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Perception and Reality

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Let’s be honest.  Within our nation now there are lots of people that have an enormous distaste for the current president.  It is beyond just disagreement, this is more visceral.  Sadly, the media seems to be chief among them.  Subsequently the news, even when it is not about POTUS, seems to be ugly.  This visceral distaste affects how media sees everything.  It seems like all good news must be examined for the gray lining and all bad news is far worse than it actually is.  That’s the difference between perception and observation.  Observation notes and records verifiable fact.  Perception includes a shading of those facts based on a variety of unrelated factors belonging to the observer.

Trained in science, I was trained to distinguish between these two things.  For example, when taking measurements using your eyes there is a thing called “parallax error.”  Wikepedia defines it this way:

Parallax is a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight, and is measured by the angle or semi-angle of inclination between those two lines.[1][2] The term is derived from the Greek word παράλλαξις (parallaxis), meaning “alternation”. Due to foreshortening, nearby objects have a larger parallax than more distant objects when observed from different positions, so parallax can be used to determine distances.

Put more plainly, an object can appear in slightly different places, depending on where you stand.  Your perception of where it is is different than its actual position.  Thus to get an accurate and true measurement of its position, you must stand in the correct place, or if you cannot stand in the correct place you need to stand in several different known places and correct mathematically.  That’s observation and it is hard work.  Perception is just looking, observation is doing the work to make sure your perception matches reality.  Parallax is a real physical phenomena, thus is can be corrected for mathematically, but the nation, and especially the media seems to be suffering under a kind of psychological parallax which is much harder to put a finger on.

In the news business, supposedly, “reporting” equates to observation and “analysis” is meant to examine the consequences of the information reported.  But increasingly “analysis” is now more about perception than forecasting; that is to say it is about shading the facts not following them to a logical conclusion.  Further, the way information is now presented on the internet, and television, makes it pretty difficult to tell the difference between reporting and analysis in any form. And thus, slowly, the distinction between observation and perception is eroding.  I have not read an actual physical newspaper in quite some time, but when I did they had actual sections that helped to distinguish if I was reading reporting, analysis, or opinion – not so television or the internet.

Consider two examples I have run into this week.  In one, an activist claims that the South did not really lose the Civil War.  Her claim is based on the fact that racism still exists.  Talk about a non-sequitur!  This is not analysis in the traditional sense by any stretch, this is the imposition of an agenda onto facts only vaguely related.  The other is a kerfuffle in the UK about a film reviewer that claimed the movie “Dunkirk” was a celebration of masculinity.  To say I was underwhelmed by the film is to engage in understatement, but that said, it’s “masculinity” never dawned on me?!  Again we have the imposition of an agenda, not traditional analysis or any serious observation.  These pieces came to my attention as headlines among the hundreds of headlines I scan daily, above and below stories of actual informative value.

Cable news was invented years ago turning television news from a public service to a profit center.  Prior to that television news was a limited affair and everybody had to turn to newspapers to get more fully informed.  Once news was supposed to make money they had to draw eyeballs.  If we are honest with ourselves, perception is far more entertaining than observation.  For one thing it is easier.  For another there is  the personal reinforcement that occurs when someone looks at something and sees it the way you do.  Thus cable news evolved the evening line-ups, clearly about perception, not observation.  But that is when most people “get their news.”  Thus the distinction between observation and perception is blurred even more.

The current levels of polarization we are experiencing are a direct result of this blurring – this psychological parallax.  Because we do not distinguish our observations from our perspectives, we cannot agree to the starting point, let alone where we are going.

The election of Donald Trump was an effort, primarily by the people of the Rust Belt where commonsense has long ruled the roost, to find someone outside of the box altogether, someone that was “standing in the right place” to avoid the psychological parallax that seems so have cleft the nation.  People thought, not illogically, that by electing someone outside of the political box the divide could be bridged.  They handed him Congress just to aid the effort.

Unfortunately the president while completely outside of the political box was and is deeply entrenched in the media box.  And by virtue of that entrenchment he feeds the psychological parallax more than he avoids it – think tweeting.  Our nation is testament to the fact that the power to govern descends from the people.  But the people are informed by the media, and the media cannot tell observation and perception apart.  So participation in the media – even the directly speaking media like Twitter – feeds the beast. After all, it is rarely that directly spoken.  Most people encounter a presidential tweet second hand in the middle of the perceptual shading of a different writer.  Further, the president’s combative approach to the media reveals that he is preoccupied by the media’s perception when he needs to be focused on his observations.

It is time for the president to step out of the media box.  Observations are made, but perceptions are formed.  The president’s job is, in many ways, to shape the media’s perception – public perception will follow.  Twitter does not shape perception, it provides fodder for other’s perceptions.  The office of the president carries with it a huge array of tools that can be used to shape perception – it is time for those to be put to use.

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