Blog, Media + Politics, Politics

The Ripping Point

Originally published February 24, 2017 on The Huffington Post

Years ago, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the concept of The Tipping Point. This occurs when a system suddenly moves into a dramatically different state. I believe we are confronting a far worse condition, The Ripping Point. We are in a very real danger of ripping apart as a nation. Worst yet, I don’t see any way out.

Differences are the essence of democracy. But some are injurious to its very existence and foundation. Take the issues of a free press and an independent judiciary.

To my knowledge, Trump is the only President who has called the press “The Enemy of the People.” In defending him, Republicans are at best disingenuous. At worst, along with Trump, they are suffering from a collective thought disorder: the inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, indeed to make up whatever reality suits them. When they try to excuse his odious remarks by saying that all Presidents have criticized the press for being overly critical of them, they not only distort the truth, but reality itself. It’s one thing to be critical of the press, which at some point all Presidents have been, but quite another to delegitimize it as an institution, which Trump has done repeatedly.

The same goes for the judiciary. One is always entitled to be critical of a court’s decisions, but not to defame individual judges or the entire judicial system.

The tearing down of the basic institutions of democracy begins with the corruption of thought itself.

Blog, Media + Politics

Fake News: The Product Of Fake Inquiry

Originally published 12/16/2016 on the Huffington Post

Fake news is due primarily to the serious loss of trust in established institutions. Far too many have abandoned traditional ways of arriving at the “truth.” Since “truth” is fundamental to the issue, let me analyze fake news from a philosophical perspective.

One of the preeminent ways of acquiring valid knowledge is by means of expert consensus (historically known as empiricism). “Truth” is that with which a group of independent, well-qualified experts agree. More generally, it’s the average of independent data, observations, etc. The tighter the agreement between the data, experts, etc., the more that the average is regarded as the “best approximation of the truth.”

For example, the “body of ‘reputable scientists worldwide’” is in strong agreement that human activities are largely responsible for global warming. Thus, that humans are responsible for global warming is essentially settled.

Those who are susceptible to fake news—especially conspiracy theories—generally start with a set of “preconceived truths such as “one can’t trust the biased news media, etc.” These “truths” are so strongly held that they are incontrovertible. One then works backwards to find sources that unequivocally support one’s predetermined views. Instead of using independent journalists who are experts in seeking out facts and counter checking them meticulously, one gravitates—indeed, seeks out— instead towards groups of partisan advocates, i.e., “favored experts.”

Well-known cognitive biases are paramount in both forming and in confirming one’s favored beliefs. Confirmation bias—deliberately searching out those sources that support one’s favored conclusions—is predominant. So is cognitive closure. One’s preferred truths are impervious to modification.

With the growth of social media, one cannot counter fake news merely by presenting scientific evidence and engaging in reasoned argument. Scientific evidence and reasoned arguments are generally rejected. Instead, one needs friendly, trusted faces that can embed scientific evidence in compelling stories.

If social media were truly responsible, it would deliberately develop sites that were devoted to countering fake news. It would also hire editors to ferret out fake news. In addition, it would employ reputable scholars to test what’s most effective in countering fake news.

We’re naïve if we think that “scientific facts” alone will counter fake news. It wouldn’t exist if it didn’t fulfill deep emotional needs.

To respond to such needs, we need to bring Jon Stewart out of retirement to host a new show along the lines of Fake News Exposes! Stephen Colbert is expert enough to take on the job as well!

In the end, fake news is anything but a joke.

Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology, Technology

The New Media: In Your Head and in Your Body All the Time

Originally published May 16th, 2016 on the Huffington Post

The early days of commercial TV are aptly characterized as “appointment media.” One had to make specific “appointments” as it were to watch one’s favorite shows since they were broadcast only at precise times and rarely repeated. With the advent of cable TV, we moved to “destination media.” Certain channels offered 24 hours of programming that was targeted at specific groups such as kids, gardening enthusiasts, news junkies, etc. Today, we have “always on media.”

A personal experience, but one which is all too common, illustrates the nature of “always on media.” More than once, our out-of-state niece has stayed with us. She literally sleeps with her cell-phone next to ear, which of course is “always on” lest she fail to be instantly “in touch” with all her friends. Anything less is cause for great shame and humiliation.

