Our bulldust detectors seem to be on the blink

By | septiembre 29, 2017
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The world has always been full of bulldust, which is why everyone should come equipped with a bulldust detector.

Trouble is, we’re living in a time of bulldust inflation. Some of the things we’re being told are harder and harder to believe. But a lot of people’s detectors seem to be on the blink.


Unemployment falls in July

ABS figures reveal the number of jobs around the country continues to grow for the tenth month in a row.

Part of the reason for the step-up may be that there are so many people shouting that anyone else hoping to be heard has to start shouting too.

These thoughts are prompted by the runaway success of the claim that 40 per cent of jobs in Australia are likely to be automated in the next 10 to 15 years.

This is a fantastic claim in the original, dictionary sense: imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality.

And yet it seems many thousands of people have accepted its likelihood without question.

Similar predictions have been made about America, and are just as widely believed.

As I’ve written before, two economists, Jeff Borland and Michael Coelli, of Melbourne University, who didn’t believe it – because they could find no evidence to support it – traced the origins of the claim and the flimsy assumptions on which it was based.

Which led them to ask the question I’m asking: why do people so readily believe propositions they should find hard to believe?

The authors found a quote from a leading American economist, Alan Blinder, of Princeton University, in his book, After the Music Stopped.

“The consequences of adverse economic events are typically exaggerated by the Armageddonists​ – a sensation-seeking herd of pundits, seers and journalists who make a living by predicting the worst.

“Prognostications of impending doom draw lots of attention, get you on TV, and sometimes even lead to best-selling books . . .

Bad news has always received a higher weighting in the assessment of ‘newsworthiness’.

“But the Armageddonists are almost always wrong,” Blinder concludes.

What? Journalists? Bad news?

Blinder is right in concluding we take a lot more notice of bad news than good. Borland and Coelli observe that “You are likely to sell a lot more books writing about the future of work if your title is ‘The end of work’ rather than ‘Everything is the same’.

“If you are a not-for-profit organisation wanting to attract funds to support programs for the unemployed, it helps to be able to argue that the problems you are facing are on a different scale to what has been experienced before.

“Or if you are a consulting firm, suggesting that there are new problems that businesses need to address, might be seen as a way to attract extra clients.

“For politicians as well, it makes good sense to inflate the difficulty of the task faced in policy-making; or to be able to say that there are new problems that only you have identified and can solve,” the authors say.

I’d add that if you are a think tank churning out earnest reports you hope will be noticed – if only so your generous funders see you making an impact – it’s tempting to lay it on a bit thicker than you should.

By now, however, it’s better known that there are evolutionary reasons why the human animal – maybe all animals – takes more interest in bad news than good news.

It’s because we’ve evolved to be continually searching our environment for signs of threat to our wellbeing.

All of us are this way because we’ve descended from members of our species who were pretty nervy, cautious, suspicious types. We know that must be true because those of our species who weren’t so cautious didn’t survive long enough to have offspring.

In ancient days, the threats we were most conscious of were to life and limb – being eaten by a wild animal. These days we keep well away from wild animals, but there are still plenty of less spectacular, more psychological threats – real or imagined – to our wellbeing.

This instinctive concern for our own safety is no bad thing. It helps keep us safe. It’s an example of the scientists’ “precautionary principle” – the dire prediction may not come to pass, but better to be on the safe side and take out some insurance, so to speak.

By contrast, failing to take notice of good news is less likely to carry a cost.

Except that, like many good things, it can be overdone. If we’re too jumpy, reacting to every little thing that comes along, we’re unlikely to be terribly happy. And unremitting stress can take its toll on our health.

Which brings us to the media. Journalists didn’t need evolutionary psychologists to tell them the customers find bad news more interesting. Bad news has always received a higher weighting in the assessment of “newsworthiness”.

But I have a theory that the news media have responded to greater competition – not just between them but, more importantly, with the ever-increasing number of other ways of spending leisure time – by turning up the volume on bad news.

This can create a feedback loop. People wanting their messages to be broadcast by a media that’s become ever-more obsessed by bad news respond by making those messages more terrible.

I’m not sure the media have done themselves a favour by making the news they’re trying to sell more depressing, BTW.

But Borland and Coelli offer a further possible explanation of why we’re inclined to believe that the technological change which has been reshaping the jobs market for two centuries without great conflagration is about to turn disastrous: the cognitive bias that causes people to feel “we live in special times” – also known as “this time is different”.

“An absence of knowledge of history, the greater intensity of feeling about events which we experience first-hand, and perhaps a desire to attribute significance to the times in which we live, all contribute to this bias,” they say.

If so, a lot of people will continue believing stuff they should doubt.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

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