Sociologist/college president speaks about the American “culture of fear”

Sociologist and college president Barry Glassner discusses his recent thoughts on the Culture of Fear in America:

Glassner, formerly the executive vice provost at the University of Southern California [and now president of Lewis & Clark College], has earned a reputation as a rational critic of dire news — whether it arises in media, political or popular circles. He says three out of four Americans report that they’re more afraid now than they were 20 years ago, and he’s kept track of how those fears have ebbed and flowed…

[Glassner speaking] We need to be careful to distinguish how people respond to fear mongering and who is spreading the fears. If we ask why so many of us are losing sleep over dangers that are very small or unlikely, it’s almost always because someone or some group is profiting or trying to profit by either selling us a product, scaring us into voting for them or against their opponent or enticing us to watch their TV program.

But to understand why we have so many fears, we need to focus on who is promoting the fears…

If I can point to one thing, it’s this: Ask yourself if an isolated incident is being treated as a trend. Ask if something that has happened once or twice is “out of control” or “an epidemic.” Just asking yourself that question can be very calming. The second (suggestion) is, think about the person who is trying to convey the scary message. How are they trying to benefit, what do they want you to buy, who do they want you to vote for? That (question) can help a lot.

The updated version of Glassner’s book has a great subtitle: “Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage & So Much More.”

Glassner’s advice seem to be this: be skeptical when you hear someone trying to suggest that you should be fearful. This is good advice in a lot of circumstances as you don’t want to blindly believe what you hear but you don’t want to immediately reject everything either. The trick is that it requires one to actively think about what they hear, not just passively take it in, and also to have some knowledge about how to evaluate the information they hear. This process requires some skill and practice. I wonder if Glassner talks about who is best suited to help people – perhaps colleges?

Additionally, I would be interested to hear what Glassner says we should be scared about besides people who want us to be fearful.

Quick Review: Stat-Spotting

Sociologist Joel Best has recently done well for himself by publishing several books about the misuse of statistics. This is an important topic: many people are not used to thinking statistically and have difficulty correctly interpreting statistics even though they are commonly used in media stories. Best’s most recent book on this subject, published in 2008, is Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data. A few thoughts on this text:

1. One of Best’s strong points is that his recommendations are often based in common-sense. If a figure strikes you as strange, it probably is. He has tips about keeping common statistical figures in your mind to help keep sense of certain statistics. Overall, he suggests a healthy skepticism towards statistics: think about how the statistic was developed and who is saying it.

2. When the subtitle of the book says “field guide,” it means a shorter text that is to the point. Best quickly moves through different problems with statistical data. If you are looking for more thorough explanations, you should read Best’s 2001 book Damned Lies and Statistics. (A cynical reader might suggest this book was simply a way to make more money of topics Best has already explored elsewhere.)

3. I think this text is most useful for finding brief examples of how to analyze and interpret data. There are numerous examples in here that could start off a statistics lesson or could further illustrate a point. The examples cover a variety of topics and sources.

This is a quick read that could be very useful as a simple guide to combating innumeracy.