In a word, we’ve moved from fixed TV screens to small portable ones that are integral parts of our every waking moments, and unfortunately for teenagers everywhere, when they should be asleep.

The psychological and social effects are enormous. Parents report great difficulties in getting their children to turn off their cell-phones, iPads, etc., and to engage in meaningful conversations at the family table, assuming of course that families still have regular mealtimes at which they eat together. When families do get together, parents report that heated arguments often break out over getting kids to turn off their “screens.” But more than this, occupational therapists report that today’s children do not have the necessary core strength to sit and walk properly because too much time is spent slouching in chairs glued to their “screens.”

Yes, we know that there have always been complaints over new technologies that have both improved and disrupted our lives. Thus, when air-conditioning came into widespread use, it was feared that it would destroy a sense of community because people would no longer congregate on their steps on hot nights. Instead of talking with one another, and thus getting to know their neighbors, they would retreat to their homes where they would be isolated. Of course such fears were overblown.

Nonetheless, we feel that something is very different about today’s media and technologies. Today’s technologies are not only disrupting old established businesses (think Uber and Airbnb), but they are disrupting our lives even more. In part, this is because those who develop such technologies have little if any training, and hence even less interest, in human, and especially, child development. Instead, what happens is that the latest, great technologies are largely dumped on society, and more often than not on the most fragile and vulnerable members, without any forethought given to their potential deleterious social effects.

Take Facebook. If one had deliberately set out to intentionally design a perfect mechanism to bully young children relentlessly 24/7, one couldn’t have designed a better platform coupled to cell phones! Ideally, parents, child psychologists, and even kids themselves should have been involved before the launch of Facebook to talk about possible ways to curb cyber-bullying.

While not perfect by any means, enough is known about the history of technology such that there are no valid excuses for not having historians, psychologists, and sociologists involved from the very beginning in the development of new technologies. In the case of cell-phones, the genie is already out of the bottle. It will take a concerted effort by parents to band together politically to push for greater controls.

If you think that cell-phones have bad effects, stay tuned. Even more worrisome are technologies on the horizon. We already have clothes and gloves that are full of sensors that “meld” seamlessly onto one’s body, “sense, “and relay all kinds of data to interested parties for their personal gain. The day is not far off that we will have implants such that we won’t need external cell-phones. They’ll be integral parts of us by literally being in us.

If there are any doubts whatsoever about whether such concerns are overblown, then consider that recently Carnegie Mellon announced that engineers have developed new technologies whereby a person’s skin essentially becomes a “touch screen.” Talk about “being always on and literally ‘in’ one’s body!”

Who’s thinking about the effects, both positive and negative, of such “developments,” if we can truly call them that? If we don’t start thinking about them now, it’ll be too late.

Blog, Media + Politics, Politics

Shamelessly Selling Themselves: When the Media Is Its Own Worst Enemy

Originally published March 17, 2016 on Huffington Post

We’ve known for years that the news media is part and parcel of the entertainment industry. What else is new? It thus comes as no big surprise that in this season’sHouse of Cards, CNN’s John King and Wolf Blitzer play cameo roles in “covering” President Underwood’s continuing shenanigans. Still, my wife and I were surprised to find Gwen Ifill of the PBS Newshour appearing in the show as well.

In a time when the media have come under more attacks than ever, especially given Donald Trump’s scandalous contempt for the media, one would think that serious newscasters would have the sense to avoid anything that would put them in a dubious light. Apparently not!

In watching House of Cards, my wife and I speculated on the assumptions that John King, Wolf Blitzer, and Gwen Ifill might have made, both consciously and unconsciously, in agreeing to appear on such a show. (Yes, my wife and I are hooked on House of Cards as much as anyone.) The assumption that most readily comes to mind is that their agents said “appearing on the show is good for your career; it keeps you in the public eye.”

One of the most critical assumptions is that appearing on House of Cards will not damage their credibility as “serious newscasters.” Another is that viewers will both accept and can separate newscasters when they are playing dramatic roles from their formal roles as real newscasters.

But did they ever consider what if any of the assumptions were false? I doubt it, or at least not seriously enough to prevent them from taking such an “assignment.”

