Media, Misanthropy, Murder, and Misery
By Bryan Caplan
There are over a billion Chinese people. If even one in a thousand is
a robber, you can provide one million examples of Chinese robbers to
appease the doubters. Most people think of stereotyping as “Here’s one
example I heard of where the out-group does something bad,” and then you
correct it with “But we can’t generalize about an entire group just
from one example!” It’s less obvious that you may be able to provide
literally one million examples of your false stereotype and still have
it be a false stereotype. If you spend twelve hours a day on the task
and can describe one crime every ten seconds, you can spend four months
doing nothing but providing examples of burglarous Chinese – and still
have absolutely no point.
If we’re really concerned about media bias, we need to think about
Chinese Robber Fallacy as one of the media’s strongest weapons. There
are lots of people – 300 million in America alone. No matter what point
the media wants to make, there will be hundreds of salient examples. No
matter how low-probability their outcome of interest is, they will never
have to stop covering it if they don’t want to.
I feel this way about a lot of things. The media is always giving us
stories of how tech nerds are sexist in some way or another. But we may
suspect they want to push that line regardless of whether it’s true. How
many tech nerds are there? A million? Ten million? How many lurid
stories about harassment in Silicon Valley have you heard? Do we know if
this is higher or lower than the base rate for similar industries?
Whether it’s going up or down? What it would look like if we actually
had access to the per person rates?
Which reminds me. Suppose you hear about a shocking murder on the news. Or even a shocking mass murder. Assuming you have no personal connection to the victims, how should you react? Well, there are roughly 400,000 murders on Earth per year. That averages out to more than 1000 per day. To me, that leaves two attitudinal choices: Either be endlessly miserable until the carnage ends, or consciously refuse to let 1000 daily murders ruin your day. Social Desirability Bias notwithstanding, I choose the latter course.