Wrapping it up

This is the last post in this blog. I doubt I have many, if any, readers, and the likely purpose of this post is giving myself the permission to begin something different altogether, if I have the energy to do it. However, if someone ends up reading this, I offer my thanks. Some blogging tips below.

I begun writing having had a single idea for a blog post, which became my first post here. I’d of course experimented with writing before, too, but this blog was my first more or less serious attempt at blogging. I begun writing when I was in my mid-twenties, and I’m thirty now.

Starting out I had somewhat grandiose intentions of blogging with a pace rivaled only by Mr. Hanson and Mr. Siskind, all the while providing novel and genuine insights on contemporary matters and timeless ideas on the human condition. I thought I’d have a general idea of where to take the train of my thought, building post upon post and developing a more general thesis while at it.

Needless to say, I failed completely. What came out instead was a haphazard experimentation of different styles and a cacophonic mosaic of different ideas, atmospheres and impressions, providing worn-out ideas which at best were only loosely connected. My last attempt at keeping this project together was to turn the blog into a de facto public notebook, which – as is obvious – failed as well, as I’m not even remotely interested in doing that. (I do think it was worth a shot.)

That isn’t to say this has been useless. I think some of the posts I’ve written are actually good. Of course they won’t provide much, if any useful ideas for any educated or initiated person, but then again I don’t really qualify as such, either. However, having shown my posts to my friends I’ve received very good feedback and people have complimented the thoughts I’ve developed here. Not everyone is a scientist, a nerdy intellectual, a high IQ self-learner or a well-read person. I believe that while being hopelessly superficial, confused, mislead and misleading, the posts I’ve written can help likewise lost souls put some thoughts of their own together, or at least work as an inspiration to improve on them.

Moreover, this project has helped me clear up my thoughts and aims. I will list some insights below.

  • Have a general idea on the direction where you want to go with a blog. While it’s good to write whatever pops into your mind, it’s better to know at least a post or two in advance where you will go next. It’s very difficult to entertain completely unrelated thoughts one after the other. Even Siskind, who has very many interests, has the general theme of “think-Bayesian-use-reason-to-figure-stuff-out-be-nice-try-to-give-peace-a-chance”.
    • So if you get an idea, figure out at least a couple of more directions where you can go from there. There’s a saying in chess: “A bad plan is better than no plan at all.” If it doesn’t work out, too bad. At least you’ve tried.
  • Figure out in advance the general tone of your blog. Whether you’re going to sound like a cheerful friend, a distant scholarly intellectual, a polarizing blade made of words, a wise elderly aunt or a nothing’s-too-serious George Carlin, think it out beforehand. If it doesn’t work out, make the decision to switch styles consciously. It’s very difficult to read someone’s writing if they change styles abruptly.
  • Keep to a schedule. Write. If you haven’t got anything to say, you shouldn’t blog. You’ll lose anyone’s and everyone’s interest if your blog dies for six months, likely much sooner. Have posts or at least drafts written out before you publish. Have an idea of where you’re going.
  • Have a goal. Have a  mission. Have a sacred quest. Make your blog worthwhile to yourself and to your readers. Nothing’s more frustrating than to read someone’s thoughts who doesn’t even believe you should be reading them.
  • Believe in yourself. If you think nobody should read your writing, you won’t write. You’ll suppress yourself before even starting. The truth is, everyone has something of value to say out loud. It does not matter if it’s simple, if it has been already said or what some random person might think of it. Most people don’t read or like any single blog, most human thoughts have already been thought out loud and most things anyone ever says could be said better. That doesn’t matter, as long as you want to do it. So do it, have fun while at it and believe in your writing.

I’m probably going to reflect on these points and start another blog soon. Thanks to everyone involved – please stay in touch!

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Another open letter to NATO, Russia & co.

In my last open letter I pleaded the great military powers of our time not to go to war. Today I repeat that plead, but with an emphasis.