As someone who has worked in the field of crisis management for over 30 years, one of the surest ways that individuals, organizations, and whole societies get into crises is by not raising up to the surface and challenging critical, taken-for-granted assumptions.

Yes, we will continue to watch CNN and the PBS Newshour, but with much more cynicism. In times when all established institutions are under attack, we and they need to do more to support them, not work against them.

Blog, Media + Politics, Philosophy + Systems, Sociology

Enough Is Enough: It’s Time to Get Tough on Organizations That Involve Children in Any Form or Manner

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November, 28, 2012

For over 30 years, I have consulted with regard to and studied virtually every type of crisis imaginable (manmade and so-called natural disasters, criminal, environmental, ethical, financial, PR, terrorism, etc.). I have particularly studied the general lessons that all crises have to teach. I want to apply a few of these lessons to one of the most egregious of all crises: child abuse.

Whether we are experiencing an “actual, real epidemic” of child abuse or because of the overwhelming presence of the media we are just more aware of it is beside the point. What is not beside the point is that some of the most important and highly esteemed organizations have not only engaged in serious cases of child abuse, but engaged in concerted and repeated actions to protect and/or shelter those guilty of committing abuse. These include: 1. The Catholic Church; 2. The Boy Scouts of America; 3. Penn State; and 4. BBC. To add to the list, recently, the voice of Elmo supposedly had a sexual relationship with a then-underage boy. As a result, he abruptly resigned from The Sesame Street Workshop in order to protect the organization from further unpleasant publicity.

In short, some of the most highly esteemed organizations and institutions have engaged in nothing less than the worst kind of betrayal of the public trust.

Since the cases are well-known and have been covered extensively in the media, I shall not bother to review the livid details. Instead, I want to cover what my years of studying crises lead me to suggest.

The first and primary lesson that it is never ever the case that no one in an organization knows or knew what was going on or occurred. Instead, out of obedience, misplaced loyalty, or fear, they are pressured to keep it to themselves. Or, if they do report it to a higher-up, they are assured that the situation will be dealt with firmly and promptly. When they see that nothing is done and/or that those who report it are dealt with harshly, they soon learn to turn a deaf ear and blind eye.

The second primary lesson, which is strongly related to the first, is that, no matter what the particular kind of crisis, the vast overwhelming majority of organizations cannot be trusted to monitor themselves. (This is one of the other lessons that crises teach.) For this reason, I insist in no uncertain terms that at their own expense organizations and institutions that involve or serve children in any way be monitored for any hints and possibilities of child abuse at least once a year by outside organizations specifically equipped and trained to do so.

I am extremely well aware of what I am calling for. It will not be cheap or easy. But then, it will cost substantially less that the cost of a full-blown crisis. (This is another of the other lessons that crises teach. Crises always cost more than preparation and/or mitigation efforts.)

To be perfectly clear, I am calling for trained interviewers to conduct broad open-ended interviews with a broad cross-section of the members of organizations to probe for potential cases and indicators of child abuse. Under no circumstance are the interviews to be designed to seek out and punish gays and/or consenting adults for whatever they wish to engage in the comfort, privacy, or security of their homes. It goes without saying that whatever the practices, they are not to be engaged in at work.

I am well aware of the response of civil libertarians to such ideas and proposals. For this reason, the individuals and organizations that conduct such interviews have to do everything in their power to respect and comply with the privacy of individuals. Indeed, to avoid their own crises, they must do everything they can to seek out and work closely with civil libertarians to design interviews that will meet their standards. Whether they can meet those standards or not, I still recommend that such interviews be performed.

As a social scientist, I am of course well aware that nothing is perfect in assessing the behavior of individuals and/or organizations. But then crisis management also teaches us that perfection is not the standard. Despite our best intentions, we can’t prevent all crises. But this doesn’t relieve us from doing everything in our power to lower the chances of crises.

In balancing the rights of adults versus those of children, I am obviously squarely on the side of children. Those who choose to work in organizations and institutions that involve or serve children have no alternative in my mind but to subject themselves to greater scrutiny.

Finally, it is to their benefit that organizations allow themselves to be monitored. How else can they not merely protect but ensure their reputation? If not, then they had better be prepared for severe losses in financial support and membership.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November, 28, 2012