Eat Better, Think Better
Learning to balance your information diet.
Too much processed information, like too much processed food, is bad for us. It feels good to consume but ultimately leaves us lacking in vital substance and full of, well, crap. As I’m about to embark on a round of Whole30 — the ubiquitous guide that stresses consumption of certain whole, unprocessed foods, I thought I might take a similar approach to my consumption of information. In our fast-paced world of tweets and breaking headline news, we receive information quickly but we lose something in the process; we miss out on the chance to analyze primary sources in context. And when we rely only on the processed secondary sources we become bloated with the biases of others, unable to decide for ourselves. We should strive for a more balanced diet of primary sources with a thoughtful indulgence in the processed versions of those sources. Think more lean proteins and leafy greens and less fast food.
The first thing I learned in legal research and writing is the distinction between primary sources and secondary sources. The Library of Congress defines primary sources as “laws, orders, decisions, or regulations issued by a governmental entity or official, such as a court, legislature, or executive agency; the President; or a state governor.” The United States Constitution, the state constitutions, federal and state statutes, common law, and case law are all examples of primary sources. Secondary sources may consist of “analysis, commentary, or a restatement of primary law and are used to help locate and explain primary sources of law.” These are your law review articles and treatises compiling and analyzing law on a particular subject. In terms of binding authority — sources to which courts must defer, courts attribute more deference to primary sources than secondary sources (except in certain circumstances). In short, primary sources state the law; secondary sources analyze it.
Your primary sources — the transcript, the text of the “controversial” article, the event itself, are your whole foods. And then you have your secondary sources, which include news articles or programming offering analysis of the event. Even if they are well-written, well-reasoned and make you feel good, these articles, news panels, tweets — these are all processed sources that impose biases through interpretation of the primary source. Take former FBI director James Comey’s recent testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, for example. The actual testimony is the primary source, the whole food — that doesn’t mean one has to accept all of Comey’s conclusions as gospel (although recall he testified under oath), but rather one should go directly to this source to make one’s own conclusions. The tweets — even from esteemed legal minds, the panel of experts on cable news, these are secondary sources. And if you look across different networks and publications, you’ll see the varied ways in which the original source has been interpreted.
Eating well requires more effort than eating crap. It takes time, careful analysis and leg work to make sure you’re eating whole, unprocessed foods. In the same way, critical thinking, especially in the age of processed information, takes more effort. We must be vigilant about our consumption — both in body and mind; our health demands it.