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Does Mass Media Inhibit Critical Thinking Skills?

By November 30, 2003 2 Comments

On TV the other day there was a story about whether doctors in the United States over diagnose ADD and ADHD in children. The number of kids who are on Ritalin and Adderall has climbed in the past decade or so, and so the question is whether that’s because more kids have ADD these days, or because it’s being more readily prescribed.

The story began by profiling a doctor (I forget his name) who said there definitely is over diagnosis of ADD and ADHD. He was quoted as saying “I’m not saying that there are no valid cases of ADD, but just that some of the kids receiving this diagnosis aren’t truly in need of medication.” I was paying close attention to how he phrased his statement because I knew what was going to happen next.

Then the story shifted to B-roll footage of a small kid playing peacefully with some blocks. The voiceover was from his mom who described how her son used to be incapable of concentrating, but now that he was taking Ritalin he was fine. Then the dad came in and confirmed this. Finally, the mom was shown on camera emphasizing that, for her son, medication was the only solution.

The segment then cut over to the network anchor and the chief medical correspondent, who confirmed that some kids truly need medication. There was no attempt to address the issue of whether some kids might be taking medication unncessarily.

If you weren’t paying close attention (and most people don’t when they watch TV), you’d come away with the impression that the question about over diagnosis had been answered, and the answer was that ADD is not over diagnosed.

The mainstream media is not purposefully trying to retard our critical thinking skills, but that’s the outcome. Creating video stories is time-consuming. And they want to “tell both sides of the story.” Maybe if they had more time they’d find a case of a child that arguably didn’t need ADD medication, but then that would imply the parents weren’t doing their job. Even if they did spotlight a child with marginal ADD, they’d still need to establish that maybe some doctors don’t think that ADD is over diagnosed.

It follows the classic TV story formula: make the story easy to tell, and easy to understand, and don’t sweat small disconnect that inhibits critical reasoning skills.

Law school, and 20 plus years as an attorney, have made me hyper-vigilant about information I receive from other people. If someone is making a point I automatically start assessing the way they make the point, and the data that they use to back it up. It’s too bad that more people aren’t subjected to the training that law students receive.

Here’s a test of reasoning that comes from the excellent book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow:

Consider this: A study of the incidence of kidney cancer in the 3,141 counties of the United States reveals a remarkable pattern. The counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer are the lowest are mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditional Republican states in the Midwest, the South and the West. Now, what do you make of this information?

Most people (but sadly, I would argue, not all) quickly figure out that the fact the counties in question are “traditional Republican” has nothing to do with the incidence of kidney cancer. The thing that people tend not to focus on is that the incidence of kidney cancer will be lower in sparsely populated areas.

Kahneman argues that we have two modes of thinking: fast and slow. The fast mode gets fooled easily by “merely statistical facts,” that is, “facts, which change the probability of outcomes but do not cause them to happen.” And which mode of thinking would you guess that television tends to engage?

One final thought: I was watching the Charlie Rose show the other night and he had a roundtable panel of political analysts talking about Newt Gingrich’s recent fall in South Carolina and the likley implications going forward. The panel was pretty diverse, and a few of the members were folks you’d see on Meet The Press or CNN. What was interesting was that the level of discourse on Charlie Rose’s show was very civil and moved towards a strong consensus: i.e. Newt Gingrich was not likely to get the nomination for various reasons.

If this question were posed on CNN or MSNBC there would be no consensus, and the level of discourse would be contentious. Watching the Charlie Rose panel I was struck by the realization that, even when there is a consensus among rational people of differing views, it rarely gets revealed on mainstream TV shows. Again, I’m not saying that CNN deliberately misleads its viewers. Maybe they don’t understand how their approach degrades critical thinking skills.

You’d think that being in the business of “investigating news and important social topics” that they’d move toward understanding their influence on poor reasoning skills. But, as Upton Sinclair once said, “it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

So the last question for analysis is this: does the media make more money from letting people argue about things that don’t need as much debate if they could be explained better?


  • Lee says:

    Interesting perspective. As an engineer, I tend to see things that are presented by the media in a different light. I try to filter out any editorial content from the stories presented and see if there is anything of value remaining.

  • Bryan says:

    Interesting post Ernie. I don't know that I disagree with you. However, I am currently reading an interesting book that argues that our mass media (I am just through the TV section so far, he has not addressed news) is actually improving our thinking skills. The book is Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson.