Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on November 6, 2020

in Current Affairs, Data, Media, Myths and Fallacies, Risk and Safety

… is from pages 104-105 of the late Hans Rosling’s 2018 book, Factfulness:

The media can’t waste time on stories that won’t pass our attention filters.

Here are a couple of headlines that won’t get past a newspaper editor, because they are unlikely to get past our own filters: “MALARIA CONTINUES TO GRADUALLY DECLINE.” “METEOROLOGISTS CORRECTLY PREDICTED YESTERDAY THAT THERE WOULD BE MILD WEATHER IN LONDON TODAY.” Here are some topics that easily get through our filters: earthquakes, wars, refugees, disease, fire, floods, shark attacks, terror attacks. These unusual events are more newsworthy than everyday ones. And the unusual stories we are constantly shown by the media paint pictures in our heads. If we are not extremely careful, we come to believe that the unusual is usual: that this is what the world looks like.

For the first time in world history, data exists for almost every aspect of global development. And yet, because of our dramatic instincts and the way the media must tap into them to grab our attention, we continue to have an overdramatic worldview. Of all our dramatic instincts, it seems to be the fear instinct that most strongly influences what information gets selected by news producers and presented us consumers.

DBx: Keep in mind the above insight as you encounter the daily breathless reports of rising Covid-19 case counts. At the very least, ask what’s happening with the Covid-19 case fatality rate. However imperfect this particular statistic might be, surely it’s good news that it’s falling. Yet how often do you encounter reports of this good news in newspaper headlines or in top-of-the-hour network radio news announcements?

While you have on your big-boy or big-girl thinking cap, inquire also about the age distribution of Covid cases and deaths. And then, perhaps, wonder, for example, why teams in the National Football League get all panicky about some of their players testing positive for Covid, remembering – as you wonder – that these players are all extraordinarily fit and muscular young men who, for a living, on a weekly basis ram themselves mightily into each other.

If you’re like me and like my friend Lyle Albaugh (from whom I steal the following observation), it seems stunningly silly to freak out about NFL players testing positive for Covid given the enormous risks to their health that is routinely posed by their very profession. (Yes, yes, I know: Covid is contagious while concussions and spinal injuries are not. But unless NFL players work on their off days in hospitals or nursing homes, it’s difficult to see that the cost of preventing these young men from working at their jobs is remotely justified by the resulting benefit.)


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