Friday, September 11, 2009

Seeing through science

In How Fantasy Becomes Reality, social psychologist Karen E. Dill takes expert opinion on the mass media to the brink of hucksterism

The following review was published earlier this week in the books section at the History News Network.

From the very beginning of the American state, there has been persistent tension between governance that rests on professional expertise and the will of the people at large. On the one hand, expert opinion has been pretty much indispensable in establishing and administering policy in just about every area of national life. On the other, the strong libertarian streak in public opinion has often resulted in skepticism, if not outright hostility, toward the credentialed classes, whether on the basis of questioning the findings of such figures, opposition to a perceived political agenda on the part of those who claim to have the best solutions to social problems, or both. Though commercial interests have sometimes been the target of this populist resistance, they have also often been able to exploit it, claiming the marketplace is essence of democracy and that those who would regulate it are, in effect, aristocrats who oppose the good judgment of ordinary citizens.

Nowhere has this struggle played out more vividly than in the realm of popular culture, or, as a more specific subset is sometimes collectively denoted, “the media.” For well over a century now, clerics, educators, and other social reformers have raised concerns that television, movies, and various kinds of music and games pose a danger to the body politic. As a matter of genuine concern as well as tactical maneuvering, much of this concern has focused on young people: children, the reasoning goes, are at a uniquely vulnerable developmental stage of their lives, and lack the knowledge or power to protect themselves from threats by others – primarily corporations – who seek to exploit their enthusiasm for profit without concern for the long term threat to young people or society at large.

In How Fantasy Becomes Reality: Seeing Through Media Influence, social psychologist Karen E. Dill becomes the latest in a long line of experts to assert that the modern media have a deleterious social and political effect on the part of those, especially the young, who uncritically embrace them. The basis of this critique – a basis that has been widely viewed the most powerful, if not persuasive, in challenging the hegemony of corporate interests – is modern science. Citing a broad array of studies, many of them her own, Dill formulates a cluster of related claims: that media violence fosters aggression, that advertising reinforces gender and racial stereotypes, and, most insidiously of all, that those who are affected, even victimized, such phenomena tend to deny their effects. Unaware of their subliminal power, many of us routinely claim we are immune to them even as commercial interests pander to or flatter audiences for profit.

As a practical matter, it would be hard for a thoughtful person to seriously argue with these assertions (though it does rankle a bit to suggest that anyone who would is effectively in denial, which veers dangerously close to tautology). On the other hand, it would not take an article in a refereed journal to convince a thoughtful person that a steady diet of Girls Gone Wild or Grand Theft Auto is likely to be a cause of inappropriate behavior or, at any rate, to reflect some underlying dysfunction.

The tougher question is what to do about it. We all know that tobacco, pornography, and firearms tend to have deleterious consequences, but despite this fact treat them in markedly different ways and have not come to any durable political consensus on how to regulate them. We’ve come to even less consensus on the media generally, particularly since the advent of the Internet. Dill is careful to note throughout this book that there are many forms of popular culture of which she approves, ranging from Dora the Explorer to The Daily Show. Like a lot of things in life, you often have to take the bad with the good.

Especially since solutions can be worse than the original problem. “From an evolutionary perspective, learning appropriate behaviors is adaptive,” Dill asserts at one point in a discussion of sexual imagery in the media. “Let’s say that sexual promiscuity tends to cause negative outcomes such as sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and jealousy. To avoid these problems, a society might choose to punish sexual promiscuity for the good of the group at large.” Well, sure. But you don’t have to be Nathaniel Hawthorne or Thomas Hardy to wonder if Puritan Boston or Victorian England constitute evolutionary views of human sexuality.

Actually, Dill largely sidesteps the thorny political implications of her argument. Instead, the core of her approach is to argue for better media literacy. Fair enough. But again, it’s far from clear that science, as opposed to, say, semiotics, is the best means of fostering such literacy. Critical theorists can’t claim the kind of empirical validation that is the stock in trade of science (though scientists do seem to have a way of changing their minds about the nature of reality). Whatever their epistemological shortcomings, cultural critics tend to be clear-eyed about relations of power. If you want to reduce youth violence, focusing on economic redistribution may well make more sense than focusing on neurological effects of television-watching.

What’s a little odd about the book is the way Dill in effect hedges her claims to scientific legitimacy with a folksy tone and homely metaphors that undercut her credibility. If you don’t know about social networking sites, she says, “you’re probably just an old fart – just kidding.” She jokes about offering free tutorials on how to use an iPod while offering the helpful hint that one should “stop trying to ram your 8-track tape into the thing.” She offers the warning “nerd alert” as she discusses Harry Potter (if she thinks the audience for a university press book needs one, she’s barking up the wrong tree).

Dill also comes close to subverting the basis of her own claims to authority. She complains that a research finding indicating that the average video gamer is 33 years old is an example of “lies, damn lies and statistics.” At another point, she offers her view that “a video game can be art and it can be a major technological accomplishment that the creators can be proud of. But let’s be fair – scientific studies are also works of art, they have value, and they are also conducted with extreme care and with the hope that they will be of value to the world at large.” At times like these, it seems like what Dill wants more than anything else is public attention. She argues throughout her book that what makes experts different than merchants is that they’re not trying to trying to profit from their message. But as the book proceeds you get the feeling that there is a product being sold here, and that is Karen E. Dill, angling for an invitation to appear on a news program or at an international conference.

And yet, for all this, she’s not necessarily wrong in what she says. A public square without voices like Dill’s would be a meaner thing, and if she wants to add a social psychology note to the chorus (make that the cacophony), by all means she should join in. But in the end, expert or no, she’s going to have to elbow her way in to that square just like everyone else. Such are – and long have been – the vagaries of public opinion American society.