A Philosopher's Blog

Getting it Wrong

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 16, 2018

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On February 14th, 2018 seventeen people were murdered during a school shooting. As per the well-established script: the media focused on the weapon used, the right offered “thoughts and prayers” while insisting that this was not the time to talk about gun violence, and the left called for more gun control. As other have pointed out many times, this script will also play out in the usual way—the attention of the nation will drift away, children will be buried by their parents and nothing will really be done. This cycle will repeat with the next school shooting. And the next. As a country, we are getting it wrong in many ways.

One way we get it wrong, which is a fault of the media and the left, is to obsess on the specific weapon used in the latest school shooting. In this case, like many other cases, the weapon was an AR-15. The media always seems to ask why the weapon is used in shootings; the easy and obvious answer is that it shows up at mass shootings for the same reason that McDonald wrappers and bags end up alongside the roads I run. That is, both the AR-15 and McDonalds

are very popular. There is also the fact that the AR-15 is an ideal weapon for engaging a crowd—it has a large magazine capacity, it is lethal and is easy to shoot. But, the AR-15 is not unique in those traits. There are many other assault rifles (as they are called) that are similar. For example, the AK-47 and its clones are also effective weapons of this type; but they are the Arby’s of assault weapons. That is, less popular. There is also the fact that non-assault weapons are just as lethal (or more so) than the assault rifles. They just tend to have smaller magazines. This shows one of the problems with the obsession with the AR-15—there are other weapons that would do the same.

Another problem with obsessing about the specific weapon is that it allows an easy red herring counter. A red herring is when one diverts attention from the original issue to another issue. When, for example, a reporter starts pressing a congressman about the AR-15, they can easily switch the discussion from gun violence to a discussion about the AR-15, thus getting away from the real issue. The solution is, obviously enough, is to get over the obsession with the specific weapon and focus instead on the issue of gun violence in general. Which leads to another way we get it wrong.

School shootings are horrific, but they are not the way most victims of gun violence die. In general, homicides are at record low levels (although we are still a world leader in homicides). Most gun-related deaths are suicides and the assault rifle is not the most commonly used weapon in most gun deaths. School shootings and mass shootings do get the attention of the media and the nation, but this seems to enable us to ignore the steady flow of gun-related deaths that do not grab the headlines. This is not to say that mass shootings are not a serious problem, nor that we should not act in response to them. But, the gun violence problem in America goes far beyond mass shootings. It is, ironically, a quiet problem that does not get the spotlight of the media. As such, even less is done about the broader problem than is done about mass shootings. And, to be honest, little or nothing is done about mass shootings.

While there are proposals from the left for gun control, the right usually advocates having a “good guy with a gun”, addressing mental illness, and fortifying places such as schools. There seems to be little evidence that the “good guy with a gun” will solve the problem of mass shootings; but this is largely due to the fact that there is so little good data about gun violence. While mental illness is clearly a problem and seriously addressing mental illness would be a broad social good, it seems unlikely that the vague proposals being offered would really do anything. America essentially abandoned the mentally ill during the Reagan era, an approach that has persisted to this day. The right does not seem to be serious about putting in the social services needed to address mental illness; they merely bring it up in response to mass shootings to distract people from gun control. The left, while expressing concern, also has done little—we have massive problems in this country that are simply festering away. Also, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims than perpetrators, so addressing mental health in a way that focuses on mass shooters would not address the much broader problem.

The proposals to create “Fortress Academia” might seem appealing, but there is the obvious problem with cost: public schools tend to be chronically underfunded and it is not clear where the money needed for such fortification would come from. There is also the fact that turning schools intro fortresses seems fundamentally wrong and is, perhaps, a red herring to distract people from the actual causes of the problem. To use an analogy, it is like addressing the opioid epidemic by telling people to get better home security to prevent addicts from breaking in to steal things to sell to buy drugs. This is not to say that school safety is a bad idea, just that turning our schools into forts does not seem to be the best approach.

I know that it will not be that long before I am writing about another mass shooting; people will move on to other things, as they always do, and the malign neglect of the problem will persist.


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  1. dh said, on February 17, 2018 at 1:24 am

    I don’t know that I’m willing to say that we get this wrong to the extent you claim. After all, FBI and DOJ statistics show that gun-related deaths have steadily declined since they reached their peak in the early 1990’s. If you want to claim that we are getting it wrong, then the decline over the last 25 years or so has happened in a vacuum, independent of any actions we might have taken, directly or indirectly.

