Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Grand Theft Science

From a writing assignment for Honors Psychology:
Does media violence cause aggression? This question is as old as media itself, with medieval priests opining to the people that reading and listening to unholy things would lead to unholy behavior. The common man would do better to stick to the Holy Writ and Passion Plays and to leave the rest alone, lest they be led astray. This question comes from today’s priests in the form of psychiatrists and other medical miracle men holding up or putting down television and video games, with both sides arguing vociferously and with the stakes just as high today as then.

On one side of the argument is a set of statistics that begin with the advent of television in the 1960s. As shown by the proponents of the media violence theory, these numbers clearly portray a correlation between media violence and aggression that is likely to be particularly effective amongst members of the public. In addition, a slew of studies that the authors claim support their stance are cited, which is an impressive display of ethos that is likely to persuade those whom are scientifically minded. Finally, an appeal to pathos is made by the use of analogizing media consumption to tobacco consumption, and violence to lung cancer. This is an effective example of emotional rhetoric. However, some of the studies cited are so obviously irrelevant as to be laughable. The most notable example of this was a statistical study regarding the percentage of ‘most popular video games’ that are violent. Not only are those quite a few qualifiers (‘most popular’ according to whom?) for an ostensibly neutral look at numbers, but the study was published in 1991, when we were still rockin’ the SNES and most of my classmates weren’t yet born.
            The opponents of the media violence theory claim the opposite, which is that while the relationship between media violence and aggression might be present, but is not causal. According to these authors, almost every study completed is inconclusive or did not indict media violence at all. Even more, the number of such studies is less than three hundred, as opposed to the thousands claimed by proponents of the media violence theory. The authors quote authority after authority, which all agree on with the media violence theory but all contradict one another on the statistics and the science. This argument is effective because it makes the public doubt the vaunted authority that holds up media violence theory. In addition, the authors show that the statistics shown to support media violence theory are skewed and do not show that violent crime has been steadily decreasing since the 1980s, while television ownership is at an all-time high. All of these arguments are logical in nature, and are easy to understand, making them effective tools for persuasion. The least effective argument was one that they did not make; which is that media violence is not the cause of aggression. Their argument is all defenses, with no offense. In the studies cited, if they did not show that media violence was dangerous, they also did not show that media violence was safe.
            I agree with the opponents of media violence theory in general, and I particularly agree with their views on the baselessness of media violence theory. However, I did not find the evidence offered in either article to be particularly persuasive. The first article began with an abridged history of media consumption in the United States, with which the second article did not argue. Before the television set, the authors posit, people were unable to gain information about ‘how violent the world is’, completely ignoring newspapers, magazines, books, and radio. People read violent books and magazines, read grisly accounts of crime in newspapers, and heard the news on the radio long before the advent of television. Obviously, any view of historical media consumption should include those things. The exclusion of these types of media and this section of media history makes their argument appear stronger than it really is, and is intellectually dishonest. The exclusion of the history of media in the second article strikes me as weak. In both articles, the authors cite a multiple source that the authors claim back their views, but provide almost no quotations or explanations for these studies, whether in regards to the study conclusions or methodology. Do these studies actually say what the authors’ state they do? Are they even relevant? There is no way to tell with the information provided.
In addition, the authors on both sides assume facts that are not in evidence. One such claim is that the rates of violence shown on television are exponential compared to the rates of actual violence. The authors’ of the first article use murder as an example, but imply that this claim is true across the board. Their claim might be true in regards to murder, but the inverse is true in regards to rape. Rape statistics in reality are exponential compared to their portrayal on television and in video games. The argument does not follow. The authors’ of the second article, again, fail to challenge this underlying assumption.
Instead, my views on this topic come from outside sources, primarily concerned with video games, but also concerning television, books, films, and other media consumption. Using these studies, whose methodology I find to be sound, in addition to theories on child development, I have chosen to set only a few limits on the media consumption of my own children.
The most effective measure in my household is the requirement that I be in the room for almost all non-approved media consumption, and that we frequently pause and discuss what we’re seeing and hearing. This allows us the opportunity to interrogate the ideas that we are ingesting, and to develop critical thinking skills and habits regarding culture as a whole. We have also made the choice to eschew cable and other channel-based television in favor of Netflix and Hulu Plus. Instead of the ever-present blaring of an idiot box that seems to be the staple of an American living room, our television and computers are only on when we choose to use them, and commercials are almost entirely escaped. However, I am more lackadaisal in regards to books and music than to television and films, and video games are their own special category, requiring some research and earning points that my children exchange for video game time via our token economy. In the end, I feel like the research available within this assignment is not enough to form a cogent opinion on the topic, while the studies left out of these articles are the meat and potatoes of the meal of media violence theory.

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