Against News

Bryan Caplan raises a neglected but important issue:  are important issues neglected for news of the moment?  Bryan quotes Delos Wilcox from 1900:

But we must deplore and, so far as possible, overcome the evils of habitual newspaper reading. These evils are, chiefly, three: first, the waste of much time and mental energy in reading unimportant news and opinions, and premature, untrue, or imperfect accounts of important matters; second, the awakening of prejudices and the enkindling of passions through the partisan bias or commercial greed of newspaper managers; third, the loading of the mind with cheap literature and the development of an aversion for books and sustained thought.

Bryan also quotes Thomas Jefferson:

Avertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper. …
I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it. …
The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

Just as fantasy typically substitutes for reality, news typically substitutes for insight – in both cases by diverting attention.  The same risk applies to reading blog posts of course, which is why I try to focus on reading and writing posts on relatively deep long-standing issues, and not current news fashions.   I avoid posts that should not be nearly as interesting a year before or after.

Yes, in a world where everyone was trying as hard as possible to contribute to long term insight and progress there would be a place for news of recent events of wide interest.  And in that world it would make sense to track the news that others also track.  But we do not live in such a world.

It seems to me that in our world most track the news to talk intelligently with others who track the news.  By coordinating to talk on the same recent news topics, we can better evaluate how well connected and intelligent are those around us.  If we tracked very different topics, it would be much harder to evaluate each other.  If our conversation topics were common but old, it would be harder to distinguish individually thoughtful analysis from memorized viewpoints, and harder to see how well-connected folks are to fresh info sources. 

But if you care less about signaling intelligence and connectedness, and more about understanding, then consider reading textbooks, review articles, and other expert summaries instead of news.

Added:  Stuart Buck quotes C.S. Lewis:

Those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.

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  • a. y. mous

    ..and other expert summaries ‘in addition to’ news.

    There is this dirty 4 lettered English word that many loathe using. It is spelled A L S O.

  • Pyramid Head

    Well, you only have a limited supply of time, so I think that Robin’s point is that news really aren’t worth your time.

  • I absolutely concur. The opportunity cost of reading newspapers is amazingly high since there is an almost impossibly large amount of worthwhile stuff to read and understand.

    Over a decade ago the book “The Age of Missing Information” Bill McKibben made the point that if you avoid reading newspapers, you will be shielded from the trivial, and if there is any matter of great importance going on, you will get to know about it anyway. I had arrived at that same conclusion myself.

  • First — I too do not read the news much, primarily because of the volume of it. Secondary reasons include the undigested and unfiltered nature.

    That said, I think you are going down a VERY dangerous line of argument, that information naturally improves in quality as it ‘ages’ and is subjected to the purportedly deeper levels of analysis that time brings. Nassim Nicolas Taleb makes the same assumption (though more explicitly) in ‘Fooled by Randomness’ where he presents the specious argument that the classics are more worthwhile than today’s newspaper because their age increases the probability of their being actually valuable.

    There are two strong arguments AGAINST this viewpoint.

    1. The memetic argument: a piece of news survives/gets built on not because it is “good” or “deep” in any objective sense, but because it has “survivability” in a memetic sense. Some of the longest-lived and deepest-analyzed corpuses of information are religious in nature, and in my view, arrant nonsense.

    2. The model-limitedness argument: “All models are wrong, some models are useful”: the relation between the news and longer-term digested ‘analysis’ is roughly the relationship between data and models. No matter how beautifully argued, every longish article that digests and filters a raw firehose of news is reductive with respect to the reality represented by the news. Yes, in your brilliant analysis of the subprime mortgage crisis, you may filter out the Paris Hilton news, but however miniscule, there is a loss of modeling coverage there.

    Point being, the raw news, for all its biases, has its place in our information radar. Trying to be intellectually alive without keeping some bandwidth open for raw news is like trying to appreciate baseball purely through statistics.

    Me, I tend to oscillate slowly between more news-heavy and more depth-heavy types of consumption depending on what my brain seems to need at the moment. Sometimes the only way to make sense of a confusing situation is to drop all models and start reading the news and watching for patterns to emerge.

  • Venkat, news is not raw data; it is very selected and processed according to the mental models of reporters and readers. And I didn’t argue for zero news awareness.

  • 1. See C. John Sommerville’s book How the News Makes Us Dumb.

    2. See this quote from C.S. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy:

    I can hardly regret having escaped the appalling waste of time and spirit which would have been involved in reading the war news or taking more than an artificial and formal part in conversations about the war. To read without military knowledge or good maps accounts of fighting which were distorted before they reached the Divisional general and further distorted before they left him and then “written up” out of all recognition by journalists, to strive to master what will be contradicted the next day, to fear and hope intensely on shaky evidence, is surely an ill use of the mind.

    Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.

  • Everything that has been said about newspapers is an order of magnitude worse re: television news, IMNVHO.

  • PK

    I don’t read news papers. I feel so good about myself right now.

  • I have to admit to being a newspaper reader, in fact I read two printed papers daily, in addition to perusing another online. But I have to admit that most of it does not do me much good. It’s largely a bad habit.

    One thing I find valuable is getting a sense of the public pulse and current trends that may shape policy and commercial activities over the next few months. Right now there is an election going on in the U.S. and the papers give me an idea of how the contest is going, and what is likely to be the result. There is also something of an economic crisis in progress and it seems useful to glean what information is available about how bad things are going to get.

