"Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter" by Steven Johnson

My Amazon review of "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter" (2005)

Steven Johnson claims that TV is making us smarter. (Explicitly in his New York Times article and implicitly in his book.)

In support of this bold claim, he offers absolutely no scientific evidence. Yet his book is so skillfully written that he has managed to convince a huge number of people that he is correct. (It helps that so many people want to be convinced.)

How does he accomplish this sleight-of-hand?

In his book, he references a number of studies showing that video games improve various types of thought processes. The number he cites for TV. Zero.

On the other hand there are numerous studies showing that kids who watch excessive TV (over 1 to 2 hours per day), tend to do worse in school, don't concentrate as well, have problems with language and reading, etc...

By describing in loving detail the complexities of both video games and various TV shows, and then referencing these scientific studies (for video games) he gives the impression that both have a similar effect on the brain. This couldn't be further from the truth. Playing Video games involve effort and concentration, while watching TV actually slows down the viewers' brain waves, hence the zombie look.

For more on TV's effects on the mind, see the Scientific American cover story (Feb 2002) "Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor".

The arguments he uses to support his contention are that TV is becoming more and more complex and the Flynn Effect. The Flynn Effect is the fact that IQ's in the U.S. and other countries have been rising about 3 points per decade. What Mr. Johnson fails to mention is that this effect in the U.S. started in 1918. TV wasn't even invented until the 1940s, and didn't become commonplace until the 1950s. Mr. Johnson also fails to mention the fact that SAT scores have fallen substantially over the past 40 years.

Even if TV shows are getting more complex (which is entirely plausible considering the amount of time and money invested in TV) there still is no evidence that that translates into smarter viewers.

On the subject of violent TV causing increased aggression, Mr. Johnson is completely dismissive. He argues that because violent crime has gone down over the last 10 years, that that proves there is no real connection. Never mind that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the *entire* world. Also never mind the over 1000 scientific studies done over the past 30 years showing a link between violent TV and aggression (for both children and adults).

The editorial review describes him as a science writer, but for my money, PR hack would be much more accurate.

Here is an excellent refutation of Johnson's TV argument: 

"Does watching TV make you stupid?" -  Stay Free Magazine (May 2005)

And another excellent refutation:

"Everything Bad is Not Really Good For You"  -  The Buck Stops Here (Oct 2006)

See also:

"Thinking Outside the Idiot Box"  -  Slate (April 2005)

In his book, Mr. Johnson was dismissive of any concerns with violent media.  Yet in this interview:  "Johnson says he would rather see kids playing non-violent games: and doesn't want his own young children playing violent ones." 

Kudos to Mr. Johnson for being a responsible parent, it's too bad he is such an irresponsible writer.