Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Pundits And The Silly Stories They Tell

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen June 22, 2011

The Vancouver riot demonstrated how the worship of a violent and chaotic sport breeds violence and chaos. Or perhaps it revealed hidden socio-economic tensions.

Or the amorality of a generation.

Or the nihilism bred by the welfare state.

Take your pick. You could even toss a bunch of these hypotheses into a stew and conclude, as two writers in the Georgia Straight did, that we live in "a sick f***ing culture."

Just don't make the mistake of thinking this gives you any real insight into why the riot happened. Vapid hypothesizing says lots about the beliefs and ideologies of the pundits who make these claims and the people who nod when they hear them. But it says very little, if anything, about the riot.

I know that not because I have any particular insight to offer on why the riot happened - I'm not omniscient, unlike many of my colleagues - but because this is how these things routinely play out.

First, a singular, awful event happens.

Some pundits immediately jump up and say with they are dead sure they know what caused the awful event. It is X.

Others completely disagree. No, Y is to blame. There's no doubt about it.

Still more pundits speak up for Z. Or perhaps A, B, C, D, or E.

If the awful event is particularly awful, and people are still talking about it weeks later, this process may get all the way to J or K.

In almost every case, the pundits' explanations match their existing concerns and ideological perspectives. Which is an amazing coincidence, one would think. But people aren't amazed. Or intrigued. In fact, this interesting detail generally goes unmentioned.

The reaction of the public is similar. People almost uniformly embrace the explanations that square with their existing concerns and ideological perspectives, while dismissing those that don't as preposterous nonsense.

Almost nobody notices or cares that these insta-explanations are not supported by evidence. The feeling of truth is all that matters.

In time, careful investigations are conducted, evidence accumulates, and the insta-explanations dissolve like sandcastles at high tide. But no one notices because by then they've all been forgotten.

A particularly spectacular example was the debate following the Columbine massacre.

Why was school violence soaring? What was wrong with young people? Video games were blamed. Goth music. Marijuana. Bad parenting. The breakdown of the family. Socioeconomic tensions. A sick f***ing culture. On and on it went.

But then the U.S. Department of Justice compiled data on violence in schools and discovered something surprising. Violence wasn't soaring. It was plummeting.

The pundits didn't admit their glib hypotheses were entirely wrong, naturally. By then, the conversation had long since moved on.

The paradigmatic case is the infamous murder of a young New Yorker named Kitty Genovese.

It was 3: 20 a.m., March 13, 1964. A man stabbed Genovese outside a bookstore. She screamed. The windows in surrounding apartment buildings lit up as startled neighbours scrambled to see what the trouble was. One man yelled "let that girl alone!"

The attacker left. Genovese staggered to her apartment building. The man returned, caught Genovese in a stairwell, sexually assaulted her and stabbed her eight more times.

Finally, someone phoned the police. It was 3: 50 a.m. Half an hour had passed since Genovese's first screams woke the neighbourhood. Genovese died soon after.

Police later determined that dozens of people had heard the screams. Aside from that one man's shout, no one did anything.

Soon after, the New York Times tracked down the witnesses and ran an article in which they appeared cold and indifferent to the fate of a helpless stranger. Outraged editorials and columns flooded the United States and beyond.

What was wrong with those people? What was wrong with society?

Most fingers pointed at urbanization. City life destroyed community and empathy, countless armchair theorists argued.

But then researchers got to work. Evidence accumulated. And it became indisputably clear that Kitty Genovese was not the victim of urban life or any other social pathology. People hadn't acted because the particular circumstances of that awful moment meant none of them felt they were personally needed.

Of course the young woman needed help. Of course someone should help. Of course someone should call the police. But everyone assumed that the someone else would do it. So none did.

Open any social psychology textbook today and you'll find the Genovese murder used as an illustration of the "bystander effect" - and the more fundamental point that we greatly underestimate the extent to which people's behaviour is influenced by the particular situation in which they make decisions.

And that, I suspect, is what careful analysis of the Vancouver riots will reveal.

There likely were some genuine goons who went downtown that evening with the intention of causing trouble. But there were a lot more otherwise lawful, decent, ordinary people who did things they did not plan to do, would never have imagined they would do, and very much regret having done.

The riot was not caused by some profound underlying pathology. It was caused by the circumstances of the moment.

Skeptical? You should be. That conclusion squares with my prior beliefs and ideological perspective. So I'm suspicious of it, too.

I'll wait for the evidence. As should we all.