YESTERDAY I expressed my dismay about the British broadcast media’s apparent casual endorsement of the BLM’s racism, discrimination and injustice narrative. Where was the media’s curiosity about the contrary evidence – the facts as opposed to the feelings?
Here, to underline my point is an example of the kind of counter-factual discussion that we are simply not getting on the BBC, (a failure that should be enough to defund it of its licence fee) or on Sky or ITV for that matter. It is between Coleman Hughes, the American writer and opinion columnist, and Dr Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and a superstar intellectual, and on the false perceptions of injustice that are driving the current race protests.
With a calm and measured delivery, Coleman reviews the evidence that shows the widespread perception of police discrimination in the US is unfounded. He details ‘the massive coverage bias of police shootings in the media, that is the phenomenon of the media only reporting instances of cops shooting civilians when the victim is black’. It is, he says, something that never or rarely happens when the victim is white, even though the data shows that probability is greater. Together, they discuss how the media, simply by selecting the one story at the expense of the wider data, distorts perception.
How can this be changed, they ask?
Only by focusing on the ‘two conditions that, combined, create the circumstances for a riot to erupt’ – perception and the reality of policing in modern America.
Not all is bad though, by any means. They discuss data, that the MSM appears equally oblivious to, which tracks the enormous progress that’s been made in reducing poverty, racism and crime. Has violence (a worryingly popular idea right now) ever fostered any of this progress, Coleman asks. The answer from Pinker is a categorical ‘no’. The reverse is the case and he provides the evidence to prove it.
This leads onto an examination of the causes of crime; and what the negative impact of defunding the police and prison abolitionism would be against the real progress made in incarceration.
It is a level of discussion and information that a decent, liberal and enlightened MSM should be providing instead of playing to the gallery, validating victimhood and fuelling dangerous perceptions of injustice.
Selected edited extracts follow the video.
On policing facts as opposed to perceptions
Hughes: ‘What I see is that there are broadly two conditions that, combined, create the circumstances for a riot to erupt. And the first condition is that there is a perception that the police are deeply racist and unfair to black Americans. The second condition, to me, seems to be the reality of policing in modern America.
‘And the reality of policing, I think, there’s a few elements that are relevant. One is the fact that we’re an enormous country population-wise, which means that events that have very low probabilities of happening will happen ten times more often in America than they will in Canada, even with the same probability. And because we register anything happening in America as happening “here”, in the relevant sense, it can seem like something is happening much more often, just simply by virtue of our huge size.
‘There’s that. There’s the fact that America has a unique gun culture. Part of what that means is our police have a heightened fear of coming across a gun when they’re apprehending a suspect. Which means they’re much more likely to mistake the wallet for a gun. And I don’t see how that, even in the best circumstances, goes away.
‘And then there’s the fact that now everyone is a journalist. So any time, in any city, an altercation goes down between police and civilians, multiple people are going to immediately record it. And to be clear, I think that’s a net good. However, it means that any altercation will immediately go viral. Certainly between a white cop and a black suspect.
‘And so, the reality of policing, combined with the perception of racism, I’m not sure which of those is … well, to put just a final gloss on my point, last year, there were nine unarmed black Americans, according to the Washington Post database, that were killed.
‘My impression is, because of the reality of policing, getting from nine to, for example, zero, is going to be probably harder than getting from 20 to nine. And so long as there are any of these incidents in an American city during the hot summer months, I don’t see how we can get around the possibility that riots will be a recurring feature of American life for the foreseeable near future, so long as all of these conditions obtain.’
Pinker: ‘It is true that our perception of risk and prevalence is driven by stories, events, anecdotes, rather data, and with a combination of a big country and every citizen being a reporter, we can have the impression that things are much more common than they are.
‘And indeed … since Ferguson, since Michael Brown, there have been perceptions of violence perpetrated by cops that you and I know are inconsistent with the statistical reality. Among them, that a major risk to the lives of African-Americans is shooting by police force. (Editor’s note: On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri).
‘It’s probably at least 15 times more likely that a man will be killed by someone who is not a police officer than a police officer. So, that police are a major threat to life and limb is out of whack with the reality. And there are at least four studies that I know of that show no good evidence for racial bias in who gets shot by police or, for that matter, in which police shoot.
‘But perception matters, you’re absolutely right. And as long as … and we know that there clearly is racism in American police, but there’s also a trigger-happiness in American police – American police just shoot too many people.
‘And you combine that with the unequal distribution of crime across regions of the United States, across ethnic groups – just like any other social science statistic, you break it down by region, you break it down by ethnicity, you break it down by age, you break it down by sex. The numbers are never the same.
‘So there will always be statistical discrepancies and they can inflame the public reaction, depending on how much they are covered. So the ingredients are there, particularly when you’ve got a culture of policing in the United States that is far too quick to use deadly force.
‘But it is possible to reduce the rate substantially. Although, you’re right, it will also depend on how that change is covered, given that it may not be visible in particular anecdotes. But a lot of things that seem, as they are occurring, like they’re going to always be with us do have a way of petering out.
‘The urban riots of the Sixties, which looked like they were going to be just a permanent feature of American cities, fizzled out, although with outbursts, such as after the Rodney King acquittal in 1992, and after Ferguson, and what we’ve just seen in the last couple of days. But when you’re living through the worst of something, it’s easy to imagine that it’s a new normal, but it isn’t necessarily.
‘Likewise, it’s difficult to believe that just, like, three years ago, the big concern was terrorist attacks by Islamist groups, and that looked like it was going to change life forever. At least for a while, those have dropped off the radar screen. Again, we’re talking about rare events and here the frequency may not be as important in driving public reaction as the publicity and the narratives.
