Consuming News is Harmful
I recently posted this Tweet:
In this essay, we will explore why this is the case and I will argue that not only does news not help you to understand the world, it is actually harmful.
Note: gathering data on e.g. the Coronavirus should not be considered news consumption; looking up information is not the same as consuming news. My criticism concerns: reading daily newspapers, watching shows on e.g. FOX and MSNBC, and using news apps.
Understanding the World
Many people falsely believe that consuming news helps them to understand the world, but the best news can do is provide the facts of the current situation. The biggest problem is that these facts come embedded in a narrative that is supposed to explain why things are happening the way they are or how to interpret these facts. It is extremely difficult, given this narrative-laden information, to see what the “objective” facts are. I cannot stress this point enough—depending on the topic, it is close to impossible to know what is really going on.
Avoiding the narrative and the fake reasons that are given is probably the most difficult thing when consuming news; but even if you manage to get the “objective” facts, it will not help you to understand the underlying causes. Most things in our modern complex world do not have easy to identify causes that can be spotted quickly—especially not by journalists. This is not only a consequence of incompetent journalists that try to oversimplify a complex topic because they need clicks or sales, but also a consequence of the nature of complex systems.
When studying complex systems the notion of cause and effect is often close to meaningless since so many factors play are role in any given interaction. A good example is catalysts—some people might know them from biology; they do not cause a reaction or event to happen in the strict sense, but it is most of the time meaningless to talk about the reaction happening without them since they accelerate everything. So should they be considered a cause? For socioeconomic phenomena this question cannot be answered generally; every phenomenon has to be analyzed individually. For any given event there are probably many causes and catalysts, making the easy cause and effect categorization difficult or impossible. In other words: the reasons given in news stories should be avoided at all costs.
News is Irrelevant
Most people hold the opinion that watching news might not help you to understand the world but it is important to “stay informed” and “up to date” on all the “relevant” stuff. I completely disagree with this view. Let us suppose that after watching the news you are able to discard all the fake reasons and disentangle the narrative from the facts—now you are left with the “objective” facts. The irony is that these facts are mostly irrelevant for your life and decision-making. In most cases the things that are happening are far away and cannot be influenced by your actions, nor do they influence you. Furthermore, to feign compassion does not help anyone and it is never acceptable to virtue signal—even though it has become extremely popular these days.
Another argument is that it is nonetheless important to watch the news because otherwise, you are not informed enough to vote “responsibly.” This view is extremely difficult to defend if you accept that it is impossible to figure out the reason for something by watching the news. Any event can be—and is—interpreted in favor of or against a specific policy. The stock market has been going up since Trump is in office, is he the reason? Recently the market has been going down, is it his fault?—the fault of the Coronavirus? Is the Coronavirus evidence that we need more or less government? The answers depend on what news you consume—everything can be interpreted in multiple ways. Now that we have established why you cannot understand the world by consuming news, we will take a look at why consuming news is bad for you.
Confirming Your Beliefs
The narrative and the confirmation bias are a dangerous combination because you become extremely confident in your opinion. The confirmation bias makes sure that most—if not all—of the news you consume confirms your already existing beliefs. The certainty in your understanding increases without an increase in understanding—this is a big problem. You become extremely convinced of your opinion and as a result bolder in your predictions and decision-making. Without consuming news, people would not have a ready-made answer to most questions and would, as a consequence, be more careful when it comes to decision-making—it is a big advantage to know that you don’t know anything.
The Death of Reasoning
Consuming news and accepting the reasoning put forth by journalists is not only harmful because you base your decisions on this false understanding but also because you lose your ability to think clearly and reason for yourself—an aspect never talked about when it comes to news consumption. The problem is that the explanation given by journalists does not completely make sense to someone who has not abandoned their independent thinking. There are two choices when confronted with a reason that seems to not satisfactory explain what is going on. Number one: you can doubt your reasoning skills, conclude that you probably missed something because they surely know more about the topic than you do, and believe the explanation. Number two: you question the reason or explanation and try to figure it out yourself from first principles. Most people—unfortunately—choose option one and blindly accept the explanation.
