Beyond News

Importance: 8
Confidence level: 6
Length: 3000 words

Tl;dr: most people are not wary enough of news’ negatives, are a little too nonchalant (not chalant enough?) about the material they choose to spend so many hours of their life reading, and may be lacking in good alternative sources.


True to the tagline, this blog is concerned heavily with learning about the world in a more effective, efficient manner. There are many good sources of information in the world; oddly, mainstream news, tasked solely with being a good source of information, is not one of them.

I originally wrote this as an invective against news before I realized that had been done already. No need to clutter the internet by repeating the argument again. But some things still need clearing up.

Dobelli’s conclusion is that you should quit the news “cold turkey.” But I think there is something to be said for searching for a replacement; surely something out there is better than chaff. Before we dive into improvements though, we best follow the rationalist’s tenet of checking his arguments for correctness. I broadly agree with him, but ultimately find a somewhat softer conclusion dependent on reader to be in order.

Reading the news is a ubiquitous pastime in the developed world. Hearing that people read the news seems to invoke some small aura of respect (at least where I am). A real adult rephrased this as “it’s basically a prerequisite to being considered a full adult/functioning human”. With so much support, I have to wonder if my distrust is misplaced.

First, we should specify the kind of news addressed. Until the end of this post, I will be talking about the kind of news you could (in a former era) find in a standard newspaper. Perhaps the local news, perhaps the Chicago Tribune. I want to restrict it to news news though, so let’s ignore online newspaper-affiliated blogs and editorials and focus on the breaking news section, or television news, or radio, or similar.

A compacted version of Dobelli’s 15-point argument would be as follows. Firstly, news is irrelevant and wastes our valuable time. Furthermore, it is manipulative and systematically misleads us. On top of this, it affects us directly by producing stress and harmful mental habits. I will label these irrelevance, deceit, and impairment.

Dobelli has deceit pinned down. He notes that journalists’ incentives directly conflict with our own, causing them to underrepresent important societal knowledge in favor of an undue focus on flashy and catchy stories. We have all noticed the increasing prevalence of clickbait. Even news articles frequently jockey for position by mentioning how the other side is just trying to generate catchy content. He uses as examples:

  • Terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated.
  • The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is underrated.
  • Astronauts are overrated. Nurses are underrated.
  • Britney Spears is overrated. IPCC reports are underrated.
  • Airplane crashes are overrated. Resistance to antibiotics is underrated.

The availability heuristic means that we turn this misrepresentation in our information into a misunderstanding of the rates things actually happen in the world. This has direct consequences, like our spending $16b a year on counter-terrorism while car crashes and obesity kill orders of magnitude more people. (The rationality of this specific example can be debated, but the principle of many poor priorities holds generally.)

As leader of the free world, our democratic system somehow still allows us the liberty to control our own information consumption, which privilege we exercise to filter only news sources far on our own side of the political spectrum to comfort us and corroborate our beliefs. This plays into confirmation bias, a widespread and deadly enemy. Even in my well-tended facebook feed, the constant seeping invasion of Daily Kos and Fox News articles reminds me this issue is alive and well.

Along with availability and confirmation, Dobelli notes narrative bias and other deceit issues. If you don’t see these negative aspects of the news, go read points 1, 3, 5, 11, and 12 in his essay.

Moving on to impairment. Given the mechanisms discussed above, it seems obvious the news would have a direct impairing effect on your beliefs about how the world works. However, clearing your life of availability, confirmation, and narrative issues from the news just leads you to be exposed to the exact same issues via human conversation. It also seems unlikely that news significantly contributes to these biases, given that we are already deeply in their grasp by the time we become of news-reading age.

The other points in this category are similarly suspect. He accuses news of promoting stress, creating addiction, stifling creativity, whittling away focus, and fostering passivity. But. Our financial situations and social relationships seem to have a virtual monopoly on our stress. Everything modern is addictive. Everything modern stifles creativity (from video games to school). Everything modern whittles at our focus (see the supposed ADHD epidemic in kids under the typical news-reading age). Kids are addicted to television and passive far before news reaches them. It is hard to debate that news probably contributes negatively in these ways, but the effect sizes are completely swamped by the rest of our world in every case. So let’s ignore somatic issues and concentrate on the information content.

Finally, irrelevance. We have established that the news is deceitful in many ways, but does it have countervailing positive benefits? The answer seems to be heavily dependent on the person.

