You shouldn’t be reading the news. But if you really have to, this is how to do it.
Garbage in, garbage out.
Most news is garbage. I’d argue, almost all news in garbage. The 24 hour news cycle has ruined the way see and perceive the world around us. If social media is the construct that is going to destroy the world, news is its primary source of fuel.
The definition of being “well informed” has changed over the years. Today, the most popular definition constitutes being a vessel of decontextualised information mixed in with a few opinions. While I was never alive in the early days of news, I am sure that knowing about the deadly storm in Brazil while being a software engineer in Bangalore did not constitute as being “well informed”.
It’s widely accepted that the modern barrage of decontextualised trivia we call news today was a result of the invention of the telegraph. This allowed us to move information around the globe at a pace that wasn’t possible. This condition of modern news was exacerbated by the invention of a 24 hour news cycle due to advent of cable television. I was not alive for the first two phases of the catastrophic deterioration of “news”. Regrettably, I am alive to experience the traumas of the third cycle of extreme “news” decay - social media.
An artistic rendition of what happens when you consume too much news.
Since most of us are not inclined to blocking out news from our lives, we need to have some simple heuristics in place to block out the worst parts of the news.
The simplest heuristic that can be used to eliminate garbage news from relevant news is the “action information ratio” 1.
In very simple terms, the action information ratio is the likelihood of your day to day actions being affected by a certain piece of information. In an ideal world, when it comes to “news”, your action information ratio should be extremely high. Assuming that the purpose of news is to be useful, news can be defined as information that affect your actions.
Here are some examples of news that is not garbage
- The weather report; Affects my immediate decision of whether I should pack my umbrella with me or not.
- Fuel prices/inflation; Affects the way I should budget my quarter.
- Local laws; determines what I should not do so I don’t get sent to jail 2
Some examples of garbage
- The war in the middle east; unless you are a politician, activist or otherwise.
- Capitol hill breach; are you affected by US politics? If not, you have your answer.
- Scams happening in a some state X ; if you aren’t voting, this shouldn’t matter to you.
These are pieces of “news” that elicit zero change in your actions, short or long term, ipso facto, its not news.
News, Entertainment and Lies.
While the heuristic above provides the easiest way to master the The Art of Reading News®, many of us find it hard to escape news due to our various internet addictions. What this usually results is us seething in rage over some headline that outraged our sanguine sensibilities.
Firstly, we must acknowledge when we read news to be well informed, and when we read news to be entertained. As described earlier, if a piece of information (“news”) has zero effect on your actions and you are still reading it, you are reading it for entertainment. As sick as it sounds, yes, you are reading about the brutal war and barbaric murders happening in Afghanistan for your entertainment. You are indeed a psycho. An easy way to overcome this psychotic behaviour is by developing a conscience 3 .
Now that we have fixed a part of the problem, lets fix the next issue on our hand - lies, deceit and subterfuge. Fortunately our good friends from ancient Greece have done a lot of the heavy lifting for us by giving us a set of logical fallacies that we can apply to determine when we are being hoodwinked by the press. The list is a long one, but here I shall go over, in my opinion, some of the most important fallacies that can help you master The Art of Reading the News®
This is a classic, which tells us that two things that are correlated may not share a causal relation.
Ex: “Ever since the new MLA has come into power, the number of power outages has decreased by 33%”
This headline talks about a correlation, but also is subtly suggesting a causation. This is a logical fallacy, since the power outages could have also reduced due to a 100 other reasons (new electricity board, replaced powered generators, cheaper fuel prices etc.)
Things that are true for a part, need not hold true for the whole. One rule doesn’t apply to all (and vice versa)
Ex: “India is has one of the lowest happiness index scores”
This does not mean you are sad because you are India
“I am happy, therefore Indians are a happy people”
The opposite of the above fallacy.
Personal attacks don’t invalidate facts, they only serve to distract from the argument. This is a favourite of Indian politicians, something to be vary of.
Ex: “Disgraced Indian banker Ramu critcises the Economic reforms bill”
Doesn’t matter if he is disgraced or not - if he has a point, it has to be considered. Mentioning him being disgraced is not relevant.
No True Scotsman
Using post rationalization to make an argument unfalsifiable, aka, moving the goalposts.
Ex: “Indian economy will be its best by 2020: Politician” - 2018
“Indian economy will be its best by 2020 if the opposition party support us: Politcian” - 2019, Dec 31
Burden of proof
The burden of proof should be borne by maker of the claim
Ex: “Bertrand declares that a teapot is, at this very moment, in orbit around the Sun between the Earth and Mars, and that because no one can prove him wrong, his claim is therefore a valid one.” 4
Judging something is good or bad based on where or from whom it came from. This is wrong.
Ex: “The corruption report is not true, it comes from anti-national media: Corrupt politician”
“Be wary of his criticism of India, his grandparents are from Israel.”
Appeal to emotion
Never let news appeal to emotion, especially when the appeal is in place of a valid argument.
Ex: “Real nationalists will support the citizenship reform bill: Minister of Nationalism”
Appeal to nature
Just because something is “natural”, it may not always be good, ideal , justified or inevitable.
Ex: “Eat apricot seeds instead of these meds, they will help better. It’s natural.”
Apricot seeds cause cyanide poisoning.
The fallacy fallacy
If a claim is poorly argued, then the claim itself must be wrong.
Ex: “Global warming is very real - it was hotter than usual in yesterday’s bus ride.” That’s a bad argument, but folks, global warming is indeed real.
These are just some of the fallacies that I found makes reading the news more useful for me. It also makes it more fun to read news.
For more on fallacies, see this amazing resource.
Enjoying the Newspaper
I enjoy reading the newspaper. I dislike the news. This puts me in an extremely unfortunate position that does not allow me to peacefully live the romantic notions of reading a crisp morning broadsheet on a pleasant Sunday sunrise. Seeing our prime minister and chief ministers bragging about their success or reading about the murder in Bihar hardly counts for news, let alone pleasant news. But such is the state of the media and all we can do is control our intake using the filters of utility, and being clear about what we read as “news” and what we read as “entertainment”.
Classifying information as news or entertainment is the first filter to change our outlook on news. Reading information with a high action information ratio (aka news) with a critical mindset is the next filter to protect ourselves from misinformation and general malice.
Such is the Art of Reading the News®
A young gentleman who has mastered the Art of Reading the News®
I first came across this concept in “Amusing ourselves to Death”, a really great book on why television is ruining society. It was written in the 90s, but it is more than applicable. ↩
While I am not an anti masker, the law about wearing a mask when driving in a car alone is absolutely extortionary. ↩
Some say praying and seeking shelter in our lord and saviour on a regular basis helps, although I am skeptical of that approach. ↩