On Deciphering BS
It’s become near impossible to decipher what is true and false anymore, especially in the realm of current events.
I believe the term current events is even a bit of a misnomer — the contemporary world is the result of geopolitical decisions decades ago. Swaths of people dying of cancer in an area could be the result of fracking in years past — the release of Benzene into nature would be a plausible cause for these deaths.
“History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.”
When I tell people I don’t read the news, they look at me like I’ve committed a grade A felony, similar to stealing a rich lady’s Siamese cat (probably named Gerald.) One of my favorite Tim Ferris podcasts was the one with the Princeton Review founder, Adam Robinson. He said that he knows to look deeper into issues in two scenarios: when everyone believes they understand something or the opposite, people admit they don’t understand anything about a concept.
News exists in both of those categories: we think just by reading a distilled one-pager, the intricacies of Israeli-Palestinian affairs become simple. How many people in our own lives would say, “the solution to (an incredibly complicated topic) is obviously ‘x.’” What does this behavior say about people/ Western culture?
It’s impossible for me to read the news and figure out the information I need that aids me in my daily life. The prevailing argument is that if you read the news, you somehow become more knowledgeable about the world. Indeed, what tends to be the case is that we skim the news, utilize confirmation bias, and come out even more ingrained with what we think we know to be true.
The field of epistemology has been around for centuries — skeptical empiricism even longer. What is a skeptical empiricist you ask?
To put it simply, it’s
“one who considers historical evidence only as a PARTIAL indicator of probabilities, as opposed to naive empiricists who consider historical evidence as the complete basis for predicting future events.”
We’ve always been obsessed with finding truth in a world that doesn’t exist in black or white. Your life can go down the gutter if you’re too gullible (like myself), but a healthy dose of skepticism never hurt anyone. That isn’t to say you should be pessimistic about everything, yet reasoning from first principles can only help you, not hurt.
After having read Ryan Holiday’s new book, Conspiracy, one takeaway I learned is that the media has been top dog in America for quite a while.
As Mark Twain said:
“I never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”
When you have such unfettered power, why would you not use it in your own favor? Absolute power corrupts absolutely. If the world is a machine and different economies are comprised of mechanical gears, the gears are oiled with incentives. Economics is the study of incentives and so are our irrational behaviors and decision making patterns.
Maybe the real purpose of consuming news is that it is a conspicuous good. A conspicuous good is analogous to a Prada bag: a want, not a need to demonstrate our status to others. Objectively, the Prada bag does not have a 10x quality margin while the price would be 10x more than that of the rest.
However in an incredibly status-oriented society, our survival instincts make us believe that the conspicuous good is a necessity within our social groups to survive.
In this same vein, we read news to have the chance in conversation to prove to others that we are also intelligent. Of course, not true of everyone — some are addicted to the dopamine from online article consumption, without feeling the need to bring it up incessantly. And we know how intelligence is the new status symbol: everyone is a “nerd” now because it’s the cool thing to do, an ultimate conspicuous good.
A quick thought experiment along these lines; assume you’re trapped in a desert and you see a genie pop up in front of you. The genie, Jim, offers you a deal: he’ll have three glasses of water appear out of thin air, but two of them will be poisoned. If you guess which one it is, you get all three glasses — otherwise you can refuse and get one glass of water. Which one would you pick?
I wouldn’t bet because there’s no information I can use as leverage to deduce the right answer. This is the same with news consumption and any other field where this is a low signal to noise ratio. We have no way of knowing what exactly the effects of Dutch foreign affairs, Venezuelan socialism, or how Hillary Clinton hid her health issues from voters during the 2016 presidential campaign — among many other things. “I’m with her” seems to not hold so strongly now as she apparently wasn’t with her voters (not that it mattered anyway.)
Avoid low utility items like the news for the most part and you’ll see the second-order effects across your life (yes, I know this sounds like a Herbalife™ commercial.)
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