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on June 28, 2005
Johnson highlights the ways in which some pop-culture is in fact more intellectually demanding than that of the past. He points to TV programs such as Hill Street Blues, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons, with their continuous stories, multiple plot threads, and their references to other pop-culture. He also wrote a great deal highlighting the depth and intricacy of many computer games.

I could quibble on a few points. I think he gives cinema a little too much credit, basing his argument there primarily on a few intelligent films whose box office success ranged from weak to moderate. Strangely absent from Johnson's discussion is popular music, with no disclaimer nor any word of explanation for this. Since music is obviously a vast part of the pop culture landscape, its exclusion scores as a major omission.

But these caveats aside, I found that on the whole Johnson presented a very convincing case that a significant part of pop culture is in fact getting smarter. But regarding his premise that people are getting smarter as a result, that's where he got it very wrong.

For direct corroboration, the only hard statistic Johnson cites is the fact that IQ scores have been rising about 3 points per decade. By his own admission, they have been rising steadily at that rate for the last 70 years or so. Yet he perceives the smartening of pop culture as having started in 1981 (with the premiere of Hill Street Blues). So it seems a bit tenuous to claim the two phenomena are related.

Furthermore, IQ scores only measure a narrow range of intellectual abilities. What they measure is a rather mechanical, almost mathematical, sort of logical ability. They say very little about the more grey and nonlinear intelligence needed to comprehend, for example, literature or political science or comparative religion.

Aside from IQ score data, Johnson builds his case on anecdotal evidence, which in my view is easily refutable by other anecdotal evidence. Johnson presumes that since young people are the ones who soak up the most current pop culture, much can be gleaned from observing them.

That's a sensible rationale, so let's use it. Go into a fast food restaurant where young people work. See how many of them can make the correct change when the computerized cash register fails to work. Count how many teens you can find that can explain anything at length without stammering and peppering their sentences with like's and you-know's. And how long can a typical teen even watch TV without channel surfing?

Johnson acknowledges the studies that expose how embarrassingly little knowledge American students have of, for example, historical literacy. He claims that content is only secondarily important, that young people's skill at video games, computers, and general multi-tasking are skills that easily transfer to other sorts of tasks.

To some extent I would agree. But when significant percentages of young people can't even place the Civil War in the correct century, nor can they give a general description of what the Bill of Rights says, something fundamental and deep is lost. It's a bit simplistic to think that computer game agility is a skill that easily "transfers over" into a grasp of the subtleties of the philosophy of government. There are some intellectual capacities that can only be gained by studying certain things.

He also ignores the fact that these American young people seem to exhibit these skills primarily when something is lighting up, moving, and making noises. What about being able to study and learn when you don't know that there will be a definite reward, as there always is with a computer game? It's quite telling how rarely young people are willing to sit for an extended period of time in a quiet room with only paper and books and no electronic media.

The fact is, students in Russia and some European countries have consistently outscored US students on all sorts of scholastic tests. And they watch TV and play computer games less in those countries.

Johnson mentioned how every household today has a running joke about how the 9-year-old is the only one in the family who can set the VCR clock or figure out how to work the remote. True enough. But that could be for the same reason that any adult found it easier to learn music or a foreign language when they were children. That was always been true long before there was an electronic pop culture. Some skills by their nature are simply easier to learn the younger you start.

Though Johnson misses the point much of the time, I give him credit for attempting to answer a number of devil's advocate counter-arguments. He also writes in a plainspoken and engrossing style. Along the way in making his case, he gives some very readable exposition about other factual matters, such as IQ scores and the Flynn effect. However much or however little you'll agree with him, it's a captivating and enjoyable read.
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on January 12, 2006
Steven Johnson's newest book, "Everything Bad Is Good For You" makes the controversial claim that popular culture engages us in a kind of mental calisthenics, resulting in the drastic changes in IQ distribution seen in the last 50 years. He describes beneficial effects of changes in popular culture - changes that have often been decried as hallmarks of societal demise - and shows how these new forms of media exploit our natural reward circuitry. Echoing Marshall McLuhan, Johnson says it's not so much the content (or 'message') of cultural media like Grand Theft Auto and The Sopranos, but the multi-threaded, interactive style of delivery (the 'medium') that engages us in a cognitive workout, and ultimately results in the drastic IQ increases of post-World War II America.