Dear leaders of the United States, Russia, China, India, EU, and the rest. Please don’t go to war. If you go to war, there will be a non-trivial (at least >1%, but likely more than 5%, perhaps much higher) possibility of an escalated nuclear conflict. Such an event will surely wipe you out too, and everything you claimed to achieve or protect with your dick waving military operations. If that happens, you will die. Everyone will die. There will be nobody left to celebrate or hate you. All your children will burn. All your wives will die screaming. All of you will die knowing you made the worst mistake anyone ever has made and will ever make. The humanity will perish forever, and nothing will ever replace us. Because you decided to be selfish, arrogant, power tripping, egomaniacal, alpha, risk-taking, steaming pieces of shit.

Hereby I propose an alternative.

Please become those great leaders of humanity who will go down in history forever changing the path and fate of our species. Please become those leaders who decided to compete cooperatively in spite of millions of years of evolutive pressures. Please: transcend your personal goals and those of the abstract entities called nation-states or multinational alliances. Transcend the reptiles eating one another’s children out in the woods. Transcend the awful heritage your fathers left you, see through the lies and confused stories they told you and transcend them. Create a new story. A story of flourishing people, of safety for children, of wealth building upon wealth, of eternal peace.

Hereby I plead the powers that be to choose the latter over the former. Please: save the world.

Against Rolf Dobelli’s Avoid the News

I think Rolf Dobelli makes an important and a remarkable point in his essay Avoid the News. I agree with his core tenet that people likely overconsume news in the place of other forms of information, which might better educate them. I agree that news seem to often do a poor job at explaining anything, particularly prioritizing the new over the important and the proximal over the distant. Moreover, I agree that news misleads us and that they overwhelmingly favor the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected.

I also think Dobelli does a remarkably bad job at presenting his case. I’ll go over many of the essay’s arguments here. I won’t bother pointing out explicitly with which parts I agree (I already recommended the essay), and I will attack pretty hard those parts which I find dubious.

I’ll use the word “information” to refer to human sources of knowledge, such as books, news, documentaries, research articles and such. Let’s get at it.

News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.”

This is a bad analogy. I get that the point is to compare reading news to something that tastes good, is easy to eat yet doesn’t provide much nutritional value. However…

But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long, deep magazine articles (which requires thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, like bright-colored candies for the mind.

First, news is not always easy to digest, so this is untrue. I’ve read some very dense news, particularly on complicated political or economical subjects, which refer to several interconnected issues in a short paragraph all the while assuming some baseline knowledge on the ever-more-intricate bureucratic particulars of some country’s government. Of course, it might just be that I’m dumb, but shouldn’t there be reading for dumb people as well? Or is Dobelli implicitly targeting only very smart people (in which case he should say so)?

Second, why shouldn’t news be easy to digest? Dobelli points that out as a sort of condemnation, but aside from some very high-brow ideology where a text’s value is derived solely from the effort required to understand it, I think news should be easy to digest. The point is to offer as much information as possible at the lowest cost possible (to the reader). I think this sort of boils down to the sugar analogy, that is: “Sugar is easy to digest yet harmful. News are easy to digest, so they resemble sugar, so they’re harmful too.” But being easy to digest isn’t what makes sugar harmful, it’s a whole bunch of other stuff. If sugar were palatable and easy to digest yet super healthy, nobody would think the palatability was an issue. Again, bad analogy.

Third, most information besides news comes to us as small tidbits of more or less trivial matter that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking.

Most books, for instance, aren’t about just one question which they spend 400 pages discussing. Most books concern several subjects. They might and probably will spend more time discussing these subjects than most pieces of news, but that’s mostly a matter of degree, not a qualitative difference. So instead of saying “Avoid the news”, Dobelli should argue “Make better news / make longer news.” But we already have several platforms providing longform news (The Atlantic, The Economist, American Conservative, Quillette, etc.), so even that seems kind of weak a point to make. Perhaps “Stop making short pieces of news at all!” would do?

