National Public Radio (NPR) has a feature they call “Hidden Brain.” It purports to be all about the supposedly hidden goings-on in the human brain that, they say, explain a lot of human activity and thinking.
The spokesdude for “Hidden Brain” is one Shankar Vedantam, and he’s always describing this study or that experiment, that’s supposed to illustrate all the points he makes in his presentations. The theme of most of these presentations is: human biases. Biases which we’re generally not even aware that we have.
I’ve listened to dozens of these “Hidden Brain” features, and they’re not awful, but all they generally do is a whole bunch of… Stating The Obvious. However, as in everything with NPR, they’re incomplete, and therefore misleading.
This morning for example, NPR’s Vedantam presented something about media coverage of terrorism. He said that it was all disproportionate by race, and that as soon as it appeared to be a muslim committing the terrorist act, the coverage was something like four times as much as when a white dude perpetrated the act. This, Vedantam concluded, was due to bias. Racial bias.
Here’s what NPR, Vedantam and the entire “Hidden Brain” feature have always left out. To what extent do “biases” simply reflect — accurately… reality?
The terrorism example that NPR used stated the following to support their contention that media coverage is racially biased (And by “racially biased,” NPR means… BAD!): Muslims represent about one percent of the American population, but garner about 12 percent of the coverage of terrorism in the media.
Did it not ever occur to NPR and Shankar Vedantam that “muslim terrorism” is kind of a thing in the world? Maybe muslims represent only one percent of the American population, but they commit way far and away, more than one percent of all terrorist acts on American soil!
The soon-to-be-old axiom is true: Not all muslims are terrorists, but the vast majority of terrorists are muslims.
Between you and me, I’m kinda surprised that only 12 percent of media coverage goes to muslims committing terrorist acts. That seems low to me. Terrorism by any other group on the planet is just not as common or widespread as terrorism by muslims. Sorry. If the media are slightly biased toward covering muslim terrorism, it just might be because muslims are way disproportionately biased toward perpetrating terrorism.
In the broadcast feature (not in their online page here) NPR’s Vedantam also mentioned something about media coverage of black violent crime. I forget the details. However, the sad truth is that Black Americans, representing about 13 percent of the population, commit way more violent crime — about 30% of it — than their numbers indicate they should.
White Americans commit violent crime at a rate far lower than their numbers in the population would indicate. Interestingly, white Americans commit disproportionately more other crime, just not violent crime. Violent crime is, of course, the kind of misbehavior that grabs all the headlines.
Every single, solitary person who encounters a bear in the woods is biased toward fleeing. Is this irrational? “But, not every bear you encounter is interested in eating you!” say the people who don’t like bias.
Every single person who sees menacing clouds approaching is biased toward covering up the valuables, moving the picnic stuff indoors and seeking shelter. “But, not every dark cloud is going to dump rain on your noggin!” say the ones who don’t like bias.
Still, are running from the bear, and going indoors before the storm irrational behaviors? Just silly biases? Of course they’re not. Or are they rather simply perfectly logical responses to well-understood realities? By George, that’s exactly what they are!
As a human being, of any kind, man, woman or child, you have a vastly greater chance of being murdered in a terrorist act by someone claiming to be a muslim. As a black person, you have a vastly greater chance of meeting your death at the hands of a black man, than at the hands of any other person. Well-understood realities involving life and limb tend to produce biases.
Our lives are, among other things, our responses to our perception of the odds of something — anything — happening. The more and the better we understand things, the more biases we’ll have — not fewer — because people simply don’t do things according to their percentage of the population.
As I said up top, these “Hidden Brain” features of NPR’s are okay, but they’re incomplete, and therefore misleading. This is because the point that NPR and Shankar Vedantam did not address with their piece this morning — and, I should add, the point they’ve never even tried to address — is: Americans’ biases just might be perfectly logical, rational, intelligent responses to the world around them.