Johnson begins his book with a vitriolic quote from George Will: "Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of 'choice,' adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments and the kinds of entertainments they are absorbed in - video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity." This quote characterizes the dominant perspective on popular culture. But contrary to intuition, Johnson argues, today's most popular entertainment is enormously complex according to several different metrics, such as number of concurrent plot lines, the interdependence or 'nesting' of those plot lines, the Kolmogorov complexity of the networks relating the characters, and the kind of thinking required to make sense of all this complexity. And what's more, popular media has been trending towards increased complexity for the past half-century.

The economics driving these developments relate to a shift from "least objectionable" programming into "most repeatable" programming, rewarding those games/movies/narratives that embrace ambiguity, those that require the entertained to take a more active and exploratory role in comprehension, and those that reward the inquisitively entertained with yet more ambiguity to resolve upon the next viewing. This neuroeconomic "device" is perfectly designed to hijack the pleasure system by establishing an expectation of reward. It is precisely this type of cognition which has been shown to modulate dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, providing the fix craved by pack-a-day smokers, ice-cream fanatics, and gambling addicts alike.

And while the violence illustrated in games like Grand Theft Auto may seem to provide the cognitive nutrition equivalent to gambling, Johnson emphasizes (to use McLuhan's phrase) that the "medium is the message." It is not the content so much as the method of delivery that determines its most important effects: that of rewarding critical thinking and emphasizing interactivity, whether purely cognitive (as in complex narratives) or integrating motor skills as well (as in games). Whatever the detrimental effects of prime-time depravity might be, the positive effect of this new interactive media trend takes the form of "the Sleeper Curve": a 3-point increase in average IQ per year for each of the past 100 years. To put this change in perspective, consider this: a person placing in the 90th percentile of IQ in 1920 would place in the bottom third of a IQ test in 2000.

"Everything Bad Is Good For You" is an incredibly provocative piece of cultural criticism, and while light on experimental evidence for causal relationships between IQ increases and changes in popular culture, it more than makes up for that shortcoming by illuminating ways in which this evidence might be attained. The book's best moments call to mind the optimism of the early 90s for engineering an interactive techno-topia, but these moments are thankfully tempered with a rigorously historical perspective and a firm grounding in relevant neuroscience. The book should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in communication theory, and is highly recommended for those with an interest in integrating neuroscientific principles with entertainment and education.
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on May 12, 2005
Very good book, written from the perspective of a teenaged gamer made good.

Johnson played games as a kid, baseball strategy games, as well as Dungeons and Dragons, and one can detect a certain bias in his outlook. However, his statistical references and footnotes make this book a scholarly look at popular culture - in particular movies, TV and videogames - and is a nice refutation of the "our culture is going into the toilet" crowd.

Johnson argues - to me, convincingly - that even though modern mass market entertainment may appear "dumbed down", it really isn't, and that at a basic physical level, our brains are being made to work harder, get more exercise if you will, and develop higher cognitive functions as a result.

A very complex book written in easy to read language with convincing data to back up the arguments - disguised in a very palatable dialogue that doesn't seem like science at all. He even takes Marshall McLuhan to task on at least one of his conclusions - very daring, and in this case, pays off.

Johnson does miss out on one or two things - the ascendance of message boards is glossed over, or perhaps incorporated into "Internet" "email" and "IMs" in the discussion of why males watch about 1/5 as much TV as they did as little as five years ago.

As a fellow who grew up playing Advanced Squad Leader (arguably a set of rules even more dense than AD&D), I could relate to his argument that kids will learn horribly complex procedures in the name of fun (as he did with his baseball games and D&D sets) and may very well be better for it.

Overall, even if one disagrees with Johnson's arguments or conclusions, the book is fun to read; brings back memories for those who grew up in the 70s and 80s, presents logical arguments, well constructed, easy to understand, and supported by corroborating evidence - including scientific testimony about how the physical (hi Shannon) human brain works. Would love to read a rebuttal, though Johnson has personally sold me over hook, line and sinker. If nothing else, a comforting book amidst doom and gloom prophesies about the fate of our intellect in the hands of TV producers. Well done, Mr. Johnson.
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on April 20, 2006
My headline should say it all. I can see arguments for why all of these things are SOMEWHAT "good" for you--after all, things are usually have two sides to them--but this particular presentation of the argument is too full of logical fallacies and faulty premises to pull it off. All kinds of sleights of hand are employed here.

Just to give one example. The author sets out to debunk the popular idea that video games are nothing more than instant gratification. As evidence that they are not instant gratification, he points to the fact that many video games are very difficult and frustrating to complete--so difficult that one needs a guide to solve them. He compares these guides to the Cliff's Notes one uses to help understand a novel.

