Vox populi versus “erudition”

Below you’ll find a reaction I posted to an excellent rant by Ape Man on what he believes are some shortcomings in the news coverage of The Economist. His rant ties into what Edward posted below in his post Bad Journalism at The Economist and raises some, in my opinion, hugely important issues. Please go and read what he and Edward have written. I reproduce my own comment here, slightly altered, because… well, I am simply excited about this and, like Nokia, blogs are also about connecting people and ideas.

My own comment is only rudimentary, think stream of consciousness, since the covered subject is immensely complex and vast, but I would like to throw the basic idea out there for all to think about. Please focus on the two quotes from Ape Man’s rant and think about the implications of it.

Ape Man: “Outside of those who read this blog and know me personally, I don’t think anyone really has much contact with the type of people that I work with.”

There are more than Ape Man thinks. I come from a blue collar background myself. But he raises a very, very important issue in this excellent rant:

Ape Man: “The Economist comes by its opinions the same way any hillbilly does. They go by their emotions and what they want to be true. Any fact that contradicts what they want to be true, they ignore.”

I am afraid this is going to be one of my hobby horses in the coming time: the role of psychology in society. It ties in neatly with demography and with something that has frustrated me personally in news coverage/analysis: too little focus on what real people actually think and feel and how this can influence, or not, events.

In Belgium a recent survey revealed that bloggers, of all people, had been more correct in predicting the outcome of the recent June elections in Belgium than established pollsters. The survey measured “talk”, the number of times certain politicians were talked about on weblogs. For me weblogs in general represent more or less the vox populi, the voice of the people even though bloggers tend to be more educated or curious than the average population. It would be great if more blue collar people got into the business of blogging and/or commenting on blogs. That way we would get a more accurate picture of what voters think and how they think. After all, they represent the largest potential voting block in any given country.

Secondly, the importance of emotions. I too, like Ape Man, come across people who vote or pontificate rather on the basis of their emotions than on actual facts. And I myself fall into the same trap sometimes, I am a human being after all, but at least I am aware of it. And I too was shocked, years ago, to find out that people who should know better do exactly the same thing. Sometimes even for a living. Media trends seem to reflect this. What is all this crap, for instance, about “breaking” news followed immediately by analysis? How can you judge the importance of an event at the very moment it takes place? Very often it is hindsight, and only hindsight, that makes the picture clear because single events are more often than not the consequences of very subtle and very complex trends (like demography).

But breaking news attracts readers/viewers and is commercially interesting. The media cater to consumers and are in a way defined by them. Who are these consumers for mass media, those with the most impact? Right, common people. Do many pundits or even politicians know what really goes on among the common people? Rarely. Or their knowledge is fragmented or based on distant memories or geared towards populism/manipulation and whatever.

Has anyone questioned, since Ape Man mentioned the name, the psychology behind a guy like Mark Steyn? It would go a long way in understanding his motives and way of thinking. And it might explain his appeal to many. In short, we should have a multi-disciplinary approach to the coverage and analysis of events. And we should always remain humble considering the complexity of it all. Human beings and their interactions are complex, it is almost impossible to create stable models for them that predict everything, or even anything. And I am not even mentioning the element of “chance”.

People and societies move, and change, all the time to the rhythm of their daily experiences, perceived or real, and their emotions/needs/desires. I could go on and on about this, even when I realize that the complexity of it all is almost overwhelming, but we should definitely put humans back into the equation, be it through demographics and/or psychology and/or sociology. No matter how tricky interpretations in that area are.