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?