    I do not claim to know what we are doing right, but I think there must be something. While we know that correlation does not necessarily mean causation, one would think that the narrative that “guns cause gun violence” would at least be supported by a concomitant decrease in individual gun ownership – but the fact is that it is the opposite. As rapidly as gun violence has gone down, gun ownership has increased, which is a very troubling statistic for those supporting the gun-control “solution”.

    A reasonable counter to this argument might be regarding suicide – that of the ten states with the highest per-capita rate of gun ownership, some seven or eight of them also have the highest rates of suicide by gun. Some research has concluded that since suicide is a spontaneous act, and having an easy means to commit suicide can lead to an increase in the rate – based on the idea that if opportunity doesn’t present itself at the height of passion, the passion will subside and the act will not be committed. There is some merit to this, I suppose, but there is a definite absence of any desire to understand the underlying cause of the urge to commit suicide. We might be able to conclude that in the absence of guns the rate of suicide will decrease – but without dealing with the cause, the decrease will be finite and the problem will still exist. We don’t know how much the rate will decrease – and perhaps those troubled souls will just adapt over time. We do know that it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, now that you don’t have a gun, I’m sure you feel better and don’t want to kill yourself”.

    If I were to follow your line of thinking about where we get it wrong, I would say that on both sides we set aside any kind of critical thinking in favor of supporting our favored political narrative. Even in your own seemingly unbiased, middle of the road analysis, you tip your hand …

    “The solution is, obviously enough, is to get over the obsession with the specific weapon and focus instead on the issue of gun violence in general. Which leads to another way we get it wrong.

    Sorry, the solution, no matter how obvious it seems to you, may just not be to focus on gun violence in general. How about just violence?

    People who die in gang-related incidents are not victims of guns, they are victims of a gang lifestyle. Why are there gangs in the first place? As long as we are comparing our homicide rates to other countries, do you think it might be reasonable to compare gang-membership with them as well? Do we have more gangs or fewer than other industrialized nations, and why? If we have more, is it the result of better policing on their part, or less incentive? What might be the incentives for joining a gang? Poverty? Racism? Drugs? Any and all of these things are, to me, intuitively greater causes for homicide and violence than the mere presence or availability of guns.

    So suicide rates have increased, while homicide rates have decreased over the same period of time. I think it’s extremely short sighted to try to infer a common denominator in those two statistics. In terms of the latter, I would think that community outreach programs, better policing, better education, and efforts like the citywide, multi-agency, multi-year cleanup spearheaded by Rudy Giuliani in New York have to be considered when accounting for the reduction in violence in general, and homicides and shootings in particular. Gun ownership increased, but the motive and incentive for their use decreased.


    So why is it the opposite for suicide? Why is there a greater, not lesser, incentive for the despondent and hopeless to reach for a weapon of immediate self-destruction?

    The rate of suicide among veterans is double than that among non-veterans. More active-duty soldiers have died as a result of suicide than in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Do we conclude that this is because they have access to guns?

    The rate of suicide among LBGTQ is three times the national average. Of course, if we were to adjust our gun control laws to restrict gun ownership among this population, we would be having a discussion about discrimination, not gun control. Maybe it’s a social problem after all …

    There are a number of studies that are now linking autism-spectrum disorders and Asperger’s syndrome with a marked increase in suicidal thoughts and attempts. These studies also show that some 18% of autistic children have been physically abused, and 16% have been sexually abused. Another possible factor is the likely increased prevalence of chronic pain in people with autism; and autism has been linked with chronic fibromyalgia.

    Victims of rape are 13 times more likely to attempt or commit suicide than those who are not victims of crimes.

    Taking the means away from these people does nothing to solve the problem – only to superficially palliate our concerns and perhaps get some votes for some passionate “caring” politician.

    I think it would be fruitful to at least investigate the effect the Internet, Social Media, 24-hour news and the increase in “in-your-face” political anger and hatred has had since its infancy in the early 1990’s. There have been many peer-reviewed studies on phenomena such as “Facebook Depression”, the social isolation and alienation that have become so prevalent within the context of our ubiquitous smart-phone use, our increasing inability to relate to other people in face-to-face encounters.


