When my children were small, their mother acquired a TV set and began to show them videos. So I sat them down one afternoon and explained that everything they’d ever see in a TV show or in a movie was untrue. I explained how TV shows and movies have to reach out and grab the attention of the audience while keeping things as simple as possible so the average person can follow along without having to expend any effort. This leads to a series of clichés ranging from good guys always shooting accurately while bad guys reliably miss, to healthy thin people guzzling vast quantities of sugary drinks and pretending that’s part of their daily routine.
Over the following years we talked a lot about the things they were seeing at their mother’s place and we dissected the shows to reveal the untruths, distortions, and exaggerations. While this may seem bizarre to many US parents, for me it was essential in order to prevent my children from being poisoned by the meretricious trash churned out by the entertainment industry. We know from several studies that most US adults get most of their beliefs about the world from entertainment, and that most of these beliefs are fallacious.
For example: if you have the misfortune to be shot by someone wielding a handgun, you’ll fall down if you’ve seen this happen on TV or in a movie; otherwise you’ll remain standing because a handgun round (even from the over-hyped .44 magnum) lacks the kinetic energy to knock over even a toddler.
For example: if you have to serve on a jury for a capital offence and you’re told that DNA samples indicate the accused was present at the crime scene, you’ll imagine this is conclusive proof because you’ve seen TV shows where this is the clinching evidence. In reality, DNA tests are far less accurate than claimed. These claims are based on a single FBI study in the 1990s which yielded results indicating that an error rate of one per billion or less was the norm. Unfortunately (and perhaps not surprisingly for anyone who knows anything about the FBI) this claim was erroneous because the sample size was far too small. More recent analysis has shown that the actual error rate for using DNA to identify a suspect can have an error rate as low as 0.1% among Caucasians and as high as 0.3% for some other groups. That doesn’t sound like much, but in a typical US town with a…