I have heard that some people feel more attached to the world, more a citizen of the global population, after reading the news. The news can plausibly help you put your life in perspective. Local news may occasionally give you genuinely helpful information about changes to your recycling guidelines. Apparently a lot of people spend very little time on the news, so if you only pay down a few moments on the news each day for these reasons, I think it may definitely be justified.

On the other hand, many more people seem to see the negative effects:

Off the top of your head, any feelings?

(In light of this, maybe I should partially relax my dismissal of the “causes stress” argument above.)

But aside from developing some overall worldview, it again seems like the actual information given in most news sources is somewhere between pointless and unhelpful. Aside from the actively negative choice of material that is reported on, news runs into two related problems: it is at a very surface level, and it is very repetitive.

The song So It Goes argues, “Lying, breeding, crawling, dying, it’s all in us, always repeating.” While this may pattern-match to a cynic, there is something to be said for noticing such patterns.

Depending on how simplistic you want to be, humans do tend to repeat a few basic instincts over and over and over. This is reflected in our news. If you have followed the Israel-Palestine conflict, the last several years have been roughly the same as the few years before that. Atrocities are committed on the one side; sometimes they are reciprocated, sometimes not. They enter peace talks. They go south. More atrocities. Repeat. Perhaps there is more of interest here. But if so, I certainly don’t see it from the news articles.

I would argue the vast majority of news is of this type. “Sports player injured.” “Trade deal struck.” “Local crime committed.” “War on terror continues with some heartbreaking tragedies.”

If you want to be an expert on trade deals, you don’t want to read the newspaper. If you are young and want to learn about how trade deals work, I’ll give you a google search and a few news articles about them, and then you move on. If you are older and know how trade deals work, reading specifically about TPP is entirely useless, unless you have a referendum or possibility to give your well-reasoned opinion on trade deals. But in this case you want to read an econ blog, a World Bank analysis, or anything but news reports. The news is for reporting: these are concrete facts. These do not delve into the deeper structure underlying the human social condition. (This is painfully evident when you read about the growing trend of computer algorithms writing news articles.)

You can report endless facts on the TPP and what nations are included and how secret it is and what products are covered, but if you read that article by the respected source of the Washington Post, you’ll notice afterward… What have you really learned? Here is a moderately secret trade deal being negotiated. These have happened before. They will happen again. Do you want to live your life like Groundhog Day?


We have painted news as the villain. But what in its place?

To start, I should briefly acknowledge places news is applicable. Firstly, anyone working in a specific sector that needs to keep up with its developments is clearly vindicated. Secondly, even if it’s largely composed of concrete facts and little depth, the news seems plausibly helpful for large portions of rural America and many places overseas. “Provincial” and “urbane” refer more to negative and positive characteristics about knowledge and progressive thought than literal locale, and it seems that a large part of this is due to information. I have heard only anecdotes, but it seems that many people moving out of a small town or third world country find a whole new world with whole different problems than they originally faced. For these people, news seems to make sense as a way to learn about the changing world. News will not yet be repetitive for them, and the information is positive even when filtered through biases. These people may make up a substantial portion of the world, and if it is indeed useful to them, this would solve our earlier question about why society on the whole thinks news is important.

However, most people reading this blog will probably not be uninitiated into modernity. For us, the only purpose news will serve is signaling our conventional adulthood. If you are okay with spending time reading news only to signal to others you’re caught up with the world, I will point out the typical response to peer pressure but won’t argue. My recommendations can balance signaling with information quality.

If you are in the biz only to signal, mainstream news is a reasonable choice (but standard disclaimer about all the negative effects we saw above). But can you do better? Much of the news people read is never brought up in conversation with others. On the other hand, a small number of articles and events seem to be discussed a disproportionate amount of time. This is typical of a power law, common in social networks and widely known to be the distribution of numbers of readers per blog; it seems likely that it holds in news article views too. A great way to take advantage of this is to only read the big articles that come up frequently: this can be accomplished by using reddit, twitter, or facebook to find what most people are viewing. The “trending” sidebar on facebook or twitter gives a good wide-scale view. Various subreddits and some people on twitter can give good narrow views on specific topics. Twitter and facebook can be tailored to your own social network, highly effective at determining what people around you are literally reading and talking about but less efficient when considering all the chaff you must sort through about people’s lives. All three of these websites can be worse time sinks than the news itself, but if you use them right (i.e. keep newsreading and play separate) you can reap significant gains in efficiency.