    Do you think it’s more reasonable to think that people commit suicide because there’s a gun in the house, or because they are socially isolated, have low self esteem, feelings of worthlessness, and feelings of inadequacy because of constant comparison to thousands of others they call “friends”? Do you think that perhaps these negative feelings might be exacerbated by membership in populations that carry social stigma and might subject them to abuse or bullying

    Facebook and Social Media aren’t the only culprits here, of course. There is a very strong feeling of animosity among the middle class in this country – blind envy of the 1% – anger against those who pay lower taxes than themselves – an artificially contrived and fomented class envy and anger in support of the political aspirations of, ironically, the very 1% that are the target of the anger. I’m baffled by the success of this, but it’s there.

    If we are “getting it wrong”, we’re getting it wrong because we are focused on two partisan sound-bites – “gun control” and “mental illness”. But I don’t think that’s really where we are – it’s just where the news is, and where politicians are. Meanwhile, people who follow in the footsteps of leaders like Rudy Giuliani are addressing the real problems and getting results. Practitioners who focus on the psychological problems resulting from social media and political rancor are addressing the real problems and getting results. They just don’t get the attention in the headlines that the AR 15’s and NeverTrumpers get.

    Meanwhile, gun deaths in this country are on the decline, so someone’s doing something right.

  2. dh said, on February 17, 2018 at 2:00 am

    Just a little additional fodder for discussion here –

    Seung-Hui Cho, the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre, displayed various forms of mental illness. He had been diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder, During much of his middle school and high school years, he received therapy and special education support. After graduating from high school, Cho enrolled at Virginia Tech. Because of federal privacy laws, Virginia Tech was unaware of Cho’s previous diagnosis or the accommodations he had been granted at school. In 2005, Cho was accused of stalking two female students. After an investigation, a Virginia special justice declared Cho mentally ill and ordered him to attend treatment.

    Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Sandy Hook school shooting (who also committed suicide), suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety disorders, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Amazingly, the Connecticut State Attorney’s office concluded that these conditions neither “caused nor led to” his actions. And of course, what most Americans believe is that this massacre was because he had a gun.

    Charles Whitman, the University of Texas Tower shooter, was an ex-Marine sharpshooter. The first of his killings during that spree were of his mother and wife, whom he stabbed to death.

    Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two behind the Columbine massacre, did not use guns at all in their primary attack – they used bombs. Their personal journals indicated that they wanted to continue and compete with the terroristic acts of the Oklahoma City bombing and other incidents of the 1990’s. The Columbine massacre initiated investigation into school bullying, social outcasts, goth culture, teenage internet use and gun culture. Yet what we remember is the debate over gun control.

    To conclude that the common denominator among all these incidents is accessibility to guns is to be shooting very wide of the mark. Those closest to the situations know the reasons – they have investigated them and drawn conclusions – they are aware of mental health disorders, anxiety, Asperger’s syndrome, social isolation, internet use … yet the issues have been co-opted and repackaged in service of political agendas.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 17, 2018 at 8:00 am

    Killing is America’s raison d etre… Our culture is permeated with violence and disregard for human life. It shows in our movies, television, and our video games… it shows in our government’s foreign policy, which basically amount to telling other nations to do as we say or our military will kill you… this is what has happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Syria… our nation idolizes killer Chris Kyle, the so-called American Sniper, whose mercenary company has the motto “Despite what your mamma told you… Violence does solve problems”… and, let’s not forget, our nation has justified the intentional slaughter in the USA of more than 60,000,000 babies in their mothers wombs since 1973… and, with all of this violence and murder used daily to solve daily our American problems, we ask why?America’s schools are becoming a charnel houses, because we’re under God’s judgement. Our children are killing each other for no other reason than they want to kill. We’re creating a nation of killers. That’s what militarism does… it creates nations of killers and those who idolize killers as national heroes. Killing is America’s raison d etre.

  4. TJB said, on February 17, 2018 at 9:10 am

    Mike, can you propose a law short of banning guns that would have stopped this shooting?

    Didn’t think so.

    • dh said, on February 17, 2018 at 1:04 pm

      A total gun ban would have done one of two things – either it would add an additional charge of owning an illegal weapon to the 17 counts of premeditated murder faced by Cruz, or it would have prevented the shooting.

      There is no way to know if it would have prevented the incident, though – and there is no way anyone can make the case that a gun ban would have helped Cruz deal with the inner demons that gave him the motivation to kill. The worst school-related mass murder in history, the Bath School Disaster, took the lives of 44 people without the use of a firearm. One of the most notorious in recent history, the Columbine incident, made extensive use of homemade explosives as well.

