Perception Gap

Sorry about being late.  Had a lot going on today.

Violent crime is on the rise and has been for a long time.

If you believe that statement you are a victim of a Perception Gap.

Take a look at the following:

perception gap

Look at the red line.Since 1993-4 violent crime has been trending downward.  There have been some occasional “blips” along the way, but the general trend has been downward, at first quickly, but then more slowly.

For perspective, consider the following chart of homicide rate (using a longer baseline):

homicide rate.png

That chart implies come causal relationships that it is not my intent to debate at this time.  What I want is to give a historical context on how low our current violent crime rates (in this case, homicide) are.  The last time we saw crime rates as low as we now experience was in the late 50’s, early 60’s.  And before that, we’re going back a hundred years before the present before homicide were so low again.

Yet, somewhere around the year 2001 people, a lot of people started believing that violent crime rates were going up.  And since then, there have been ups and downs but the general trend has been upward:  more people believing that violent crime is on the rise when it’s actually dropping.  Before 2001, the percentage of people believing crime was rising was falling right along with the actual crime rates.

The question to ask, then, is “why?” Why are more people believing violent crime is on the rise when it’s actually moving the other way?  Part of that is the nature of news.  The old saying is “If it bleeds, it leads.” Crimes that don’t happen are not news.  Crimes that do, are.  However that cannot be a complete explanation.  “If it bleeds, it leads” has always been the case.  News has always been biased toward the outre and horrific events.

Perhaps it’s cable TV and stations like CNN.  The problem is those things took off quite a bit earlier than the growth of the perception gap.  Consider, in 1975 there were about 3500 cable systems nationwide serving about 10 million subscribers.  In 1985 there were 6600 systems serving 40 million subscribers.  The numbers peaked in 2000 with a total of 68.5 million subscribers in 2000 (number of cable subscribers has fallen since, but satellite and Internet has taken up some of that slack).  CNN was founded in 1980.

All of this happened long before the rising perception gap and so, by themselves, cannot be the cause of it.  If they were, the perception gap would have appeared long since.

The simplest explanation is a shift in policy–instead of just reporting news as is, they deliberately, and more blatantly, attempt to shape the public perception according to a pre-defined narrative.  For reasons of their own (draw your own conclusions; I have my own) they want people to believe that crime is rising and thus foster that belief through their choice of reporting.

Of course, the other option is that they have simply become wildly incompetent and are completely unable to portray news in a way that leads people to draw accurate conclusions about the world around them.

Incompetence of deliberate?  Make your own choice which way presumption would be giving them the benefit of the doubt.  As I said, I have my own conclusions.

And it’s not just violent crime.  In many other areas people have views that are radically at variance with the reality around them.  And many of those views are driving by the media, particularly the news media.

A person might be doing well financially.  His job is going well.  He just got a raise.  He sees the news telling him how horrible the economy is going and thinks he must be an outlier.

A person has just been laid off.  His wife is in her 36th week of unemployment.  The news tells him that the recovery is going strong.  He figures it’s just his bad luck.

Neither of those people notice that their “outlier”/”bad luck” is repeated millions of times across the nation.  Perception gap.

There is a phenomenon known as Gell-Mann Amnesia.  A person reads/views/hears some item in the media about a subject he knows well.  He notes that article is wildly inaccurate–gets basic facts wrong, even has cause and effect reversed.  Then he goes onto the next item in the media, one about something he was not so familiar, and completely forgets how inaccurate it was on the subject he knew and presumes it is accurate this time.  And, presuming it is accurate, it becomes part of his world view.  Perception gap.

And that’s just when it’s honest mistakes.  When it’s deliberate misinformation, the problem increases a dozenfold.

Thus it is important to be skeptical.  Even when they are honest they are often wrong–and they are often not so honest.  Check against multiple independent sources. (Several sites repeating the same source is not “independent”.) Dig through for the original data as much as possible.  Question everything.  Come to your own conclusions.

And when you come to those conclusions, be prepared to change them based on new information because the media can be wrong, even wildly wrong, so can you. (And, yes, so can I.)


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