The issue of triviality is also questionable here, inasmuch it concerns news specifically. For instance, a lot of the recent news information concerning coronavirus probably was trivial. However, we couldn’t know in advance which information was going to be trivial or relevant later on, so it’s a pretty tough criterion to place on information that it should remain relevant for an undefined period of time for N number of people. The same, of course goes for any book too: does every book published in 1990 remain relevant today?

(This is in fact a point Dobelli himself makes later on in the essay: “Looking forward, we can’t possibly identify the value of a piece of news before we see it, so we are forced to digest everything on the news buffet line. Is that worthwhile? Probably not.” However, nobody’s forcing us to digest everything on the news buffet line. Most people I know choose which pieces of news they read and go with those. That’s like saying library forces people to digest every book on the book buffet line.)

Dobelli later goes on to say: “In 1914, the news story about the assassination in Sawajevo dwarfed all other reports in terms of its global significance. But, the murder in Sarajevo was just one of several thousand stories in circulation that day. No news organization treated this historically pivotal homicide as anything more than just another politically inspired assassination.” This is a fair point. However, how many other pieces of information published or spreaded that day recognized that murder’s significance in advance? How many books published before the events leading to a world war predicted that a single assassination would set the world on fire? This is an isolated demand for rigor.

Moreover, what’s trivial to what end, and what concerns whose life are very difficult questions to answer and to deal with universally. Most books I’ve ever read are trivial to most questions in my life. I’ll probably never benefit objectively from knowing about ancient hunter-gatherer clutures, about Arnold Schwarzennegger’s life story or knowing German grammar, yet I don’t think Dobelli would argue I should under no circumstances learn those things, even less that I should avoid books in general. Yet by any significant standards, the value of me knowing those things are trivial, insofar as knowing the latest advances in “Covid-19 stuff” counts as trivial. Most things one can know are trivial. News is no exception to this. So what? If the point is to argue one should only meticulously study things predetermined worthwhile to their career and personal growth measured by some idunno-objective-something, I’m just going to cut the chase and say that’s a stupid goal, and that Dobelli probably didn’t have that in mind either. I do get that the point is to argue that most stuff we read on the news don’t matter, but again, Dobelli is placing an isolated demand for rigor on news.

The claim that news don’t require thinking goes the way of ‘easy digest’: not always, and when they do, isn’t that kind of the point of a good writer, to write stuff that’s easy and fun to read? I could write everything backwards, and that would probably count as requiring thinking or being a mental exercise, ?taht ekil daer ot tnaw dluow htraE no ohw tub

News misleads us systematically. Our brains are wired to pay attention to visible, large, scandalous, sensational, shocking, people-related, story-formatted, fast changing, loud, graphic onslaughts of stimuli. Our brains have limited attention to spend on more subtle pieces of intelligence that are small, abstract, ambivalent, complex, slow to develop and quiet, much less silent. News organizations systematically exploit this bias.”

I think this is unequivocally true, yet the example Dobelli picks is just lousy:

Take the following event. A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? On the car. On the person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). What kind of person he is (was). But – that is all completely irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking and could lurk in other bridges. That is the lesson to be learned from this event. The car doesn’t matter at all. Any car could have caused the bridge to collapse. It could have been a strong wind or a dog walking over the bridge. So, why does the media cover the car? Because it’s flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce.

That doesn’t sound like any piece of news I’ve read lately. Sometimes news are made of a family who lost their belongings in a fire, and the motivation of the story often is the personal level in these cases. However, I can’t imagine a piece of news where a bridge collapses, and not a single paragraph is devoted to the structural issues, perhaps an interview of an engineer and questions on what processes (Maintenance? Design? External circumstances?) lead to the disaster. Even less I can imagine much space being devoted to what kind of a person the driver was. This feels like Dobelli just making up stuff in order to sound convincing – badly.

As a result of news, we walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads.

  • Terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated.
  • The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is underrated.
  • Astronauts are overrated. Nurses are underrated.
  • Britney Spears is overrated. IPCC reports are underrated.
  • Airplane crashes are overrated. Resistance to antibiotics is underrated.

