Earlier this week, Ottawa Citizen Journalist Daniel Gardner wrote a great article entitled "Dangerous Media Explosion" about the attempted terrorist bombing in Times Square, NY - -and noting that even though the bomb didn't go off, the media fear-mongering certainly exploded. Gardner writes:
"On talk radio, a blowhard breathlessly informed his audience that, although the bomb didn't actually -- you know -- explode, it could have, and if it had it could have killed "hundreds of people, maybe thousands," which would be difficult given that the deadliest such attack in history was a 12,000-lb. truck bomb that killed 241 U.S. Marines inside a crowded barracks in Beirut in 1983. But if the vehicle in Times Square had been packed with a completely different bomb, and if thousands of New Yorkers had strapped on bandoliers of hand grenades while balancing jars of nitroglycerine on their heads, and if those New Yorkers had huddled around the vehicle and waited until it exploded, it is indeed possible that it could have killed "hundreds of people, maybe thousands."
Gardner's article even appeared before this week's edition of Newsweek came out (pictured above, left) with the "Terror in Times Square" headline and the 53 number similar to TV Show "24"''s time-ticker number.
Gardner then goes on and mentions his book, the Science of Fear, which is a GREAT book about the media, businesses and politicians fear-mongering their way into gaining readers, viewers, sales and votes. If we have something to fear, we are more likely to pay/vote for someone to "fix" this problem for us. With nothing to fear, there is nothing to fix, and thus, we don't buy, or vote for change, or whatever it is they want us to do.
I wrote a long series on Gardner's book last fall -- you can see all of blog postings on this book, along with related posts, here.
In the Ottawa Citizen article, Gardner talks about fear about other statistically unfounded fears (in Gardner's book, he notes that the true fear of Terrorism is statistically overblown, because we could have a 9-11 type attack every week in the US and still have fewer people die from terrorist activities than die in automobiles each year -- and yet, we have no fear of automobiles) and in particular the subject of safety in schools. Parents are notoriously concerned about safety in our schools following highly publicized attacks like Columbine and at Virginia Tech University, and yet, while tragic, students are infinitely safer in our schools than they are in our homes, or in transport to school. Gardner writes:
Excessive fear can inflict a terrible cost. It can diminish the quality of life, obviously, but it can also result in squandered resources, since schools that spend money on security consultants, metal detectors, and lockdown drills have less money for textbooks, musical instruments, and healthy food in the cafeteria.
He's right of course, there are many things we spend dollars on that curb our fears -- and yet other things we SHOULD allocate those dollars toward that would alleviate real statistical concerns in our society -- like poor educations or health conditions from poor food quality in our school cafeterias. But we don't, because we don't always act rationally and let fears drive our decision-making process.
The day after Gardner's article ran, the Toronto Star ran a typical example of a fear mongering piece (I've posted a picture of the page to the left -- yet can catch it online for yourself here and get a 14-day subscription for free).
The column ran in conjunction with an article about Cheri DiNovo tabling a bill in Ontario's Parliament that would recind the provincial breed ban on 'pit bulls' -- which I wrote about yesterday.
In The Star's column, it takes a quote from Merrit Clifton stating that without the provincial breed ban -- "all hell would break loose."
However, there is no evidence that would support Clifton's claim.If you look at the number of dog bites by year in Ontario, there has been virtually no change in dog bites since the ban was put into place at the end of 2005 -- in fact, bites have remained very constant (except for 2003, before the ban took effect, numbers were dramatically lower). Maybe even more telling is that in the past 45 years, the entire nation of Canada has only seen one fatal attack by a pit bull type dog.
So there appears to be no evidence that all hell had broken loose in the years before the ban -- and no evidence that if the ban were recinded there would be any problems either. So it appears to be yet another attempt by the media (and Clifton) to stir up a fear of all hell breaking loose without any evidence that it would. Meanwhile, as with Gardner's school example, the resources being used to enforce this unenforceable breed ban -- a ban that is based on fear-mongering and not solid fact - would be better used in multiple other ways to deal with REAL problems and concerns....not just made up ones.
But the media -- and politicians like those who were responsible for enacting the ban in the first place - are great about creating fear -- it garners good eyeballs, and votes. If Ontario wants to really improve public safety (from dog bites and from all other) it will ignore those who rely purely on fear-mongering to try to create policy, and rely solely on those who are using fact-based measures to determine what would be effective policy--and all of those professional organizatoins are 100% against the province's breed ban.
I would be remiss if I finished this post without a couple of comments on Merrit Clifton.
Clifton has made a bit of a name for himself for his feaux study on dog bites. I won't go a lot into a lot of detail on this here - -as I've covered his misleading attempts manipulate data to justify breed specific legislation to prevent shelter killing here, and Lassie Get Help has a really detailed break down of his "analysis" here and here and here.
It should go without saying that you cannot have an accurate study that is based 100% on media reports (where even the severity of an injury comes solely from a media report) that represents a mere fraction of a percent of the total dog bites that require hospitalization in this country and expect the numbers to tell you much of anything. Never mind that someone who doesn't know the difference between a Bull Mastiff and a Presa Canario, or the sameness of a Blue Heeler and an Australian Cattle Dog, should not be put in charge of tracking anything by breed.
But Clifton thinks it's statistical research -- which is problematic.
But Clifton's most recent "report" points to even a bigger comedy of mis-information that I just feel obligated to touch on - -and shows exactly what happens when someone tries so hard to make a point that they start literally creating data to support it.
In Clifton's 2006 study (that covers media-reported bites from 1982 - November 13, 2006), Clifton's numbers suggest that there were 2,209 "attacks doing bodily harm" and 1,323 "maimings".
In Clifton's 2009 Study (which covers bites from 1982-through the end of 2009), Clifton reports 2,694 "attacks doing bodily harm" and 1,493 "Maimings".
So from 2006 to 2009, Clifton reports 485 "attacks doing bodily harm" and 170 "maimings"
However, Clifton takes it one step further. He also pulls out the total number of attacks by "pit bulls, Rottweilers, Presa Canarios and their mixes".
In 2006, Clifton shows this number to be 1,638 "attacks" and 893 "maimings". In 2009, he shows 2,147 "attacks" and 1108 "maimings".
So in the time frame, he shows 509 attacks doing bodily harm by his selected groups of breeds and 215 maimings. So in the past 3 years, Clifton's "report" shows that pit bulls, rottweilers and presa canarios were were responsible for MORE attacks and maimings than he shows even happening -- which is obviously impossible.
For the life of me I cannot find any mathmatical error in the numbers -- and because Clifton doesn't provide any back up information it is impossible to tell where the error is. But needless to say, it pretty much distinguishes any idea that his report is valid if he is reporting three breeds of dogs as being responsible for more attacks than he reports actually happened during a 3 year timeframe.
And that folks, is what happens when you let the fear mongerers lead the parade.
We, as a society are better than this. And shame on the Toronto Sun for running the fear-mongering article and for continuing to push fruitless, wasteful legislation.
H/T on the Toronto Sun Editorial to Brindle Stick.