Listening to an 80,000 Hours podcast with Bear Braumoeller, a political scientist speaking about war and conflict. Braumoeller dropped an aside in the podcast, mentioning that there are many ways to reduce the probability of war, and especially of escalation, and giving as an example the television move The Day After. The movie aired in 1983 on ABC, and supposedly had an audience of 100 million. According to Braumoeller, “It really brought home the dangers of nuclear war. You could tell, for a while at least, it had an impact on society. It was all anybody talked about. If I remember correctly, it was even before social media, and it was clear that everybody was talking about it everywhere.” We all say things we regret in causal conversations, and maybe this one will haunt Braumoeller? I am speaking of: “If I remember correctly, it was even before social media…” Maybe he was an early user of The Well?
But let me get to the point. I was like, “huh?” How could one know whether the show had an impact? Admittedly, there was careful wording by Braumoeller: “You could tell, for a while at least, it had an impact on society.” If society is defined loosely, then the fact that maybe 100 million people watched at least some of the movie, meant it had an impact on how they allocated their time across channels? “It was all anybody talked about.” Again, 100 million people “talked” about what channel it was on, or should they change the channel, or the movie was good but now they wanted to go to sleep, perhaps? But Braumoeller presumably meant more! So I put it into Google Scholar. And WOW it turned out there were dozens of studies of before-after, and all kinds of stories. The TV movie produced a lot of academic and journalistic discussion about its impact, for sure (but is that the same thing as an impact?). After skimming abstracts for a dozen of the studies I gave up… not very convincing. Sure, the day after watching a movie about nuclear Armageddon, you might reply to a survey question that you were concerned about nuclear war. But three days after? Thirty? Isn’t that what we mean by impact?
One other problem with the argument is that, apparently, and rather glibly, one might observe that four years later a miniseries, Amerika, about a Russian takeover of the United States, was one of the biggest miniseries in television, reaching, also, an audience of 100 million! This show was the polar opposite, presumably inducing digging in of heels and escalation-itis…. “Our values are worth fighting for, no matter the sacrifice!”
Anyway, this kind of cultural event study or propaganda mass media event study is interesting and worth pursuing. Just thinking aloud, I recall the Birth of a Nation paper, the Father Coughlin paper, the Radio Milles Collines paper… Personally, I’ve always had a back burner interest in Bob Dylan and Joan Baez’s tour influence, and also the influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (“So you’re the little lady who started this great war,” Lincoln famously uttered). And the Trump rallies followed by greater arrests of Black motorists is a related example. One of these days.