Don’t Let the Media Get You Down

March 4, 2008
For Every Apocalyptic Vision of the Future, Why Isn’t There a Movie Depicting a Much More Likely and Dramatically Better Future?
By Dan Hebert, PE, senior technical editor

Should I hire that promising new person? Should we push forward to expand our markets internationally? Should we invest in next-generation automaton systems for our machines?

The answer to all these questions is “Not if you read the headlines.” But letting media headlines drive business decisions is problematic as the media feeds on greed and fear, two of the most visceral human emotions.

During most of my lifetime and certainly this decade, the media focus has been on fear. It directly contradicts long and short-term historical evidence.

History has been recorded with enough accuracy to know that standards of living have been improving dramatically for thousands of years. The U.S. stock market has risen by an average of about 10% per year since 1925. More recently, the global economy just completed its fifth straight year of more than 4% growth, the longest period of such strong expansion since the early 1970s.

Knowing all this, any prediction of short, and particularly long-term, reversals in these trends would be rare and require irrefutable evidence.

Instead, the media takes the opposite tack and daily proclaims the imminent demise of society as we know it, unless we do something drastic. Those are the optimistic articles. The pessimistic take: it is already too late and we are doomed to a bleak future, wandering a barren Earth in a futile search for food and shelter. Who would hire anyone or invest in anything, given such predictions?

Global warming is perhaps the best current example of media gloom and doom. Temperatures on Earth have been going up and down since the dawn of human existence, and our ancestors seem to have coped fairly well. But now, predicted rises of a couple of degrees in temperatures over the next century are supposed to bring us to our knees and destroy the global economy?

Don’t expect any rational opinions from the media in this area. Good examples of global warming gloom and doom can be gleaned from a recent New York Times article, “In 2008, a 100 Percent Chance of Alarm,” by columnist John Tierney. Here’s an excerpt. “When the Arctic sea ice last year hit the lowest level ever recorded by satellites, it was big news and heralded as a sign the whole planet was warming. When the Antarctic sea ice last year reached the highest level ever recorded by satellites, it was pretty much ignored.” He adds that Katrina in 2005 was a supposed harbinger of a coming stormier world. When the next two hurricane seasons were fairly calm, the alarmists changed the subject. “Droughts in California and Australia became the new harbingers of climate change (never mind that a warmer planet is projected to have more, not less, precipitation over all),” writes Tierney.

Tierney adds that Roger A. Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, recently noted the very different reception received last year by conflicting papers on the link between hurricanes and global warming. “He counted 79 news articles about a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and only three news articles about one in a far more prestigious journal, Nature. Guess which paper jibed with the theory — and image of Katrina — presented by Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth?” continues Tierney in his article.

Gloom and doom is not limited to newspapers and magazines; movies chime in. I don’t recall one movie released during my adult lifetime that portrayed the future in a positive light. For every Blade Runner-type apocalyptic vision of the future, why isn’t there a movie depicting a much more likely and dramatically better future? Shouldn’t the burden of proof be on those who predict a radical reversal of undisputed historical evidence?

Why is the media so relentless with unrealistic predictions of a dire future? My theory is secular types who don’t believe in an afterlife are terrified they will miss an earthly future better than the present. The only way to assuage their fears is to convince themselves that the future will be downright awful.

Believing headlines can lead to bad decisions. In next month’s column we will show you how to get behind the headlines to source data and how to analyze these source data to get the real facts.

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