Blue Flowers or: The Innumeracy of News
Imagine you are looking out on a field of a endless yellow flowers. These flowers are always yellow, but there is a genetic mutation that causes one in every million of these flowers to turn blue.
Now imagine you continue walking past the field to where your grandmother lives. She is old and can’t leave the house anymore but she remembers the field of yellow flowers. She asks you to pick some flowers to bring back to her so she can smell them. So you walk back to the field and begin picking flowers when you come upon a blue flower.
It’s shocking and unexpected. It’s the exception. So you pick it and proceed to bring her a beautiful bunch of yellow flowers with one blue flower.
She is so excited to see the flowers and smell them and she can imagine the field you described. But then you show her the blue flower. She is intrigued by it and can’t look away. She even inadvertently drops the yellow flowers you brought her. She asks if you can bring her more blue flowers.
You’re a good grandchild, so you do.
And every day you go back out, looking for more blue flowers and each day you return with a flower. Sometimes it takes all day, but you always bring back the blue flowers because they make her so happy.
Soon she starts referring to the field as the “field of blue flowers.” But you feel strange, knowing that your grandmother is imagining a field of blue flowers where in fact, there is a field of yellow flowers.
We are drawn to outliers and oddities. They excite us. But this excitement also moves our benchmark for what is normal. It skews how we see the world and how often we think these events are happening because we are easily able conjure up an example. But this is exactly the type of exceptional information that news outlets and journalists bring us on a daily basis.
It’s an entire industry that depends on brushing aside all the yellow flowers to get to the blue one first. Or more commonly, “if it bleeds, it leads.” When someone is asked why they watch the news they generally say to “stay informed” or to know “what’s happening in the world.” But is that really true?
Let me be clear now, the consumers of news media and the creators of it play an equal role in the misinformation. I don’t mean fake news misinformation. I am not claiming that the content itself is misleading. Rather, I am referring to the disproportionate presentation of sensational material that leads to a perception of the world that is highly inaccurate.
They brought us a blue flower and we loved it. Now we collect them, and when they try to bring us yellow flowers, we turn them away. There are entire companies made of professional blue flower hunters. They know where they are likely to grow and how to ask the right juicy questions (this is where my metaphor starts to break down, if it hasn’t already).
But is a car bomb in Syria what’s “happening in the world?” Or is it just what’s happening on that street in Syria? Is the Twitter feed of a certain pumpkin coloured US President “keeping you informed?” Or is it just junk food for the mind? Is this stream of adrenaline pumped headlines making us better, or is it letting us ignore the parts of our own lives that we would rather not deal with?
These are questions I asked myself last year when I decided to delete all of the news apps off my phone. I’ve stopped watching or reading anything other than a weekly print edition of the Economist. I spend an hour or two reading it and then I put it away. The last year has been by far my most productive and happiest. Some have argued, “you have to stay informed!” or “how are you going to know if a nuclear bomb is headed right towards you?!” (the last one was a real argument presented to me). First of all, if I’m about to get nuked, I would prefer to spend my last moments doing what I am doing, not freaking out. Second of all, I question the assumption that I must “stay informed.”
I don’t believe that the way we have the most impact is by collecting the most information. I believe each of us have the most impact on those in our immediate area and in the situations where our skills can actually make a difference. There are too many problems in the world for you to worry about all of them. And way too many for you to think you can fix all of them without being a complete egomaniac.
But there are problems around you everyday that you could do something about. Things that you think are so small that they aren’t real problems because they don’t involve a war or a natural disaster. They are the yellow flowers. They are the ones that you walk past every day because you’re waiting for a blue flower. A “cause” that will make you a hero and really make a difference. But the truth is, blue flowers are one in a million for a reason.
So start picking some yellow flowers. Start dealing with your problems and the problems in your community. They might get ignored by the newspapers and media conglomerates, but they don’t have to be ignored by us.