Here is a simple rule. It is far from perfect. But it is pretty handy, so keep it in your back pocket:
The more you look, the more you find.
Set up more spot checks for drunk drivers and drunk-driving statistics will rise. Get rid of the spot-checks and the drunk-driving statistics will fall. Simple, right? The number isn’t merely measuring the rate of drunk-driving. It is, in part, measuring how hard we are looking for drunk driving.
This isn’t complicated. But too many of us don’t think carefully about facts in the news. So we assume that an increase in the observed number of something means that this thing is increasing in number. And that can have consequences.
If we increase the number of spot-checks and the drunk-driving statistics rises, we are likely to be alarmed that drunk-driving is rising. Naturally, people will demand action. Like, say, a further increase in the number of spot checks. Which pushes up the statistics. Which… you see where this is going.
This is a common feedback loop. I was reminded of it over the past two weeks, as North America was, apparently, besieged by veritable fleets of Chinese spy balloons
It started with one balloon drifting across North America.
This got days of wall-to-wall network news coverage. Political commentators and partisans criticized and mocked the president for failing to order the balloon shot down immediately — then, when it was shot down, different political commentators and partisans criticized and mocked the first lot.
Then came another high-altitude intruder.
More headlines, more tweets, more noise. Another balloon blasted from the sky.
Then another. And another.
Everyone on Twitter made the same joke about the pilot of the Goodyear blimp fearing for his life at the Super Bowl.
Then on Thursday, President Biden said that while the first balloon was clearly Chinese — China says it was studying the weather (which is what the US said when its U2 was shot down by the Soviets in 1960) — the military had found no evidence that the others were as well.
Reporters with no additional balloons to report on then did some background work. And it turns out that high-altitude balloons … are pretty common. In fact, at any given moment, there are thousands in the air.
That fact was trivia. But then we started looking for balloons and the feedback loop cranked into action.
Score another for my rule: The more you look, the more you find.
I wrote about feedback loops like this in Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Almost any raw material can generate a panic.
Every few years, someone witnesses a whole flock of birds fall dead from the sky, which leads to more reporting of such incidents, which escalates until it sounds like the Apocalypse is nigh. And every time it happens, reporters eventually find biologists who say there is nothing unusual in any of this. We are simply looking closely at, and talking about, what we usually ignore.
In Risk, I wrote about an apparent wave of shark attacks all over the world. And an epidemic of “flying truck tires” in Ontario: A tire came loose from a transport truck and it struck a car, killing the driver. Then another incident happened. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it was a major news story. Then another. And another. It seemed the highways were full of spinning tires careening about. It became a major political issue. New legislation was passed, “cracking down” on truckers, and the issue faded and was never heard from again. Know what the statistics showed? There were lots of such incidents before the freak-out. And there were lots after. Nothing in the underlying reality changed. It was all strictly a phenomenon of observation and perception.
The classic illustration of how the feedback loop works is even sillier than the Flying Truck Tire Freakout.
It occurred in 1954. As a Seattle-area newspaper report on April 16 of that year:
Pacific Northwest scientists and police agencies are wrestling with a first class mystery today. Startled motorists in the northern section of Washington State watched pits and pock marks appear suddenly on their auto windshields as experts studied the problem.
Many theories have been advanced, but scientists still are stumped for an explanation. Tiny, metallic particles — possibly an ash of some sort — are believed to be responsible for widespread damage in at least 11 cities.
This was the great “Pitted Windshield Epidemic” of 1954.
Over a few weeks, isolated cases of windshields damaged by some unknown source were reported. Then came more reports. And still more. At its height, police were inundated with complaints in towns and cities across the Pacific Northwest and as far away as Victoria, British Columbia.
Everyone had a theory but none fully fit. “Officers said youngsters may have read about the outbreak in other areas and that was sufficient to plant the idea and cock the air rifles here,” a newspaper reported. “Elsewhere in the state, guesses on the sources of the particles ranged from industrial ash to ‘fall-out’ from a Pacific H-bomb test.”
Explanations got harder as the scare progressed. Pitting was found in the windows of some buildings, but only a few. A handful of people claimed they actually watched pits form on windshields. No explanation fit all the evidence.
The epidemic ended as abruptly as it started. The stories simply stopped. Just like that. And the mysterious cause was never identified.
Because there was nothing to explain.
The windshields had indeed been pitted. But they had always been pitted. What changed was that people started looking for pitting.
The more people looked, the more pitting they found. The more pitting they found, the more complaints were made to the police and the more reports of pitting appeared in the newspapers.
The more reports were published, the more people looked. Around and around it went until the mystery lost its novelty and the alarm faded.
I strongly suspect we are more vulnerable to this form of misperception than ever, for one simple reason: Social media has greatly amplified the ability of people alarmed by some incident to go looking for more incidents, to share them with the world, and to collect these incidents in video compilations that are themselves instantly shareable with the world.
That’s what anti-vaxxers have done with the “collapsing athlete” meme.
It’s obviously very rare that athletes collapse mid-athletic performance. But there are millions of athletes playing sports every day around the world. As a result, these “very rare” happen routinely somewhere on planet earth.
Normally, we don’t notice. There is no reason to notice, after all. By themselves, these incidents mean nothing.
But when anti-vaxxers came to believe the Covid vaccine damaged the heart, they started looking. And they found healthy young athletes collapsing. So they looked more. And found more.
And social media flooded with videos of healthy young athletes suddenly collapsing.
Which is how you get to Senator Ron Johnson saying, “of course we’ve heard story after story, I mean, all these athletes dropping dead on the field. But we are supposed to ignore that.” Many of those stories are torqued and twisted and there is no reason to think any of them was caused by the Covid vaccine. But the underlying cause is a genuine misperception caused by looking more, finding more, and looking more — which is no different than the people of Seattle looking at their windshields very closely for the first time and being alarmed by what they saw.
Of course, the “athletes are dropping dead” meme is different in an important way. It feeds into anti-vaxx sentiment generally. And it strengthens paranoid conspiracy theories about Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, and the evil designs of the WEF believed by an astonishing number of people. No reasonable person should worry that athletes are dropping like flies, but every reasonable person should be worried that a large and growing portion of the population believes they are.
It would be nice if these misperceptions were all as inconsequential as the Great Seattle Pitted Windshield Epidemic, but, alas, silly mistakes can have serious consequences.
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Looks like you published a draft, my man.
How then do we write and read stories to take this tendency into account ? I am regularly struck that journalists present information in a standardized format often lacking contextualization. A few years back CBC The National ran an exposé of sexual abuse by coaches in minor sports in Canada. If I recall correctly its analysis of legal proceedings filed involving such actions by coaches over a multi-year period showed some 300 cases. It then also noted, likely correctly, that experts expected that there were many more such incidents. Still, never did the report indicate how many coaches and other adults were involved across all those sports over that time period. The report seemed designed to have the audience conclude that the behaviour was and is rampant. Each case may be horrific and devastating to the individual and their family but, as a parent, it leaves me unable to determine what the real risk is to my child. The same seems to be the case with respect to the recent reporting on violence on public transit systems, primarily in Toronto. Each case has been extremely worrying but it was only after listening to the 6th or 7th report on the issue that a reporter noted there are over 2 million rides on the TTC every day.