If you’re somewhere on the spectrum between desiring signaling power and refined understanding, you can choose some mix of this strategy with the following, as many people do. But unlike most people, I hope you realize that the right side of this axis goes far beyond news.

If you reject signaling and are interested exclusively in useful learning, there are much better options available. News is definitely beaten out on average by nonfiction—blogs, books, textbooks, essays, papers—as well as some fiction.

I say average because of course there are no classes of reading which will universally be great. Many blogs are useless and pandering. Books have been written on everything, and many of those things are useless. Textbooks and papers are often too technical or go too deep into fields that aren’t especially relevant. Fiction can be hugely hit or miss. But after some poking around, or reading recommendations or blogrolls from those you trust, you can discern much more effective sources of information and update as you find new ones. Explore briefly, and spend most of your time exploiting the greats.

Fiction first—it is a bit of a different beast, and I have at times strayed far from its camp. However, I have come around to see some as a useful (but usually not efficient) source of insights and connections to feed the neural net. Reading Gaiman, Pratchett, and some poetry gives me this sense. Scott Alexander references a fair amount, especially Lovecraft. Yudkowsky joins other science fiction evangelists who draw many ideas originally from this creative genre, modifying them based on practical considerations. Short stories are great for handling added emotional imbuement in a way essays cannot, like for surprisingly important moral considerations.

Nonfiction has more evidence of the superiority of its sources in action. Take any typical example of something important in the world you wish to know about—as a case study, I’ll use bitcoin (others available upon request). If you’ve read the news about it, you probably know it’s a decentralized crypto-currency that’s sometimes used on the black market. E.g., if you read this news article, you will learn a good amount but spend much of your time on the mysterious founder and various historical quirks.

The only way to figure out how you should really feel about bitcoin is to read things written by knowledgeable people thinking about the principles of the thing (short, strongly opined, cherry-picked quotations by important execs in news are misleading and do not count). The Stellar blog explains more generally how cryptocurrencies work and why theirs is better. To understand bitcoin technically, papers about the blockstream or Ethereum do wonders. If you aren’t to the point of understanding those, start lower; I think it will take a shorter time than you’d expect to get up to speed, and you are in this for knowledge and to be an informed citizen, right? A short book like 9 Algorithms that Changed the Future is a great book to explain public key cryptography (and 8 other algorithms) for those with no background in math; an intro textbook on cryptography itself can be perused or read in depth if you want to learn more robustly about this topic of vital importance to the future.

These cover the few facts you can get from the news and talk much more about the important ramifications. However, if we want connections to things outside of the immediate field, blogs and essays are our only hope. I will use posts from the venerable Scott Alexander as my blog example. First, he pointed out a good case for “do not bring up that which you cannot put down” (ctrl+f for “bitcoin”). He goes on to consider how likely it is that terrorists will have a sizeable benefit from widespread cryptosystems, whether it’s even possible to stop cryptosystems from becoming ubiquitous, and whether this kind of coordination problem can be solved in different degrees by different governments. (Sorry, the link is large only because it contains multitudes).

This is the beginnings of a structure for determining the answer to the famous privacy vs security question raging in the greater crypto war, which in the last million instances has been resolved only by yelling louder that their side is what America stands for. Speaking of wars, in another moderately less multitudinous post, he also connects bitcoin’s crypto with the difficulty in escaping moderators on the internet, like in the Reddit Wars. At risk of belaboring this point: these are ideas that you will have a higher chance of hearing about by letting monkeys pound on a typewriter than journalists. If you want to transcend surface knowledge, you have to look below the surface.

I think we’ve gone down the nonfiction rabbit hole far enough to peer to the end. News tells you the output of humans tirelessly adhering to their biology and incentives, repeating the same shootings, inventions, wars, diplomacy, and election struggles. Blogs and papers will identify the mechanisms that spawn various facets of this human condition. News is the pixels of Conway’s Game of Life dancing endlessly across the screen. Books and papers will tell you common patterns that are seen. Blogs and essays can identify the rules.


Appendix

Depending on where you are temporally and geographically, you may be aware of many more or many fewer information-dense sources than I—but since I promised a recommendation beyond news, I’ll suggest a few starting points. Their blogrolls are relatively incestuous but can still help you find many more.

First half dozen or so I find most helpful and applicable:

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