Hughes: ‘Yeah, I take your point. I think there are definitely ways of probably reducing the number of unarmed Americans killed by the police. And I’m interested in all of those potential reforms. But I’m also interested in whether there is a way to get the media in particular to eliminate their coverage bias on these issues?
‘So, for example, there was a white man named Tony Timpa – I’m not sure if you’ve seen this video – who, in 2016, was captured on the body cam, I believe, of a cop. Timpa was killed in almost exactly the same way that George Floyd was, namely the cop was on his back, pinning him down with his neck for 13 minutes and suffocated him.
‘All the while, Tony Timpa was begging for his life. And in fact the cops were making jokes throughout the whole time. It’s every bit as disturbing to watch as the George Floyd video. And the video was kept secret for three years and released in 2019, I believe, on the order of a federal judge.
‘Of course, that didn’t inspire riots. So far as I know, the video didn’t even go viral, because it wasn’t clearly racist, because it was a white cop doing it to a white suspect. And I fear that part of the reason that black Americans in particular, but Americans in general, react this way to the video is because we have been primed to think that this is only a race issue, rather than an issue with the police in general, which is to say there is an accountability issue. Often it’s police departments investigating themselves, rather than having an independent body investigating examples of potential misconduct.
‘And I don’t know how to get the media to cover all of these cases, but I think that would go a long way to persuading Americans that this is an issue you can get behind regardless of what your race is. And I think that would go at least part way to preventing this kind of rioting.’
Pinker: ‘I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that journalism needs to be far more numerate and statistically savvy and ensure that its coverage is in more harmony with the actual data. And I think that, indeed, I haven’t seen polling results, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people thought that more African-Americans were shot by police than whites, when it’s the other way around.
‘Now, of course, the rate per capita is higher for African-Americans than for whites, but on the other hand the rate of violent crime is higher for African-Americans than for whites, as it is for Southerners versus Northerners – those are the two great statistical disparities in crime statistics in the United States. So the base rates have to be taken into account.
‘But I think that you’re right, from the coverage, the fact that more than half the police shootings that are of white suspects never get coverage has distorted people’s perception, as is just the absolute risk of getting shot by a police officer, as opposed to being shot by a gang member or someone that you get into a fight with in a bar, which is, as I mentioned, 15 times greater.
Pinker: ‘Human nature is a complicated system. You don’t just have one thing. We are wired by evolution with a taste for revenge and, among certain genders, a desire for dominance. But that’s not all we have. We also have a sense of empathy. We also have a faculty of self-control. We also have a sense of fairness.
‘And what actually happens in any social milieu depends on an interplay between these different components combined. But also, there can’t really be a debate as to whether we can change our lives, our social circumstances, because just, I mean, history tells us that we can.
‘Life now isn’t the same as life 100 years ago or 500 years ago. Slavery was abolished. World wars have, contrary to a lot of pessimistic predictions, not taken place, and war in general is in decline. Rates of violence can yo-yo up and down, and recently they’ve been way down, and other examples.
‘I once began this effort of showing a couple of graphs documenting that we really have worked with “the better angels of our nature”, as Abraham Lincoln put it.
‘And then one thing led to another and to my surprise, I came upon graph after graph showing how life really has improved over the decades and centuries. So it was kind of a circuitous journey that took me from being interested in language and cognition, to data on human progress.
‘It’s wrong to say there’s no progress. It is right to say the problems remain. All the data on the lives of American racial minorities, particularly African-Americans, show there has been improvement. The rate of poverty is down, the rate of illiteracy is down. Lifespan is up. Happiness is up.
‘Happiness for African-Americans is increased, while happiness for white Americans has slightly decreased over the last 60 or 70 years. The gaps have shrunk, but they are absolutely still there. So the work is by no means done, to put it mildly, but it’s also a mistake to say there’s been no progress, that 70 years of efforts toward equality have been a waste of time. I think it’s empirically false and I think it’s a dangerous message.
‘And by the way, racism is way down. Again, for something to decrease does not imply that it’s disappeared, and we know it hasn’t disappeared. And what has shocked me, as someone who has looked at data on racism, is some of the taboos that have been breached toward expressing it, not least by our Commander in Chief.
‘But even during the Trump years, polls on racism across the country have shown that it’s continued to decline. Certainly the percentage of Americans who agree with overtly racist statements like, “African-Americans are less hard-working” continues to go down.
‘The percentage who say, “I would not want my child to marry a person of a different race”, or that, “black and white kids shouldn’t go to school together”, all of them are in decline.
‘At least two measures that I’ve looked at of more hidden bias also show that it’s in decline. One of them is by my colleague, Mahzarin Banaji, the famous pioneer of the Implicit Attitudes Test, a way of looking at implicit bias.
‘She and one of her students, Tessa Charlesworth, just looked at their own data over a period of 20 years at fairly subtle measures of bias, coming out of reaction time studies, of whether you associate black or white faces with positive or negative words. And they found that there’s been a decline in racial bias over the 20 years they’ve been doing the test.
‘Again, none of this means that racism has disappeared, or that it’s not a problem. Just that there has been progress in marginalising it.
‘When it comes to more serious change, like actual regime change, there’s a fascinating body of research by my colleague Erica Chenoweth, originally reported with Maria Stephan, that actually tabulated the success rate of violent and non-violent resistance movements and found that the success rate for the non-violent ones was twice to three times as high as for violent ones.
‘So it’s not that the non-violence always works, it’s not that violence always fails. But in general, the track record goes with the non-violent protest movements.’