Chapter 5 - How the News Makes You Stupid

[I am writing a book and plan to post chapters as I go, here is Chapter 5. I've already posted the introduction and first four and you can start here to read them. I will update with links to the future chapters when they are done.]


In the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, it was the those enlightened people that could see the clothes. The rabble could not. The more educated and knowledgeable someone was the better chance they had of seeing the clothes. In modern Western Culture one of the ways we educate ourselves is by careful attention to the news. Most college educated people are news watchers. We might flip on a cable news channel as we sip coffee in the morning. We scroll through CNN.com during the day. We check the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal. We see what is trending on twitter. We talk news with our friends at lunch. We post something about it on Facebook when we get home. We watch coverage on protests in Iran. We read about China's currency manipulation. We look up the poll numbers on the upcoming election. Somehow this information makes us informed and knowledgeable people. When I was in high school, I was taught the importance of being up to date on the latest news. They even had a class called 'current events' where we were encouraged to read news papers, watch the news, and discuss these events with our classmates.

But what if, like the knowledge in the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, the news actually makes us dumber instead of smarter?

I write these words in 2020 but let me list the top 10 most read NYTimes.com stories of 2019. This list has the benefit of not having hindsight bias (it is what people thought was important enough to read at the time rather than reflecting backward).

"Jeffrey Epstein Dead in Suicide at Jail"

"Fire Mauls Beloved Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris"

"FBI Opened Inquiry into Whether Trump Was Working Secretly on Behalf of Russia"

"Mysterious Infection, Spanning the Globe in a Climate of Secrecy" [interesting this story was not referring to COVID19 - the virus that would cause massive news in 2020 - but an unrelated health scare that did not remain notable into 2020]

"[New Zealand PM] Jacinda Ardern Consoles Families After New Zealand Shooting"

"Storm Slams into Bahamas and Menaces Florida"

"Navy Pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects"

"Actresses, Business Leaders, and Other Wealthy Parents Charged in US College Entry Fraud"

"Finally Astronomers Capture First Ever Image of Black Hole"

"Trump Signs Bill Reopening in Surprise Retreat from Wall"

Six months later, how do I rate the importance of these stories in my life? How much did they affect me? How much did knowing about them benefit me? To be honest, I only remembered three of these stories (Epstein, the Notre Dame fire and the UFO story). The rest had completely slipped from my memory. I am sure if I was directly affected by one of them (a shooting, a hurricane, an infection, etc) the story would have been better remembered but since they did not, I had forgotten they happened at all.  And if I was directly affected, I probably would not have needed to read NYTimes.com to know about it. And these were the TOP read stories of the year. How many other stories were published day in and day out that were forgotten.

2019 was actually a very eventful year of news with big stories (that I actually do remember) like President Trump being investigated. This investigation was in the news daily with big headlines. Every day it seemed like there was some new revelation that came out. Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, turned on him and the press was sure it would lead to Trump's impeachment..... it did not. The news broke that Trump's mistress, Stormy Daniels, had been paid hush money and this was sure to lead to Trump's impeachment.... it did not. Robert Mueller quietly finished his work investigating Trump's potential collusion with Russia to interfere with the election.... the investigation ended anticlimactically without any bombshells and no impeachment. At some point in time of the year, the press was sure that Trump was going to attack Syria...he didn't. Trump was going to attack Iran.... he didn't. Trump was going to attack Turkey... he didn't.

The stories we paid attention to the most were more often than not nothing more than distractions that turned out to be either false or unimportant. And some of the most important things (with the benefit mid-2020 hindsight) did not get the press or attention they deserved. For example, in 2020 the US shut down her economy for weeks to battle COVID19. The virus appeared in China in late 2019 but very little attention was paid. No one knew it was going to be a giant problem. In short, we paid attention to stuff we should not have paid attention to and we failed to pay attention to stuff we should have paid attention to. We all spent hours and hours scrolling through endless headlines and breaking news that promised to be history changing moments...  only to lead to nothing. We could have never heard of Michael Cohen or Stormy Daniels and we would be no more ignorant of the way things unfolded.

24-hour news channels fill their days with news by definition. Daily newspapers fill their pages with news... by definition. Websites need to be updated every hour or people stop reading. And they all make their money getting eyeballs to turn their way. They make their money by telling us that a world changing event is on the horizon. War is close. Some global pandemic is close. Impeachment is close. Something is about to happen and if you so much as dare to change the channel, you will regret it. And now a word from our sponsors.

