The citizen as juror

Is the childhood obesity epidemic caused by irresponsible fast food chains or by lax parenting and lazy kids? Is poverty caused by a lack of opportunity or by the behaviour of poor people? Is global warming caused by suburban energy gluttons or is the sun to blame?

The war of ideas constantly throws up phony dichotomies. Academic researchers struggle to prevent their work from being twisted to fit the who’s-to-blame logic that ideological warfare demands. For example, when Duke University posted a media release announcing the finding that increased solar output may be contributing to global warming they were forced to begin by saying that the "Study does not discount the suspected contributions of ‘greenhouse gases’ in elevating surface temperatures."

But sometimes even the researchers themselves buy into this partisan either-or logic. This is particularly common in the social sciences. As Steven Teles writes:

Academic social scientists tend to view the world through a prism that sharply discriminates between individual and structural causes; and when a strong preference for one or the other is not chosen, they interpret the response a waffling or contradictory. Either the individual is to blame or the system is (p 53).

Citizens are treated as if they are jurors in a trial. Reading the newspapers is like watching a never ending series of Law and Order — every episode begins with a grisly crime, there’s a search for suspects and an alleged perpetrator then faces trial. Whether it’s obesity, poverty, high petrol prices or the plight of first home buyers the pattern is always the same.

But according to Teles, the public are capable of understanding that social problems can have more than one cause. Wouldn’t it be nice if journalists, activists and think tank intellectuals acted as if they understood that too?

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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

I often get told by journalists that they want my messages to be ‘crisper’ – I try to make it interesting and to get across my ‘messages’ but with appropriate caveats. They don’t like them – they think I’m waffling.

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

“Is the childhood obesity epidemic caused by irresponsible fast food chains or by lax parenting and lazy kids?”

How is this even a debate?

Just as many skinny kids watch Saturday morning cartoons as fat kids do.

The difference is not all their parents feed them Coco Pops and McDonalds. Children do not have their own income. They cannot make choices about what food they eat.

The fact that you even suggest this is a valid question labels you as a liar.

The actual debate is as such:

“Should Parents be allowed to make all choices pertaining to their own children’s diet, or should the government force their hand?”

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
15 years ago

I agree with Nick – though the problem varies with what media you use. The biggest challenge for me is radio, where often you will have only a soundbite to explain yourself, not enough time to even provide your own reasoning and evidence, let alone acknowledge other people’s. But where I have more space I do provide the other side’s arguments.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

How about this for a new post:

‘BIG GOVERNMENT CAUSED BY BAD PARENTS’ SAYS YOBBO

Parents who can’t say ‘no’ are driving up taxes and burdening the nation with unecessary regulation, says a leading internet commentator…

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Or “Big Yobbo caused by Bad Government”?

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

Great short post Don. If you want to read balanced (aka waffly) analysis of current issues you have to visit blogs like Troppo. “Children do not have their own income.” What planet does this bloke live on??

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

A planet where children don’t usually have their own income?

What planet do you live on Chris?

Just for argument’s sake, what percentage of fat children do you think are purchasing their own food?