First of all, while this argument shows that SOME video games, such as Sim City, are not forms of instant gratification (the author simply ignores the types of games that would work against this thesis), it simply raises another problem about such games--the kind of complexity Johnson describes is an entirely mechanical one--taking certain steps to earn your character money so he can buy a house so he can buy another house so he can own a whole block...etc. The "complexity" described in these video games is no more complex than the process a bird goes through to build a nest. It's a big assembly line.

The comparison of video game guides to Cliff's Notes is deeply flawed. Cliff's Notes tell you certain things about a book, but they do not necessarily give you a "key" to help you "solve" the book--and of course, they could not hope to do that, because books are much more complex than cardboard puzzles. In fact, as any English teacher knows, Cliff's Notes are often nothing more than a poor substitute for independent thinking about literature. Video game guides, on the other hand, are in fact evidence of the entirely mundane reality one encounters in video games. Essentially, these guides help you cheat. There is no way in a lot of these games to find certain things that you need (magic keys, etc.)--and being smart has nothing to do with whether you find them or not--it's simply a matter of looking long enough and remembering where you've already gone. Again...takes a long time, sure, and you have to push the button over and over. But in the end, it's no more "complicated" than an Easter egg hunt.

There are similar sleights of hand employed in the following chapters of the book, not really worth enumerating.

I was very disappointed by this book, because, although I am no fan of popular culture by any means, I'm no old-fashioned old geezer either, and I do think it is always interesting to question our basic assumptions about things.

If anything, this book does exactly the opposite of what it sets out to do. It shows the kinds of totally flawed comparisons and arguments that often spring up when people try to defend popular culture. This creates the impression (probably false) that somehow, this popular culture is CAUSING people to think that their poor reasoning passes for wisdom.

Wouldn't it have been more interesting to include the dark side too? Most things are both "bad" for you in some ways and "good" for you in others--this seems a more enlightening way to discuss popular culture.
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on August 17, 2011
In Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson states that popular culture, which has grown more complex in recent years, is sharpening the minds of today. In making his statement, Johnson clarifies that although popular culture is enhancing the cognitive ability of people on the receiving end of television, video games, and movies, it does not "contain anything resembling moral instruction" and therefore can be considered completely separated from morality while being evaluated. Johnson concludes his premise of the argument by saying: "Today's popular culture may not be showing the righteous path. But it is making us smarter." However, righteousness or ethics cannot be divorced from intelligence in popular culture, in which moral implications are present.

Johnson's illustration of his childhood game of baseball simulation APBA is not applicable to popular culture because the content of games, television shows, and movies does not involve pure decision making, relationship interpretation, or emotion analysis. In his introduction to the concept of the Sleeper Curve, the author admits to the fact that popular culture is merely "a kind of cognitive workout" instead of "a series of life lessons". Johnson falsely concludes that simply because APBA does not contain moral implication, morality is not a part of the impact brought by popular culture. However, this generalization does not work with most of the products of popular culture. For example, Steven Johnson uses an example of Grand Theft Auto game guide selling more than 1.6 million copies. His point to prove here is that the amount of game guides sold directly reflects the cognitive challenge posed by video games. While there are choices need to be made in Grand Theft Auto, they are morality-related choices. Whether the player decides to steal a car or to kill a policeman have impact on cognitive function as well as morality. The same logic can be applied to modern television shows. Although the seemingly complicated character relationships may require cognitive work, choices made in shows do reflect certain belief and ethics; thus they do have impact on morality. Since popular culture has moral implications, the society cannot dismiss righteousness and only focus on the cognitive function.

The claim that popular culture brings cognition improvement is also fallacious. In the argument for games, Johnson deduces that choices in games indicate not only the cognitive challenge but also the complexity of video games. To demonstrate his point, Johnson describes the complexity--a character needs to find a sailboat in order to cross the ocean so he can get the pearl to locate legendary so he can defeat the villain. Though the process is complex in the sense that it has multiple steps, it is habitual and requires minimal thinking. Everything is complicated if Johnson's logic were to be applied to it. For example, a person needs to find a pot in the cupboard so he can fill it with water so he can place on a stove so he can turn on the stove so he can boil the water. In the section of television shows, Johnson demonstrates the "complexity" of modern shows by illustrating the plot structure of certain episodes of certain modern shows. Even if the generalization is legit, there is no hint of connection between plot structures and intelligence. Though Johnson uses several pages to explain what multithreading in television shows is, he does not explain how it translates into higher intelligence. It is true that today's television shows are more complex than shows forty years ago; there is no way that The Sopranos or 24 has evolved and become more complicated than Tolstoy's War and Peace. People before the time of television, games, and movies did not have problem comprehending intelligent, abstruse literary works with much more complex plot lines and character relationships. Thus, popular culture does not necessarily improve the cognitive function of the society.