Imagine crossing the street. You look left. You look right. No cars, buses, or trucks. You cross safely.

Now imagine this, you start to cross the street you look left but notice a bird in the sky. Then you notice the water tower in the distance and wonder why they painted, "Welcome to Glome" on the side. Then you see a little boy on a tricycle. Then you notice a man with an artificial leg walking out of a building. Then you notice the building is white and wonder why the building is white. You start to cross. You remember for a second to look left but then you see a billboard on top of a building and wonder how much it cost per month to advertise there. You take a step into the road and as you do you see a pretty girl walking on the sidewalk towards you. She looks sort of like your high school girlfriend but of course it could not be her because your high school girlfriend moved to Kentucky with her new husband. You remember to look right and as you do you see three large men that look sort of dangerous. You wonder if you should be worried about them. You take another step forward. Your attention is suddenly focused.... on the bus that is a few feet away from you and getting closer. You do not even feel the impact and you are suddenly talking to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

More information is not always good. Often it is simply bad. When you are crossing a street, you need to know two things: is there a car coming left and is there a car coming right. Any more information can only hurt your chances of crossing safely.

The news is like an information overload 24 hours a day. If they were actually helpful, they would tailor the amount of news on any given day to the number of things they feel are important. On action packed days (maybe election night), Fox or CNN might have 10 hours of news. But on most days, the news would be something like this: 'Hello ladies and gentlemen, not much has changed since yesterday... tune in again tomorrow and we will let you know if anything has changed. Good night.' News on most days would be 10 - 15 seconds.

This would allow consumers to know that breaking and important news is truly important. By doing 24 hour news, websites and cable news are forced to constantly try to fool you into thinking important and breaking things are happening when in reality they are not.

But... even if they were genuine and only published news that they thought was actually important, it is worth considering that often we do not know what is important when it happens. Sometimes a break in at Watergate hotel is simply a break in. How can you tell, without the benefit of hindsight, whether that will lead to no more than the arrest of a petty criminal or the removal of a president from office? You can't.

As NN Taleb is fond of saying, proof that the news is mostly unimportant is found in month-old newspapers. Pick up a newspaper from a month ago and tell me how much of it speaks of things that are still important today. I promise you that it will be a very very small percentage. Pick up a newspaper from a year ago and that number goes to almost zero.

So... stop watching the news. Stop paying attention to Fox, CNN and MSNBC. Everything they post is nothing more than a dancing monkey trying to get your attention while you are trying to cross the street. It is the opposite of helpful. It is simply a distraction that is making your life worse not better. 

Early January of 2020, I opened Twitter and looked at the Trending stories. One was "WWIII." That seemed serious. I learned it was trending because the Trump administration had bombed a car in Iraq that contained a high level Iranian official. Many worried that this would lead to a new world war. But as I scrolled through Twitter I found that most of the comments on WWIII were not serious or concerned but jokey and full of memes. Almost no one really thought it would be WWIII. At the time, it seemed obvious to me that the humorous nature most tweets showed an unconscious awareness that most people have that news rarely is as serious as we think. At the time I wrote, "it will probably be nothing. Iran will threaten us. Russia will condemn us. Life will go on." And I turned out to be exactly right. But I also included this proviso: "Now... I am not predicting it is nothing. Hell, it really could be WWIII." My point in both guessing it would be nothing but leaving the door open to being wrong is that I am sure that most news is so filled with noise that determining which bits will lead to WWIII and which bits will lead to nothing at all is an impossible task.

A much more important story at that moment was the growing concern about COVID19 in China. But that was not trending.

So...how do we deal with this? How do we protect ourselves from the harm that is constant noise? We need to consume less frequently. Turn off Fox and CNN. Stop checking Drudge. Stop scrolling through trending news stories. Go to a once a month consumption schedule. Try to find outlets that summarize the most important news from a month ago. That still might be a lot of noise but it will be cut down significantly. And the actual news might be a little more clear. Given the benefit of time, I have a better idea as to which is more important: WWIII or COVID19.

But who knows.... in a few years, maybe even COVID 19 will be forgotten. Only time can tell.

Consuming the news does not make us smarter. It makes us dumber. The emperor has no clothes.

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