If you consume a lot of news and always accept the arguments of journalists, it will become your new baseline. This means you will forget how it feels when you truly understand something—people who study physics or mathematics know what I am talking about. This complete understanding gets—unknowingly—traded for the half-ass understanding put forward by journalists. Because no explanation you hear in the news makes complete sense to you, you think that this is “normal”; you think that these half-ass explanations are the real explanations and that there is nothing deeper behind them.
If you do not reason through things by yourself, you can not advance your understanding of the world, because journalists can make up one of those almost true—good sounding—explanations for anything. (They even do it in book form.) One example is Socialism vs. Capitalism. I can come up with an almost fitting—good sounding—explanation of why Socialism is better and most people would agree with me (Bernie Sanders does that for a living); afterward, I could do this for capitalism and the same group of people would find this reasoning compelling as well. The only way to know why the argumentation in support of Socialism does not hold up and why it is the worse system is to reason through everything by yourself from first principles—there is no other way. Only by thinking it through until every point along the way makes complete sense to you, can you uncover that the explanation given for the superiority of socialism is false.
Without doing this work, both explanations will sound valid and can only be accepted or rejected based on “beliefs” or social pressure. The more popular way to get out of this weird state—both explanations making sense—is to conclude that the truth must lie in the middle. This is why people support a compromise. They think they understand both ideas and can see the advantages (and disadvantages) of both; in reality, they understand neither. Nassim Taleb said it best: “In a conflict, the middle ground is least likely to be correct.”
When some people argue in favor of theory A and others in support of theory C, the middle ground—theory B—should not be considered correct only because it lies in the middle. In most cases, no one is arguing in support of theory B but it is still adopted. Of course, a compromise might sometimes be necessary for practical reasons but it should never be viewed as the best solution because it supposedly incorporates the “best of both theories.” It is most likely the worst of both worlds.
Signal or Noise
An often-overlooked point (mentioned most notably by Nassim Nicholas Taleb) is that the news-checking-frequency matters a lot—let me illustrate. If you invest in stocks and check your portfolio multiple times a day, you will see almost only noise—random movement without any real information content. This noise is just random buying and selling which influences the price but gives no information about any change in the market or the future of the company. If however, you check your portfolio once a year, the ratio of signal—real valuable information—to noise will be better for you; you gain more valuable information. In other words, there is probably a reason if one stock is up 300% in one year and it is real information about the market or the company. That is by the way how Warren Buffet invests; he does not check his portfolio twice a day and ignores all short-term noise. The same holds for regular news. Checking news multiple times a day will give you a lot of unimportant information—noise—while checking it once a month will give you a higher signal-to-noise ratio.
Cal Newport coined the term “Deep Work” in his eponymous book. The term is used to describe a state of deep concentration that is needed to get important and difficult work done. To get into this state you need stretches of uninterrupted time to think and work on one problem. With this and the signal-to-noise ratio in mind, we can easily see that the worst way to consume news is a news app on your smartphone that sends you notifications every time something “important” happens. This interrupts your day and more importantly your deep work. The second consequence of consuming news with an app is that your attention span and your ability to concentrate for longer periods degenerates. You are used to small bits of information that can be digested easily without much thinking. News apps are by far the worst way to consume news.
What to do?
I recommend not consuming news at all. When something important—like the Coronavirus—happens you will be informed through friends or social media. (Following news accounts on social media is completely missing the point of this essay.) If you still want to say “up to date” on all the “important issues” so you can talk about them during your next cocktail party to sound smart, I recommend reading a long-form newspaper in which one month (or one week if you can not wait so long) is summarized. This is, in my opinion, the best way to consume news if you have to. One simple heuristic to keep in mind: News that is not relevant one month after publication was never relevant in the first place. Also remember that the less time you spend consuming news, the more time you have for reading books or papers about interesting and difficult ideas that will help you to understand the world. The most important lesson to learn from all of this is: Avoid the reasoning put forth in the news like the plague.