      Whether we are talking about a violent crime, a mass murder, or a suicide, there are three components that need to work together for any of them to be successful – motive, means, and opportunity.

      Opportunities abound; short of a heavy police state and strict curfews, they always will. A strong case has been made by the NRA and its supporters that the effect of gun-free zones only creates more opportunity – and there is some merit to this. At worst, committing a so-called “gun crime” in a gun free zone would only add a minor charge to the list. (In our legal system, that’s called a “bargaining chip”).

      Means, also, abound. Why we focus on guns continues to be a mystery to me – it’s as though we’re saying “Murder and Suicide are OK, as long as they don’t happen with a gun”. (OK, well, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit). The point is that if you take away one means but leave the opportunity and motive, another means is easily found. All you need to do is look at the FBI and DOJ statistics and you’ll find a whole host of creative ways motivated people have found do do others in when the opportunity presents – knives, blunt objects, fists and feet, rope, poison, and many others. The only thing that guns do is skew the statistics.

      The US has a murder rate of something like 5 murders for every 100,000 people. Credible statistics indicate that 68% of these are committed using a firearm. So what happens if guns are successfully banned? Will our rate go down by 68%? Do gun-murderers say to themselves, “Well, without a gun, it just isn’t worth it?”

      Those who research in this area do project that the murder rate will go down, but not in a like percentage. So my question is, “Is that our goal?” If we can reduce the murder rate in this country by whatever amount a gun ban will provide? If guns are banned and our murder rate goes down to say, 4.5/100,000, have we met our goal? (I can hear my liberal friends now – “Well, either way, guns are bad, and it’s a start”).

      Until we start dealing with motive (and there are plenty of them, and they absolutely do not have a common denominator), we will not stop this problem.

      The good news is, as I pointed out in my other post, we are dealing with motive in pockets around the country – with new and different ways of reaching offenders, with community involvement, with new and insightful ways of dealing with depression, isolation, and social anxiety, and with greater understanding of the warning signs expressed by suicidal people or potentially violent offenders – but this does not make the news and doesn’t sell subscriptions or get votes.

  5. TJB said, on February 17, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    Another FBI fail. When will we hold the FBI leadership accountable?

    Not long after that funeral, the FBI said it received a tip last month that Cruz had a “desire to kill” and access to guns and could be plotting an attack, but agents failed to investigate. The governor called for the FBI director to resign.

    A person who was close to Cruz called the FBI’s tip line on Jan. 5 and provided information about Cruz’s weapons and his erratic behavior, including his disturbing social media posts. The caller was concerned that Cruz could attack a school.

    In a statement, the agency acknowledged that the tip should have been shared with the FBI’s Miami office and investigated, but it was not. The startling admission came as the agency was already facing criticism for its treatment of a tip about a YouTube comment posted last year. The comment posted by a “Nikolas Cruz” said, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”


  6. TJB said, on February 17, 2018 at 2:49 pm

    Of course they won’t be held accountable. Elected officials are afraid of the FBI. Where is the outrage?

  7. CoffeeTime said, on February 18, 2018 at 12:16 am

    On average, there are 30-40 homicides in the US every day. Why do mass shootings get our attention, when they contribute just a small blip on the overall rate? Because they are headlined in news reports. And the shooters become celebrities of a sort – their 15 minutes of being Logan Paul.

    However, today’s subject is mass shootings, so let’s stick to that.

    From 2009-2015, in a list comparing mass shooting deaths per head of population between 17 European countried and the US, the US came 11th, below such stable countries as Norway, France, Switzerland, Finland and Belgium.

    I haven’t double-checked the figures, but I see no immediate reason to disbelieve them.

    I agree with DH that somebody is getting something right, or at least a bit righter.

    • dh said, on February 19, 2018 at 9:46 am

      You make a very good point here. Mass shootings certainly get our attention, don’t they? Mike is right – it won’t be long before he’s writing about another one.

      I don’t believe that “Death Rate Per 100,000” is a reasonable statistic to use, though. It seems that would be more attributable to the motive and planning of a single shooter, the time and place of the shooting, and the response time of the police – rather than be illustrative of a gun-ownership problem.

