How Powerful are the Media?

Kind of a cliché, isn't it..."the power of the media?"

Several years ago, a book entitled The Bell Curve hit the shelves and raised one heck of a ruckus. Arguing that the genetic component of intelligence differed from race to race, the book was the subject of intense debate involving everything from politics to the scientific method to whether the authors were simply racists whose work ought to be dismissed outright.

I decided to participate in an ongoing Internet debate via a newsgroup open to all comers. Participants comprised as diverse a group as you could imagine: all races were represented, and there were students, assembly line workers, university professors, sociologists, short order cooks, kids, adults, the articulate and the barely comprehensible, the intelligent and the complete idiots, the whole shebang. Generally speaking, emotions ran very high, and things got more and more heated as time passed.

As the weeks and months wore on, some things about the nature of the interactions started to disturb me, so I decided to compile a few statistics.

There were 87 active participants, meaning those who generally contributed several times per week and stuck around over the long haul.

Of those 87, only 11 people had actually read the entire book. Another 7 had read bits and pieces. 45 had never even seen a copy.

So we had 69 people in that discussion who'd never read any of The Bell Curve. Among these were some of the most vitriolic and verbose. Everything that every one of these people knew about The Bell Curve had come from accounts they'd read or heard on television, radio, newspapers or magazines.

The thing that had disturbed me was that a very large number of these people obviously misapprehended what the authors had actually said, frequently got the facts completely wrong, and even quoted or paraphrased passages that in actuality weren't in the book in the first place.

What was even more disturbing was that, when corrected by people who had read the book, some of these folks argued back and told the correctors that they were wrong, citing as their proof things they'd read in the New York Times or heard on Oprah.

Interestingly, I subsequently discovered that, yes, they had indeed read those things in the New York Times or heard them on Oprah, but (and I kid you not) the people who wrote in the New York Times or appeared on Oprah apparently hadn't read the book either. Their sources were other media people who misquoted or mischaracterized the book.

Thus endeth the lesson.

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