    Today though there is a good alternative to news, the prediction markets on I follow the election markets there and I figure those are probably more accurate in terms of predicting the actual outcome, but the reasons for why one side or the other is moving ahead are not revealed. There is also a recession prediction market which is helpful. Hopefully in the future there will be more such prediction markets.

    The paper is also useful in announcing upcoming local events that I might want to attend, although frustratingly it always devotes more press to an event after it happens than before.

  • Will Pearson

    Are there any prediction markets that deal with things like trying to predict the mix of types of energy production of a country? Or the oil production of a country/region/world.

    I find the current ones not so informative when trying guess what the future will actually be like. I have read detailed reports with different conclusions, but I have found nothing to synthesize the results. So I have to rely on my own judgement supplemented by news, which is very time consuming.

  • I don’t get it. Everyone will of course draw lines in their reading of news, as they will in their reading of literature. (C.S. Lewis? Not on my list.) It doesn’t take much reading ability quickly to distinguish the latest gossip about Paris Hilton from a substantive report about the latest massacre in Iraq. The former information is eternally inconsequential; that the latter is highly pertinent information only now has no bearing on its importance: It doesn’t matter that it won’t be important in a hundred years, because we’ll all be dead then.)

  • BTW, in re childhood development, doesn’t it seem like it’d be a better approach vis-a-vis newspapers to have children discuss news articles critically? The point isn’t to memorize news articles like times tables (so Jefferson’s point is quite inapt); the point, it seems to me, is for the student to learn how journalism works, and how it doesn’t.

  • Here’s the quote from Bill McKibben’s book “The Age of Missing Information” (pg 163):

    Here’s one way of asking the question — if instead of watching the news each night on television, or devouring the newspaper each morning, you heard only one newscast a week, or read every third or fourth issue of Newsweek. If you reflected carefully on what you did read, I think in some ways you’d understand more about the planet. You’d still be more familiar with what was going on than almost any human being in history — you’d know about the gap between the rich and poor, about ecological threats, about styles and trends, about political shifts and disasters. You’d know from re petition what really counted. And anything you didn’t find out about — anything that flared up for just a day or two and then died out — couldn’t matter much.

    • themusicgod1

      I find that the more sources of information I have, the better I’m able to critically examine the ones I have. When I get two radically different sources saying different things about the same topic it seems at least easier to be critical of both of them.

      But I’m just one guy. Has anyone ever actually looked at whether this actually helps or not, statistically on the aggregate?

      (or is this contained in “The Age of Missing Information”? Has it ever been replicated? Especially post-twitter?)

  • Robin — You’ve set up a strawman version of my critique here. I don’t mean news is ‘raw data’ in the sense of ‘unbiased.’ I mean in the sense of ‘input to your cognitive processes.’ Of course we’ve all thought about the critiques in works like Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent’ but the fact that the news is ideologically motivated and consciously manufactured to a certain extent doesn’t make it complete noise.

    And of course I don’t read your opinion as ‘zero news’ either. Nobody can do that really. I mean ‘non-trivial levels.’ I argue that unless you are tunnel-vision focused on an obscure and socially non-active intellectual pursuit (where, say, there isn’t even an active scholarly community), you need to keep up with the news. Depending on where between ‘armchair general’ and ‘worker in the field’ you are, the news becomes less/more important. In highly competitive domains, you’d better be watching the news like a hawk, because it isn’t just a question of ‘interesting information’ — it can be ‘actionable information.’

    Mainly, I think I was reacting to the unreconstructed tone of ‘high-culture-vs.-low-culture’ in your post. Maybe I was seeing something that wasn’t there or intended :).


  • I tested this hypothesis. My dad reads newspapers. I tried holding an intellectual discussion with him. He falls back to rhetoric and sloppy reasoning, and speaks really loudly. Yup. Newspapers are substitutes for truly insightful reading. Now if only the “read the newspaper you uncultured blah blah blah” types could learn this.

  • Noumenon

    On the other hand, we may be the only people who will ever pay attention to the news. For example, women in the military was a big deal ten years ago and there was a ton of debate about it. Now there isn’t any, and in the future people will just not think about it the way we hardly ever think about blacks in the military. So if it was a bad idea, the people who read the news and paid attention to the debate when it was going on are the only ones who had a chance to stop it. Or think about all the elections that have been stolen in the U.S. over the years, and how little we remember about them now.

  • The Last Real New Yorker

    This is douchiest, most arrogant article I have read in a long time. I am now stupider for having read it (a sample of 1, just like Daniel Reeves “experiment” with his dad).

    So where does that leave this blog post on your high-brow literature vs. low-brow news spectrum?

    • MullingItOverAgain

      I disagree, I think this speaks volumes. It’s true, the “news” itself is opinion and gossip than actual facts. Take Global Warming and Obamacare for example. All we ever read about is the fight between Dems and Repubs about whether or not Global Warming exists, and we NEVER read about what Global Warming actually is, no explanation is offered. Same with Obamacare – the news took a great deal of time covering the debates but NEVER tried to explain what Obamacare actually is, what the bill says, how it’s supposed to work… you know, the facts. The news is mostly sensationalism, pitting one side against the other. I still to this day cannot find a single person who KNOWS what Global Warming is… they all spew the same suggestion: “Well, it’s well documented so you should go read some scientific journal articles about it,” yeah, because you yourself know absolutely NOTHING and have taken the “news” at face value.

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