      But “If It Bleeds, It Leads” is a time-honored tradition, as is allowing ourselves to get worked up into a frenzy over headlines. Politicians don’t want to land on the wrong side of public opinion, no matter how ill-conceived it may be. Passion is passion – so our leaders on both sides of the aisle will try to adopt a position that shows their compassion, their motivation, their “get-tough” desire to “do something”.

      For some that will mean appropriating funding to form committees to investigate the problem, for others it will mean impassioned speeches, for still others it will present delicious opportunities to slam one’s political opponents.

      Sooner or later, it will mean stricter gun laws, and the election or re-election of those behind them. And by the time we realize that the mass-shootings have not stopped (and perhaps increased), the suicide rates have not decreased (and perhaps gone the other way), those politicians will have moved on to other issues to protect their hides.

      • CoffeeTime said, on February 19, 2018 at 9:20 pm

        Well, our view of the world outside our everyday experience is distorted by the media. How many network hours and column inches and photos were devoted to those 17 deaths? and will be over the next week? If the same proportion of media distribution per homicide was devoted to every homicide in the US, every day of the year, some people would be calling for a ban on steak knives, and others would be afraid to leave the house. We are scared by the media we choose to read. Did anyone in the US notice that mass shooting at a church in Russia yesterday?

        What is the appropriate measure for mass shootings? I see your point. It has to be related to the population of the country to have any meaning, though. Maybe number of incidents per million population? but I still have a nagging feeling that the seriousness of each incident should be a factor as well.

        I have a feeling that making Columbine into a Celebrity moment may be more responsible than gun laws for the increase in mass shootings in the US.

    • CoffeeTime said, on February 20, 2018 at 8:22 am

      Hmmm, another graph from the many

  8. TJB said, on February 19, 2018 at 5:02 pm

    The level of ignorance displayed by many journalists writing about guns is jaw-dropping.

    • WTP said, on February 21, 2018 at 11:50 am

      I dunno. Kinda reminds me of the level of ignorance one finds when speaking with certain religious types regarding homosexuality or such. Funny how that is, eh?

  9. TJB said, on February 21, 2018 at 10:46 am

    More FBI malfeasance. Agent flees from a terrorist attack he helped initiate.

    A lawsuit against the FBI for its role in a 2015 terror attack in Texas has taken a detour over discovery issues.

    Bruce Joiner, a security guard shot in the leg by two radicalized Islamists at a “Draw Muhammad” event in the North Dallas suburb of Garland in May of that year, learned months later that an FBI agent had been undercover in the terrorist cell that executed the attack. The agent had texted one of the assailants to “Tear up Texas” a few days before the attack, and was also in a separate vehicle directly behind the two terrorists taking pictures of them just seconds before they opened fire at a perimeter parking checkpoint.

    The undercover agent, described in court documents as being dressed in Middle Eastern attire, tried to flee the scene when the shooting began but was stopped by local police.

    Attorneys for the FBI asked for a dismissal in recent federal court filings, but have taken the extra step of asking the court to delay all discovery until the court rules on the dismissal motion.

    Joiner is suing the FBI for liability and is asking for just over $8 million in damages, but has maintained in other media interviews and also through his attorney that he is bringing the suit primarily to get to the bottom of the FBI’s involvement leading up to the attack.

    If discovery is halted, and should the case later be dismissed, Joiner would leave the case empty handed, no closer to understanding why an FBI agent who had contacts with the attackers was so close when the gunfire started but did nothing to prevent the attack and instead tried to flee.


    • WTP said, on February 21, 2018 at 11:48 am

      I may have said this before here, but in the context of the missed opportunities to follow up on tips that have resulted in school shootings and such…The FBI is not interested in arresting anyone they haven’t already framed or entrapped. And now, even in this case, they couldn’t do their damn job without skating the edge of entrapment.

      But I can only blame the FBI so much. They’re human. This is a result of the justice system we have that throws out evidence that isn’t 100% pure. So in order to convict criminals and actually put them away, law enforcement feels it must control the entire process of the crime, even from its conceptualization, such that it can keep the evidence from being corrupted, in the most mildest sense, even accidentally. The tools for which are thus conveniently lying around when certain political elements want to marginalize their enemies.

