Assume Some Friendly Data

March 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

There it was again – the paean to ignorance, the rejection of empirical science as a basis for knowledge or the assertion of facts. We don’t need studies to know that . . . (or more likely, We don’t need “studies” . . .)* I’m not surprised to hear this from the right, but on Sunday it hit from the blind side – the New York Times.

The Arts & Leisure section front page didn’t promise exactly a review of the literature on the effects of violence in the media. Instead, the Times critics would “consider the impact.”

The Times turned loose four movie and TV critics, but in the entire double-truck spread, there was only one mention of any empirical findings: Alessandra Stanley began her essay by dismissing the whole idea of research.
Studies are inconclusive about whether repeated exposure to violence on screen inures viewers to violence in real life, but you don’t need a government grant to assume that scenes of violence on television inure viewers to more violence on television.
At least she was careful enough to use the word assume. But assuming something to be true does not make at true. It’s like the old economists’ punch line: “Assume a can opener.” An assumed can opener cannot open a real can.

Stanley’s assumption is a plausible hypothesis – that after many viewings, Level One violence and gore lose their shock power, and audiences will respond only to Level Two, and so on. But if TV shows have become bloodier (have they? – it would be nice to have some evidence), there might be other explanations.

Stanley assumes that screen violence is like a drug that we develop a tolerance to. The old dose just doesn’t give us the buzz it once did. But maybe rather than video violence raising the tolerance ceiling, that ceiling has always been at the same height, and the media have just been getting closer to it. And maybe the reaction to violence differs among segments of the audience. I don’t need a grant to assume that my explanation is true. But if I want to know how much water it holds, I need good research.
* An earlier post on “we don’t need research” is here.

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