Last week I was listening to the radio and flipped the station to NPR; they were discussing autism. Their guest, a researcher with an autistic son, was explaining that the autism was only *seeming* to become more common because of epidemiology—the label 'autism' has broadened to include a whole spectrum of disorders, and doctors have gotten better at recognizing the symptoms of autism, so cases that would have previously been dismissed are now being more accurately diagnosed. He also explained the important statistical distinction between rates prevalence and actual occurrence. Almost as an afterthought, he also spent a few minutes debunking the ridiculous and baseless links to vaccination.
Now, before I'd flipped over to NPR, I'd been listening to Fox News. For the fifteen minutes or so before I'd changed the station, they were breathlessly covering a low-speed chase that was occurring on an interstate highway near Dallas. The cops were in pursuit of a pick-up truck that was gray. Or maybe light blue. The windows were tinted, and the reporters didn't know who was inside. Or why the cops were in pursuit. Or anything else, really. The news anchors in the studio were explaining that the chase had occasionally reached speeds of up to 70 mph—normal highway speed, on a highway, so I don't know why the fuck was that worth pointing out—and there were 6 police cars trailing the light blue truck. They transferred to the Dallas reporter who was following in a helicopter, who pointed out the gray truck, and noted the police in pursuit: "You can count the cars following!" he told us. "There's...1, 2... 3...4, 5." Then back to the studio for a minute, then to some other local spokesperson for something, who told us that the blue truck was currently being chased by 4 police officers. Then back to the studio...
So while NPR was discussing epidemiology and statistical data analysis, Fox News was trying to name colors and count—and struggling with both.
Now, to be fair(ish), this problem isn't unique to Fox News—as we saw last week with the madness around the goddamn balloon kid. Our 24 news cycle frequently results in these kinds of manufactured crises, where people endlessly discuss topics about which they have almost no information and which have no actual significance. This would be annoying by itself, but what's even more infuriating is the lost opportunity to provide real information on topics that actually matter. I realize this is a ridiculous idea, but can you imagine what it would be like if the dozens and dozens of hours the networks devoted to the balloon insanity had instead been spent going in-depth into the history and cultural nuances of Afghanistan/Pakistan, or examining health care systems around the world, or documenting that vaccination has been one of humanity's greatest successes? We might actually have something approaching a well-informed populace.
Like I said, ridiculous. That would undermine everything this country holds dear.