  10. dh said, on February 21, 2018 at 1:46 pm

    Unfortunately, in this country, passion (or compassion, perhaps?) often supplants logic and reason. It is impossible to argue reason against passion. When a school is attacked and children are killed, it is a devastating tragedy and people feel they must act – but it is largely self-serving and palliative. This is the motivation behind the student movements in Florida, parents and relatives of victims, and others who allow themselves to be guided by emotion. It is entirely understandable – we all feel their pain and want to do something. You cannot, however, show a chart to a grieving mother and explain how one solution is better or worse than another. You can hold her, you can comfort her, you can connect with her pain and vow to “do something”.

    Also, and perhaps more unfortunate, politicians who are motivated by greed and lust for power, are all too eager to exploit this misguided motivation to realize their own political agenda. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are speaking out, hoping to come down on the right side of this issue – aligning with the most frenzied in a way that will make them appear as caring, sympathetic, and driven without alienating their base or abandoning common sense. I think that they understand that an ardent public show of solidarity (along with some delicious funding opportunities) will go much farther in gaining reelection than will actual results.

    But there is a wide chasm between sentiment and reason – so for those of us who are looking at the statistics, looking beyond inflammatory headlines, and who have not just jumped to the most popular conclusion because it feels the best, will have to just talk to each other – because the rest just aren’t listening.

    Just as it is my belief that 24-hour news, in-your-face social media, and the isolating nature of smartphones contribute to the alienation and sociopathic behavior that results in school shootings and the high rate of suicide in this country, I believe it is also responsible for the anger and division among us – massaging our “us vs them” mentality and our own willingness to be “all in” on one side or another without taking a deep dive into the facts ourselves. As long as we, the people, can be manipulated like this, people like Rahm Emanuel and Vladmir Putin will continue to have their way with us.

    • WTP said, on February 21, 2018 at 1:57 pm

      Unfortunately, in this country, passion (or compassion, perhaps?) often supplants logic and reason

      It’s nothing specific to this country. It’s human nature. Or prolly more specifically, animal nature. I would argue that this country is one of the last bastions of reason over passion. A big part of what has made this country, and the West in general, successful. Not to totally discredit passion. It has its…reason. Yet much of the passion that you are seeing in the MSM is one-sided. They’re not much interested in the reason unless it fits their narrative. Thus you get anti-gun passion followed by anti-gun reason, followed by pro-gun passion in the most extreme. Pro-gun reason, when allowed at all, is left to the usual cucks on the GOP side whose recurring media gigs are predicated on their consistency in caving in.

      it is my belief that 24-hour news, in-your-face social media, and the isolating nature of smartphones contribute to the alienation and sociopathic behavior
      Disagree. It is a lack of discipline, manners, and expectations for such placed on our youth that lead to the alienation and sociopathic behavior. As I’ve often said here, the fault dear Brutus, lies in our selves.

  11. TJB said, on February 22, 2018 at 10:35 am

    Does anybody doubt that the “children’s crusade” to ban guns is exactly the kind of orchestrated news Sharyl Attkisson was warning us about?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 25, 2020 at 5:34 pm

      I’m willing to believe that kids do not want to be shot and many can think on their own. Do you have evidence backing up your claim?

  12. dh said, on February 22, 2018 at 11:58 am

    “It’s nothing specific to this country” No disagreement here – I wasn’t referring to “this country” in a comparative sense. If anything, I stated it that way because I don’t know enough about what goes on elsewhere to speak about it.

    re: Social Media – your point is well taken, and in a large sense I completely agree. I think that to blame our state of mind (for lack of a better term) on social media, news, and smartphones is like blaming violence on guns. We are clearly the ones who need to take responsibility for our own actions, we are to blame for our situation when we don’t.

    However, I did identify “24-hour news, in-your-face social media, and the isolating nature of smartphones” as contributing factors, not the root cause, and I would stand by that. Not that I think we should eliminate them, but in the context of a multi-pronged approach to solving our social ills I think it deserves a look. Understanding the nature of a flawed system is empowering – often more so than trying to fix the flaws.

    There is a growing body of research that points to “smartphone addiction” as a factor in the erosion of social skills and feelings of isolation and depression across many demographics. One study demonstrated a dopamine dump in the human brain upon hearing a notification tone from a smartphone, not unlike the cause of salivation in Pavlov’s dogs.

    Without context or even the most rudimentary fact-checking, the “in-your-face” news and opinion flood leads to a huge amount of misinformation. The “easy and obvious example” (to use Mike’s phrase) is the perception that gun violence in this country has reached an all-time high, when the truth is the opposite. This is, IMO, because we read and hear about it all day every day.