It may be tempting to emphasize certain qualities of popular culture because it is so accessible and easy to be immersed in. However, one must look at it objectively. Bombastic claims made in Everything Bad is Good for You about morality and intelligence are idealistic rather than realistic. People on the receiving end of popular are inevitably affected by the ideals and beliefs ingrained in it.
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VINE VOICEon January 2, 2007
In Everything Bad is Good for You, author Steven Johnson develops his theses:

1. "This is the Sleeper Curve: The most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all" (p. 9).

2. "But the dominant motif is one of decline and atrophy: we're a nation of reality program addicts and Nintendo freaks. Lost in that account is the most interesting trend of all: that the popular culture has been growing increasingly complex over the past few decades, exercising our minds in powerful new ways" (p. 13).

3. "I am to persuade you of two things: 1. By almost all the standards we use to measure reading's cognitive benefits -- attention, memory, following threads, and so on -- the nonliterary popular culture has been steadily growing more challenging over the past thirty years. 2. Increasingly, the nonliterary popular culture is honing different mental skills that are just as important as the ones exercised by reading books" (p. 23).

4. "Some environmental factor (or combination of factors) must be responsible for the increase in the specific forms of intelligence that IQ measures: problem solving, abstract reasoning, pattern recognition, spatial logic" (p. 142).

5. "Parents can sometimes be appalled at the hypnotic effect that television has on toddlers; they see their otherwise vibrant and active children gazing silently, mouth agape at the screen, and they assume the worse: the television is turning their child into a zombie. ...But these expressions are not signs of mental atrophy. They're signs of focus" (p. 181).

Johnson argues that video games, television, movies, and the internet add to one's ability to understand complex patterns, to probe for answers, and to better understand humans and the human drama. Toward that end, after noting there exist few studies confirming his hypotheses, he notes "But these studies are still rarities, which means the strong argument of the Sleeper Curve is still conjecture" (p. 208).

What do I think? I think Johnson is looking for the ether filling all the space in the universe. And he won't find it.

I happen to agree that the mental exercising in some video games is remarkable. I see less of it in Seinfeld (and I am a fan), and less still in the megafilm Lord of the Rings. The issue Johnson doesn't address, and it is critical, is how much exposure to these stimuli do you need to get the benefits he suggests? Johnson gives no amount here, thus seems to state that 10 hours is good, 100 hours is better, and 1000+ hours is best. I keep thinking that addition and times tables work great, up to a point. When do you practice them, and when do you go on to other things? I mean, 1000 hours of times tables? Don't you pick up most of your skill in World of WarCraft in the first 10 levels? Even if you pick up new skills/connections/threads/patterns every level up to level 60, do you still get something out of playing for another 100 hours?

And I kept being confused with the unspoken alternatives. Of course, if you are not watching television or playing video games, you are doing something else. And what part of driving downtown in a car does not involve complex pattern recognition? Isn't life complex? Doesn't Sense and Sensibility allow for complex thoughts? You can perform addition with a calculator or with an abacus. When you are proficient with one or the other, does it make sense to argue that one teaches you more things than another? Hmm.

Finally, it is interesting that Johnson left out the societal problems with obesity, type II diabetes (previously called adult onset diabetes until too many children developed symptoms), and a reduction in writing and speaking skills. Do video games and television assist with these problems, or add to them? I think it is astounding that these health issues are not even mentioned.

"Yesterday's brainiac is today's simpleton," Johnson states. At best this is simply oversimplification, and at worst it is unhealthy, wrong, and misleading.

I gave this book 3 stars. The first 2/3 was interesting, and already I've gotten into some vigorous discussions because of it. That's a good sign for a book. However, I cringe when I think of some people using this as carte blanche permission to play more and watch television more. Johnson does NOT recommend this, and in this case, I agree.
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on January 12, 2007
This book was definitly an interesting read, but I feel like its lacking in substance.

