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The Normalization of Hype

On National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” one evening, reporter Chitra Ragavan is trying to make sense of the latest cancer study, which doesn’t mesh with previous analysis. “If you don’t have some level of confusion about how to interpret this study,” the National Cancer Institute’s Philip Taylor tells Ragavan, “you should.”

In an era in which limitless data make possible a widening pool of elaborate studies and arguments on every side of every question, political as well as scientific, more expert knowledge has, paradoxically, led to less clarity. Is dioxin as dangerous as we once thought? Do vitamins prevent cancer? Would jobs have been gained or lost under Bill Clinton’s comprehensive health care plan?

Because there is always an opportunity to crunch some more numbers, spin them a bit, and prove the opposite, the winner has become argumentation itself. Factionalism gets a big boost while dialogue and consensus-the marrow of democracy-run thinner and thinner every year.

Nowhere are the stat wars more heated than in Washington, D.C, where supplying grist for endless policy debates has become a significant industry. With purposefully vague and formidable names like Institute for Responsive Government and the National Center for Policy Analysis, hundreds of so-called “think tanks” have popped up to become masters of contention. Shaping the mood of Washington begins with press play, and every think tank has a point person to coordinate the flow of information. “I probably have four to five thousand journalists on my system,” estimates Vincent Sollitto of the American Enterprise Institute. “That’s just about every journalist in the world. They are cross-referenced in a tier form-national media, regional media, trade press, foreign press, and then cross-referenced by interest code-people interested in the environment, in economics, in other topics.”

Public relations agencies profit handsomely from fanning debates, and television shows like “Crossfire” are specifically designed to exploit the entertainment value of the stat-war phenomenon. The charges fly back and forth across the table as furiously as a ping pong ball. But there is no referee and no official scoring; the show always ends before viewers have time to gauge the accuracy of the shots.

The statistical anarchy freezes us in our cerebral tracks: we react to an overabundance of competing expert opinions by simply avoiding coming to conclusions. As the amount of information and number of claims stretches toward infinity, we are on the verge of succumbing to paralysis by analysis.

Inevitably, to attract people’s attention, communicators of all types resort to barrier-piercing countermeasures, feeding a vicious spiral in which the data smog gets thicker and thicker and the efforts to cut through the smog ever more desperate. Advertising becomes noisier and more invasive and frequently skirts the bounds of taste. Films become ever more sexually explicit and violent. The basic character of our future information society has already formed: its colors are lighted in a blaze of neon; its audio track is full of expletives, insults, and explosions; and its cultural trademark is the ever-more-outrageous public relations stunt, such as the offer by a San Francisco radio station of a case of Snapple to the family of the one-thousandth person to commit suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Our society is experiencing what communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson calls “the normalization of hyperbole.” The degree to which today’s television programmers, movie producers, performers, spokespersons, and publishers apparently feel compelled to turn up the heat is a serious threat to moderation and intelligence. It reduces our attention span. It makes us numb to anything that doesn’t lurch out and grab us by the throat.

This effect is one of the main reasons political campaigns have become so acrimonious. The growing mean-spiritedness merely reflects a society where hyperbole, vulgarity, and ostentation thrive. In a Maryland senate race, William Brock III falsely suggested that Ruthann Aron, his opponent in the primary, had been convicted of fraud. Aron sued. In his defense, Brock offered as justification: “Everybody knows there’s hyperbole in election campaigns.”

Unfortunately, this approach may discourage some of our best minds from entering the public debate. If one has to be sensational and dramatic to gain attention, what does that portend for the insightful minds whose ideas don’t lend themselves to MTV or flashy Web pages? If our attention naturally gravitates toward the Madonnas and Howard Sterns of the world, who is left behind in the dust? The normalization of hyperbole suppresses the individuals we most desperately need in our complex times-those who are willing to confront life’s ambiguities.

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