The Lessons of Virginia Tech
I wanted to wait a few days to write about this, partly because I've been swamped with my own work and partly because I needed to give it all time to sink in, so I could work out my thoughts about it. As I see it, the lessons we can learn from Virginia Tech fall into two broad categories: One, due largely to media patterns of sensationalization and hype, we have unrealistic expectations about how the world works, and thus we have disproportionate reactions to events like this; and, two, instead of trying what hasn't worked again and hoping it will work next time, we need to find better ways - but it's doubtful that will happen unless something fundamentally changes in our society.
The first reason why we have unrealistic expectations is that don't have a sense of proportion. Our perceptions of everyday dangers are totally out of whack. We're told that Bad Things - specifically, violent crimes - happen far more often than they actually do, and so we expect that bad things will happen a lot. We hear about them more often than they actually happen - mostly due to news media focusing on them every half-hour - and so our perceptions are that crime is rising even though it's been steadily falling for over twenty years now (1). But the Bad Things are generally on the order of a single person killing one or two others, or a bank robbery, or some other relatively minor event. Additionally, since they're on near-constant repeat on the television and news radio (and lately, the internet media as well) we get desensitized about these kinds of violent crimes - and have for some time now. People don't get afraid of being shot just because they walked into the liquor store at the wrong time, usually. About the "regular" crimes, we're more or less desensitized. We have fear fatigue.
As a result, what can we be made afraid of? Big, unusual catastrophes, not violent crimes. We're afraid of mad cow disease, and bird flu, and road rage, and strangers abducting our children, and killer kids in our public schools. (2) We're more afraid of the things that are so unlikely to happen that the chance of them hitting us is even less likely than a random roll of a million-sided die coming up with our number on it than we are of the things that are statistically much more likely: car accidents, domestic violence, and so forth. One reason is that the media need to have sensational topics to attract a vanishingly small amount of available attention from people. One murder is pretty much like another, unless it's Nicole Simpson, and one suicide is pretty much just another suicide, unless it's Anna Nicole Smith. If it isn't a famous name as the victim or suspected perpetrator, these stories about regular people who have been killed, or have killed, or have killed themselves, drop off the radar within a day or two at most. The stories that the media want are the ones that we'll pay attention to for a long, long time. They want the stories that they can do a one-month, three-month, six-month retrospective on... which further serves to convince us that Bad Things happen more often than they do.
When an event like Columbine, or 9/11, or Virginia Tech takes place, the media know they have a winner. People want to know who, what, where, when, why - and perhaps most importantly HOW - it happened. And this gives the media something they can chew on for days, giving us information in dribs and drabs. What's more important, though, is that the media have us trained when there's some big event: they have a pre-set story line to stick facts into and frame the event for us. As robin_d_laws said quite succinctly in this post,
these events "have become so commonplace that they feel familiar." It's another school shooting? Okay, we want to tell them place, time, and number of casualties. Then we can cut right to the chase: gun control! video games! interviews with survivors of other shootings! Do we even know the gunman's name? Nope. That's not important anyway. We all know that he (and it's always he
) is going to be an angry, isolated loner, probably mentally ill. He either dresses weird - like a goth or a gangsta - or he's black, or both. He probably listens to death metal music, and he may have Asperger's, or a drug problem. He writes frightening stuff in his creative writing assignments. We already know the story. We've heard it before. We'll probably hear it again. And at the end, even if we still don't know why he did it, we know how, and we can pat ourselves on the back because "we're not like that."
Why do we know this stuff? Because the media tells us so. We've seen this movie before. It's a morality play, with consequences attached. The people at Virginia Tech made the shooter feel like he was on the outside, so he attacked them. Cause, meet effect. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold felt like their entire school hated them, so they attacked them. And Harris and Klebold's parents were never home, and didn't supervise their kids - and one recent news story about Virginia Tech said that Cho's parents were nowhere to be found when the news media went looking for them at their home (so they must not have supervised their son either). Fault, meet blame. Someone did Something which Caused The Bad Thing To Happen. We need the media to tell us this, because otherwise we can't make any sense of it. And more than that, we need to know that Something Can Be Done to address these situations, because we need to make sure they don't happen here - wherever "here" is, whether it's Yale, Tulane, UIUC, or UCLA.