    So ultimately, you are right – it is our responsibility to do the research, to understand how this all affects our lives and our perception, and arm ourselves with the tools to deal with it – but the first step is to know what we have to deal with. That’s really my point – identifying this explosion of media as a contributing factor so we have a place to start.

    • WTP said, on February 22, 2018 at 1:02 pm

      There is a growing body of research that points to “smartphone addiction” as a factor in the erosion of social skills and feelings of isolation and depression across many demographics. One study demonstrated a dopamine dump in the human brain upon hearing a notification tone from a smartphone, not unlike the cause of salivation in Pavlov’s dogs.

      Well, depending on one’s situation in life, the pavlovian response to a notification can be quite varied. When I know there is a problem at work and I get a ping, I’m generally not salivating nor anything close.

      Before smart-phone addiction we had (still have?) internet addiction. I am highly suspicious of this growing body of research that points to “smartphone addiction” as a factor in the erosion of social skills and feelings of isolation and depression across many demographics, well actually anything that begins with the phrase “growing body of research” as the “research” in the vast majority of biological domains, let alone social domains, lack the scientific controls that justify the conclusions. I really find this interesting in the context of politics and especially conservative types who speak so disdainfully of FB and such. Now I can rant equally about Twitter as some rant about FB but it comes down to what you use these media for. If your FB feed is full of political BS and arguments and such, it’s a reflection of how you use it and with whom you use it. Twitter is IMNSHO the worse because it draws a higher percentage of disconnected people, most of them with raging opinions that they feel they need to shout to the world. They pride themselves on the number of followers, and many brag on the number of followers that they’ve “HAD” to block. Personally, I keep my FB feed (mostly) free of politics. I’ve maybe made 3 political posts in the eight years I’ve been on there. I do occasionally post a life-values or this-may-be-interesting post that highly triggered people might get all wee-wee’d up about, but as most of my left leaning friends are either on the same page with such or can see the general point such that we can have some sort of civil discussion about it, it’s not a problem. I have lost one friend of over 20 years over this crap but he’s begun to show what I call “old pot head syndrome” and we’ve had significant disagreements in meat space, many before social media, as it was. In general, as I use FB it has made me feel less isolated and less depressed. Friends and relative that I lost touch with years ago are much closer than they could ever be without social media.

      Also, I smell a rat in this generic disdain amongst these critics of social media. For years they have discouraged people from discussion politics or religion because THEY want to control such. I noticed this many, many years ago as a teenager. While we should not let such discussions get too far out of hand and one must keep a somewhat open mind on things and most importantly not inject such into otherwise polite conversation, the social pressure recoil at any such discussion has led to exactly where we are today. People as social animals need to discuss these things and thus they WILL discuss these things. But by shaming all discussion (though you may notice PC discussions are much more acceptable) creates silos or safe echo chambers (hence the call today for safe spaces) in which bad ideas, like what happens with the inbreeding of genes, get amplified beyond their validity. I believe Stephen Jay Gould wrote much about this. A shame he died so relatively young before social media caught on. I think he’s the one from whom I first heard the term “meme”.

      • dh said, on February 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm

        “lack the scientific controls that justify the conclusions” Please don’t misunderstand – I am not concluding anything – only seeing a correlation between a generation that was raised with smartphones and social media, and an increase in the issues I mentioned above. As far as a “growing body of research”, it’s all new territory. I am as suspicious of research as you are – especially when issues that drive it are so politically charged & motivated – but it does exist and it is definitely worth a closer look.

        I also agree about “Internet Addiction” – but there is a difference. With Internet Addiction, you have to be sitting in front of a computer, which would naturally limit the amount of time spent. With mobile devices, the news, the feeds, the notifications, the contact is with us all the time – walking, driving, eating at restaurants, on vacation – everywhere. I don’t blame social media any more than I blame alcohol, drugs, or guns – but I definitely see it as an area that can lead to some pretty severe and pretty extreme social problems – just like alcohol and drugs do. And just like substances, the key is to find out why the abuse occurs.

        I have a completely different experience with Facebook than you do. I started using it for exactly the reasons you cite – to connect with family & old friends – but I didn’t last long. I found I was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to stop getting posts from people who were obsessed with politics and insistent upon repeating stories that had not been fact-checked at all … I also found that I was spending a lot of energy resisting the urge to argue with people about issues we’d never argue about in person. I finally took my profile down when I made a comment about a news story someone had posted, and I started getting flamed by a whole lineup of strangers. I realized that it just wasn’t a place I belonged.

