We Would Rather Be Entertained Than Informed

NHK TV crew

NHK TV crew (Photo credit: Lunar Camel Co.)

A nagging problem with which I seem to constantly wrestle is the phenomenon that people seem to embrace fiction rather than fact as their reality. Many people very earnestly argue for a policy for our nation based on erroneous assumptions. This might be just a problem of being uneducated, but these same people resist education in order to preserve their world view.

This issue came to mind when recently I was discussing a reality TV show with someone who talked about it as if it were real rather than staged. Even after I explained that these shows have people who craft a story and then make it look like it is real, this person remained unfazed not just in his enthusiasm for the show but in the way he continued to talk about these characters and their adventures as if they were totally real.

It occurred to me that what I was observing should really have been obvious to me long ago: people would rather be entertained than informed. This is why news programs have turned into “infotainment“: they get a larger audience and make more money. It is why Rush Limbaugh is so popular: he is an entertainer rather than a reporter. Because we would rather be entertained, we embrace engaging narratives and monologues as reality so that we don’t have any obligation to watch real news which is so boring.

If you spend enough years in the fantasy world of “infotainment,” you lose your perspective on reality. You also lose your appreciation for the scientific method of determining what is true. We lose, in effect, the heart of the benefits of the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment. We move from an enlightened society to a primitive, unenlightened one.

Most people appreciate the benefits and advancements that humanity has enjoyed during the past few centuries, but I’m not sure they understand that these benefits were the result of the Enlightenment. I figure some assume that humanity progresses inevitably over time. Humanity, however, spent many centuries before the Enlightenment when the rate of advancement was very slow. There have been periods when civilization devolved into more anarchy and primitiveness.

So where are we headed? Will we allow our lazy appetite for scintillating stories and images to convince us to reject facts determined by the scientific method of empirical, measurable, and repeatable evidence? I don’t think we will. I believe the power of science is strong enough to weather this storm, but I believe we are already seeing setbacks within our society, and these setbacks may altar our global standing in the future.

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  • Jim Wheeler  On January 15, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Interesting topic, John. Never before in history has so much information been available to so many – newspapers, magazines, television, and of course the internet. Wikipedia alone is an astounding resource and its marginal cost to anyone with a connected computer is zero. But I think you are right when you imply that the glut of material numbs appreciation for quality information.

    Abraham Lincoln taught himself to be a lawyer using borrowed books. Just think about that, the self discipline that was required! Today there are on-line college courses that are free to the masses, and yet the general quality of education has declined so much that America has to import engineers and doctors from abroad. Mankind’s future is not assured, but we are not the first to see this coming. Aldous Huxley knew it in 1931!

  • Jim Wheeler  On January 15, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    P.S., just for those who aren’t inclined to read the rather lengthy Wiki article on Huxley’s Brave New World, here is a paragraph about a reviewer of it that makes the point rather well I think:

    Social critic Neil Postman contrasts the worlds of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World in the foreword of his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. He writes:

    What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

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