This leads into my second point about our sense of proportion being out of whack: we expect that we'll be safe on a place like a college campus, a high school campus, or in an airport. More to the point, we expect perfect security. What this means is that we've raised the bar to a place it can't be reached... and as a result, when security inevitably fails, we react disproportionately to the failure. The Event itself is one huge shock; the failure of security is far more shocking than it should be, and in its own way is its own separate Event. I have the feeling that part of the reason for this is that in America, at least, we have extended childhood beyond a reasonable place. It used to be, when I was a teenager, that teens were treated like children by their parents and by society, but that we were at least given minimal acknowledgment when we got our driver's license. Most teens my age, when I was sixteen, were working a part-time job at McDonald's or Burger King. Nowadays, childhood extends into the college years. One girl I work with is 21, and it's her first job.
She sits at her cube space text-messaging on her cell phone while she should be working, and worse, taking calls on her cell phone while she should be working. Our manager's caught her at it twice, and her response was to move to a cube where he doesn't really check on people (she used to sit next to me, and we were right outside his office) and continue to text-message and take phone calls during work time. This kind of immaturity also shows up in classes I take with these kids, especially in terms of expectations about extra credit, grade leeway, and homework, and frankly, it shocks me. This is an attitude I would expect in fourteen-year-olds, not twenty-one-year-olds.
So now, childhood extends into the twenties, and adolescence into the thirties. Middle age now doesn't happen when you're forty, it's when you're 55. And as a result, we tend to have this unrealistic belief in our own immortality. It used to be that most people started getting an initial sense of their own mortality around the age of twenty-five or so. Now, it's more like thirty-five or forty. Additionally, we are squeamish as hell about death in this society. Doctors try every possible method to prolong life as long as possible (witness the Terri Schiavo fiasco). They don't ever
say "this is as far as medical science can take us; get your affairs in order and we'll arrange palliative care." They're not allowed to - our society won't let them. It's not a legal restriction; it's a societal one. People die only in hospitals, never at home. We don't accept that the human body wears out as it gets into the years above fifty, and we avoid the elderly and are often afraid of them, because they serve as a reminder that we are going to die someday, and we have a limited time to live.
You see, in America, We Just Don't Die. That's it. We're not supposed to die. Death is unnatural. These are real expectations - and they are totally out of whack with reality.
So when something like Virginia Tech happens, we have to check our expectations. And we don't like having to do that. So the shooter becomes demonized (usually mercilessly, because people "should" be "normal," and it's a moral failing to not be), as well as the people who failed to give us perfect security (because we "should" have perfect security, because it's our right as Americans, because We Never Die). We begin screaming for better security and stronger measures against these aberrant people, even at the expense of our own civil liberties. If possible, we demand attacks on those we perceive as having violated our security - and if we're frightened enough, it results in debacles like the Iraq War. In other words, like the insane man, we try again what hasn't worked in the past, hoping it will work in the future.
The only way that I see us, as a nation, resolving this is to face up to some hard truths: one, we can't have perfect security; two, we are all going to die someday; and three, we have a lot less control over life than we think we have. Unfortunately, as long as we avoid these hard truths, we're going to continue to try to do the same things that haven't worked before, and these incidents are going to continue to happen.
What would it have done for Virginia Tech if Cho had gotten the help he needed, without being stigmatized for needing it? What would it have done for Columbine if the standard of living in Littleton had been sane, so that at least one of Eric Harris' parents could have stayed home with him and kept an eye on his development? What would it have done for this nation on 9/11 if we all had a better grasp of our own mortality, instead of a truly frightening ignorance about it?
These are questions I don't have answers to. Do you?
(1) Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear
(2) Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear
This, kiddies, is how NOT to do research.
(Originally written in October, 2006. Reposted here in response to a post in the LiveJournal Asperger community.)
You may have seen an article flying around the blog- and media-space online lately, about some
researchers at Cornell University who claim to have found a link between early childhood TV-watching and rates of autism. The media's assertion, based on the Cornell report, is that early TV watching - get this - causes autism.
Lest you think that I'm blowing it out of proportion, here's a link to the article
. I'm posting and commenting on some relevant quotes here:
Quote 1: "Watching too much television in childhood could cause autism, experts have warned."
Quote 2: "The latest study, in the U.S., looked at whether there was a link between rising rates of autism and the increasing availability of children's TV, videos and DVDs. The research team concluded that the results were "awfully suggestive" of a link between watching TV and autism."
Follow the bouncing media error: the headline says "could cause," but then we get "a link between" in the second quote. We're talking about causation in the first case, and correlation in the second, which the media have now conveniently conflated for your continued incomprehension. *growl*
It gets worse from there. The researchers themselves
recommend keeping kids away from the TV as a preventive measure: "[Dr Waldman] recommended those under two did not watch any TV at all, while older youngsters limited their viewing to an hour or two a day."
To me that suggests that they, the researchers, believe television-watching is causative. How can they possibly claim that?
