybe this sort of training could help some of these candidates reach beyond the political choir and connect with the non-believers deep in the balconies.

As an example of an A-Team politician, check out Barack Obama's "Fired up? Ready to go!" speech.