        Again, I do not have a “generic disdain” for social media – I think that it is a powerful and ubiquitous force in our lives; one that can be used as you do, or abused as I see so many others do. As much as there are those like you who have figured out how to make it work for you in a positive way, it is also an arena for cyber-bullying, stalking, and abuse.

        I spent a few years doing some research into creating a “Personalized Learning” system, during which time I consulted with teachers and administrators from K-12 school systems, both public and private; I reached out to existing publishers of texts and spoke with them about their forays into web and mobile spaces. Whenever the subject of an “online forum” came up, within the context of creating a collaborative space where students can discuss homework, assignments, and other class-related topics, the first issue that was mentioned was cyber-bullying, which is an extremely prevalent issue and one for which solutions are very hard to come by. The general sense among all those with whom I spoke was that they would prefer to stay away from offering any kind of collaborative virtual space for students, rather than have to deal with this issue.

        • WTP said, on February 23, 2018 at 3:56 pm

          I found I was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to stop getting posts from people who were obsessed with politics and insistent upon repeating stories that had not been fact-checked at all

          Yeah, that annoys me as well. Few of my friends originate such, it’s usually pass-through stuff form other sites which I can (usually) block. Most of the rest I just ignore. What frustrates me is how many times I’ve had to block various incarnations of “David Avacado Wolfe” and Dan Rather. And some, an incarnation of Dan Rather was one, do not have the block option. But I take the bad with the much greater good. As for the lack of fact checking, I put it in context. Soooo much of what I was taught in school has turned out to be no more valid than much of the FalseNews. When it’s coming from people whom I know don’t care, I don’t bother with it. But occasionally I do challenge such things (like one in every couple dozen or so), always on someone else’s posts not mine. I think that in the greater scheme of things, it is good that we do this once in a while. Otherwise it persists in the echo chambers, as I said. Just as much of it has in history books and similar. Lies and such will always be there.

  13. TJB said, on February 22, 2018 at 8:42 pm

    dh, has it struck you at your university whether an increasing fraction of kids seem to be struggling with mental health issues?

    Also, one thing I am convinced social media does is to reduce our ability for sustained concentration and “deep work.”

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 25, 2020 at 5:33 pm

      I’ve been holding virtual office hours and classes. My students seem concerned, as would be expected. But they are still doing their work and will finish up the class.

      Also, social media does have that distraction factor you note-I’ve set strict Facebook limits for each day-three checks a day to see how friends and family are doing. Otherwise…rabbit hole.

      I hope you all are staying safe and doing as well as you can.

  14. dh said, on February 23, 2018 at 10:31 am

    Within the context of the video’s description of the sinister nature of Social Media (and my own first-hand and anecdotal experience of the same), I am reluctant to discuss my observations of the mental health of the students at my institution, even though I am (theoretically) anonymous here and I have never mentioned the name of the place.

    However, I will say that as a general observation about youth in general – which includes direct experience with friends & family and teachers that I know in K-12 and higher ed, I’d say that there does seem to be an increase in the number of kids struggling with mental health issues, behavioral issues, and taking medication.

    NIMH corroborates this observation although it is difficult to draw any conclusions. They do make the point in the article that it might just be that mental health professionals are over-prescribing – but is this because of parental insistence, their own too-busy schedules, or an increase in actual problems such that the medication is the best course of action? Or is it pressure from “Big Pharma”?

    Another question that arises is whether or not the medication is causing more problems than it solves, whether by taking it or stopping it. <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/dangers-of-stopping-antidepressants#2"It is widely known and heavily cautioned that stopping some forms of antidepression meds abruptly can increase depression, suicidal tendencies, anxiety, and a whole host of other potentially dangerous side effects.

    Your video is otherwise spot-on, IMO. I’m familiar with Cal Newport’s work; I’ve heard him speak and have heard him interviewed about his book – and I have all-too-often allowed myself to be the victim of the constant interruptions and distractions of my phone. Interestingly, I always turn my phone off when I’m in class, and I often forget to turn it back on. I have the false sense of “security” by having it in my pocket and thinking it’s on … and marveling at how much focus I have for the rest of the day.

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