And as a researcher, I'm looking at their methodology as reported in the article and it's so shoddy that it's beyond belief. I can't believe that Cornell would have let anyone stamp their university's good name on this junk science:
"As they were unable to obtain any statistics on toddlers' TV habits, they used rainfall levels in different parts of the country to help estimate how much time children spent playing outdoors. (Emphasis mine.) They found that the wettest areas, where, presumably, children spent more time indoors watching TV, had the highest rates of autism. [...] Researcher (sic) also found that areas with the most cable TV customers had the highest rates of autistic children.
So, then, if we follow the bouncing logic ball, the real claim is that children with autism just aren't socialized enough and don't spend enough time playing outdoors, and that if we socialize them better, they won't be autistic. (Sounds very Skinnerian to me. Behaviorism again. Hasn't this been discredited yet?)
Granted, this media report is certainly not telling the entire story. I would need to read the reseach in order to critique it any better than this. But from the media report, it appears that these researchers are claiming, or the media are attempting to use it to claim, that we wouldn't have autistics if we didn't have television, which is frigging ridiculous. There are plenty of historical incidents of autistic traits reported in almost every genius you can name. Did television cause Edison to demonstrate autistic traits? Or Einstein? Come ON, people.
Here's the comment I left on the Daily Mail's website:
This is the problem with the media's reporting of scientific research results. First, all the article states is that there is a correlation between autism in children and television viewing. A correlation simply means that two variables are statistically associated with each other. It does not automatically indicate causation!
Secondly, while it may be true that autistic children watch more television than non-autistic children, it is far more likely that autistic children like to watch TV because it's safe, predictable and familiar to them, and doesn't involve doing things with their bodies which bring up all their balance and coordination deficits, or trying to communicate with non-autistics, which is tiring and uncomfortable. If the media report of the researchers' assertions is indeed correct, then the researchers don't know how to do research, plain and simple. Their methodology as outlined in the article is highly suspect, and their conclusions are laughable.
My partner also points out that for autistic children, who are usually quite highly visually-oriented, TV-watching is quite possibly a visual stim. Even if it's not visible to the naked eye as such, a television is a light that is flashing 25 to 30 times per second. Many autistic children love blinky lights and will stare at them for hours (that's usually what's behind the fan-watching thing, too - the blades of the fan create interesting light patterns).
In any case, these researchers ought to be ashamed of themselves for a number of reasons, and the media, as usual, has taken something that sounded juicy and plastered it all over the net without bothering to do any fact-checking first, upsetting more parents and adult autistics in the process, and giving the anti-autism groups more ammunition that has all the strength of wet tissue paper when examined with a critical eye. That won't stop CAN and other such groups from bandying it about like a prize fish, though, any more than the anti-gay groups have ever had problems using Paul Cameron's idiotic studies to back up their claims.
This is becoming more and more of a hobbyhorse for me, and when I present my CSA paper next month, it's going to be part of the paper. This kind of junk research needs to frigging STOP. So does behaviorism, but that's for another article and another day.
Oh, this just gets better and better. According to articles about this in WebMD
and Science Daily
, the people doing this research were - get this - business professors and economists.
WTF are business professors and economists doing research on autism for?!? Isn't this, you know, a bit OUT OF THEIR FIELD?]
I found a link to the article. Here it is (opens as a .PDF, just be aware).
Going to look at it right now, but in their abstract (the summary at the beginning) they do say this:
"Our precipitation tests indicate that just under forty percent of autism diagnoses in the three states studied is the result of television watching due to precipitation, while our cable tests indicate that approximately seventeen percent of the growth in autism in California and Pennsylvania during the 1970s and 1980s is due to the growth of cable television."
Bolded emphases mine. "Due to"? "Is the result of"? Them's causative words, folks, not correlative. Point: These guys don't know how to do research.
And in just skimming the research, I find all kinds of admission that indicate they're not as sure about their results as they claim to be:
"Our empirical methodology assumes that autistic children spent their first three years of life in the same county where they reside when they are recorded in our data set."
That's one hell of a big assumption, isn't it?
"the California data continues to show no evidence of a positive correlation between precipitation and autism."
Yeah. And that's their main data set.
"So, although as indicated we do not believe our tests provide definitive evidence for our hypothesis, we believe the most likely explanation for our findings is that early childhood television watching is indeed a trigger for autism."
So, even though they don't have definitive evidence, they still like their hypothesis? What?
It should be obvious that this study has to do a significant amount of reaching and stretching to attempt to justify what it claims to find. It's far too much of a stretch for me.]