The Awesome Power of Self-Selection

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by Tim Widowfield

Why I never became a journalist

In my first two years of college, I wandered from major to major — theatre, undecided, political science. One muggy day in the summer of 1979, I realized I was going nowhere. I was working in Columbus, Ohio, for a guy whose business model had something to do with selling frozen meat door to door. My meals consisted mainly of bread, peanut butter, and orange soda (or “pop”).

I was flat broke, with no options. So I decided to join the U.S. Air Force, following in my dad’s footsteps. To make a long story short, my language aptitude scores landed me in Russian language school at Monterey, then on to an overseas assignment. The job was interesting, and living in Berlin was a great experience, but I knew from the outset I was going to stay in only for the minimum four-year stint, and then head back to school.

Ring Lardner

This time I knew exactly which I degree I wanted to pursue: a bachelor of arts in journalism. At the University of Maryland, I bided my time, waiting for seats in the first upper-level journalism class to open up. In the intervening period, I took lots of history courses as electives.

At last, I found myself on the first day of my first journalism class. The professor greeted us all and then asked us to go around the room, give a short introduction, and say which kind of journalism we were focused on. Everybody except me and one other guy said, “Radio and Television.” We, the two dinosaurs, had indicated we were interested only in print journalism.

At that very moment, I knew I couldn’t stay. Journalism was now a job for the shallow, pretty people. The beat reporter stabbing away at his typewriter with his index fingers trying to meet a deadline was a figment of my imagination, the ghost of a bygone era.

The power of self-selection

I selected myself out of my chosen field of study. I dropped my classes, switched to history, and never looked back. Since that time, mainstream journalism has gotten much, much worse. Had I stayed, I alone couldn’t have changed anything. But together, the large numbers of people who took themselves out of the mix — who decided not to stick it out and try to stem the tide — might have. Or perhaps not.

The power of self-selection often goes unnoticed. It’s a kind of opportunity cost. What would have happened if such-and-such had not happened? Who gives up? What sorts of people remain? Do they represent a broad section of society, or have the pressures of the system ensured that only certain people who think “the right way” have a voice?

I’m not talking about self-censorship. The problem goes deeper than that; the people who would have been heard, perhaps should have been heard, are absent. Here, Noam Chomsky tries to explain the phenomenon to the remarkably thickheaded Andrew Marr of the BBC:


Marr: How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know . . .

Chomsky: I don’t say you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting here today.

Notice how that bit of information bounces off Marr’s forehead.

Manufacturing consent and consensus

It is true, of course, that self-censorship goes on all the time. In fact, in societies where the government lays down harsh rules of censorship, they rely on people to police themselves. To be safe, most people will apply even harsher rules. Why tempt fate?

The same holds true for “free” societies in which debate has a very narrow range of permitted topics and ideas. Fall outside that narrow range and you might get a phone call. Or you might find that your sources have dried up. Or your career has unexpectedly stagnated. Or your scholarship has been revoked. Or your grant has been withheld. Or your donors stop funding your elections.

However, self-censorship is not really the primary driving force that maintains the status quo. It is, instead, self-selection. The people who might have broken the rules or tested the limits of the narrow range are missing. They were never in the picture to begin with. The people who remain speak with a nearly unanimous voice, and that manufactured majority — consensus by default — reinforces itself. “So say we all.”

When authors like Bart Ehrman point to the weight of scholarly consensus or when a deep and serious thinker like John Dickson says he’ll eat a page of Matthew’s gospel if one of his own tribe publicly doubts the historicity of Jesus, I sometimes see comments here and on other skeptical web sites about self-censorship. Sure, some of that might go on. But I think it’s rare. In this case, censorship, whether applied externally or self-inflicted, is unnecessary.

When scholars say they’re convinced by the consensus, I have no reason to doubt them. Like Chomsky, I am sure they believe everything they’re saying. It’s just that if they believed anything different, they wouldn’t be sitting there today.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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3 thoughts on “The Awesome Power of Self-Selection”

  1. Self-selection. How many non-Christians decide to get a ThD or PhD in [Christian] religious studies? Imagine how much different the “consensus” would be if there weren’t any self-selection in that field; Hindus, Muslims, Jains, atheists, etc. all equally represented in NT scholarship. But most NT scholars start with a love of Jesus that initially put them in that seat in their first undergrad course. Do they ever really let go of that love of Jesus?

    This is one of those very different ways that NT scholarship is different from other fields, say like biology. It has much more weight to say that 99% of biologists accept the theory of evolution because a PhD biologist could be Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or any religion.

  2. “Manufacturing Consent” Herman and Chomsky is required reading for all those who wish to understand politics, which, of course, includes religion.

    It [the book] ain’t perfect, and appears, but isn’t, to be dated [1975 from memory] and the theory it illustrates has since been refined but ….required reading.

    An admirable starting point.

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