Johnson tries to prove, for example, that todays television shows make us smarter than those of the 70's because they require a viewer to keep track of more characters and plot lines. But he fails to prove that this is a valid way of measuring complexity, or that keeping track of more plot lines and characters actually makes you think a substantial amount more. He doesn't actually analyze many television shows to prove this statistic, but chooses a few TV shows that he believes are representative of the era. To really prove the point, I think one would need to come up with some sort of data for all shows on television at a given time, but he does not. Even if he does convince you that TV is smarter today than in the 70's, that doesn't mean it makes you smarter than you would be if you hadn't watched TV at all.

He formulates similar opinions for movies, and games as well.

His writing is quick and easy to read, though I thought it a little redundant. Also, the citations annoy me. There aren't any. But in the back of the book, there are sentences referencing studies and an explanation. The problem is that many information that is stated as fact is not cited at all in the back. And its hard to pick out since there aren't any footnotes or anything of that nature to let you know what information he aquired from reputable sources and what information is opinion stated as fact.

Overall, I'd spend your money on something else.
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on November 28, 2005
...in that his entire book could have been more effectively and less painfully expressed in a short story or article. The author's basic argument is solid; our culture is growing more sophisticated, and as animals that have evolved to be curious and innovative, we find pleasure in stimulating and challenging pursuits. Media such as video games and tv programming have grown steadily more complex as our technology has permitted, and our culture has grown accustomed to, and comfortable with, new technologies.

However, I agree with T. Baker-- it feels as if the author was "assigned" a 200 page paper on the topic, and is struggling to fill the entire book with a limited amount of material. Since there is little experimental evidence supporting the author's assertions, he relies heavily on a few preliminary reports, and fails to back any of his theories up with convincing evidence.

The author has a great and logical argument, but it wasn't necessary to draw it out over so many chapters. Perhaps in a few more years there will be studies to warrant an entire book on this topic, but at this point the topic grows tedious a few chapters in.
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on January 30, 2006
When I first learned to drive, my parents sent me to the grocery store to pick up a few things. When I got back to the car I put the bag of groceries on the roof to find the keys, and then I got in and started to drive home -- with the groceries still on the roof! Several drivers honked their horns to get my attention as I meandered through the rows of parked cars. But I ignored them, until, just as I was about to pull out into traffic, some guy in a truck shouted: "Hey! Your groceries are on the roof!"

Embarrassed, I reacted with typical teenage vigor: "I know!" I shouted back, as if the other driver was the idiot in that conversation. "I wanted them there!"

And that is how I would summarize the main arguments in Everything Bad is Good for You: "We know a lot parts of American society are way out of whack. But don't worry -- we wanted them there."

Intense television watching? Better than no TV at all. Video games? Practically an Ivy League education. A lack of face-to-face social interaction among young people? Perfect!

The only significant valid point in the book is that entertainment today is much more complex than it was 30 years ago. Television show and film plots are more complicated, games require quicker decision making, and so on. I don't quarrel with that. But author and alleged social scientist Steven Johnson appears to misunderstand what intelligence is, confusing it with mental stimulation. It would be like saying someone is a better athlete because he moves around a lot, no matter what the results of the actual athletic competition.

The book implies some very basic questions: Is all learning of equal value? Is there a difference between trivial knowledge and real wisdom? Does memorizing data automatically spark creativity? For each of those questions, Mr. Johnson's answer seems overly simplistic, troubling, and aimed to reassure a non-thinking readership.

Obviously, some kinds of learning and information are more valuable than others. And there is more to wisdom or creativity than connecting neurons in the brain through high mental stimulation.

To wit: imagine one youngster who memorized all the differences between the last ten versions of some hit video game, the processor speed needed to play the game, and the engineering team that built it. And another young person has read and understands Shakespeare: he can recognize the original plot elements, puns, wordplay, character types, and poetry of the bard's works. Based on this limited information, both kids have great memories and are both are likely to have natural smarts. But which would you rather spend an afternoon with? Which is more likely to grow up to be a worthwhile adult? Whose morals and ethics would you be more likely to trust?

If pop culture really is making kids smarter -- based on some very limited definition of that word -- is it making them better? Does pop culture build character? Does it teach morals? Integrity? Work ethic? Those things are what we need more than a generation of people skilled at walking through a virtual labyrinth and shooting everything that moves, or imagining themselves the featured star of Juventus or the Dallas Cowboys.

The book is well written and well researched enough to earn 3 stars under normal circumstances, despite some rather obvious flaws. But in this case the central argument sorely tests the limits between simply being a weak and actually being dangerous. Beware.
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on August 5, 2006
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.
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