This is kind of true, and I have the advantage of writing this much later than Dobelli wrote his essay. And I would agree that Spears gets way too much space compared to antibiotic resistance, and way too much space compared to IPCC reports regarding their relative importance. However, several books have also been written on terrorism. Or a modern example, several books have been written on Donald Trump’s latest antics and his personality. How does that differ from what Dobelli criticizes as news’ primary fault, that news divert us from essential things and misrepresent the importance of different issues? Different writers think different things are important – would we then argue that books mislead us systematically? Following Dobelli’s train of thought, I could easily make a similar list on books misleading our brains:

  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s biography is overrated. AI’s existential risks are underrated.
  • Cooking skills are overrated. Financial and investing skills are underrated.
  • Meditative pop-psychology self help is overrated. Extreme poverty is underrated.
  • Donald Trump’s persona is overrated. Generals and the military-industrial-government-intelligence-media-academia-thinktank complex are underrated.
  • Fiction is grossly overrated. Facts are underrated.

I do think that Dobelli is onto something here – that news use shock value to hijack the “this-is-important” part of our brain to sell more and as a side product twist our view of the world towards the inaccurate and towards the worse – and that books might do less badly on this aspect, on the average. However, nothing stops longform content from misleading people systematically. Think Mein Kampf, the Communist Manifesto or any other longform piece of propaganda. I can picture how news might mislead our view of the world as worse and therefore predispose us towards extremist solutions to extreme issues, but other than that, I fail to see how news could do worse than Mein Kampf, unless the former serves the latter (as it did).

Dobelli goes on to say that news is irrelevant:

Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that –
because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career, your business – compared to what you would have known if you hadn’t swallowed that morsel of news. “

Out of all the books you read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career, your business – compared to what you would have known if you hadn’t swallowed that morsel of book. Or out of all the discussions with your friends, out of every blog post you read, out of every thought you thought during the last 12 months, how many of them lead you to becoming a millionaire or reaching Enlightenment? Again, I think Dobelli falls victim to isolated demands for rigor here. That’s a very high criterion for any piece of information, much more so for news, which are not individually written and targeted for specific people (yet).

“The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to the forces that really matter in your life. At its
best, it is entertaining, but it is still irrelevant.”

So is playing Playstation, reading fiction, taking a walk, buying a shirt, watching a movie and giving your ass that extra wipe before washing it properly. Again, this doesn’t constitute a very good case against news in particular. I’m going to return to this:

In 1914, the news story about the assassination in Sarajevo dwarfed all other reports in terms of its global significance. But, the murder in Sarajevo was just one of several thousand stories in circulation that day. No news organization treated this historically pivotal homicide as anything more than just another politically inspired assassination.”

I wonder what Dobelli is trying to say here. Is he suggesting that if people read more books (or more specifically to Dobelli’s focus: if they had read less news), they would have immediately recognized the importance of the Sarajevo assassination? Is he claiming that a book written at the same time would have been able to predict future better than news? Is he claiming that because news couldn’t filter that important piece of information from other stuff that happened that day, all news is irrelevant and useless? That last one seems like a good guess to me, but the fact that the Sarajevo murder resulted in world war seems like a very chaotic process which could have gone any other way in a plethora of ways. To expect news organizations to accurately predict the most important turning points in history on a moment’s notice is… well, if that’s what you’re looking for, then I guess you really shouldn’t read news. I’m not really sure what it is you should read, though.

“News floods you with a worldview that is not relevant to your life. What does relevance mean? It means: what is important to you personally. Relevance is a personal choice. Don’t take the media’s view for it. To the media, any tale that sells lots of copies is relevant – Darfur, Paris Hilton, a train crash in China, some idiotic world record (like someone who ate 78 cheeseburgers in an hour). This swindle is at the core of the news industry’s business model. It sells the relevant, but delivers the new.”

That news prioritize new stuff in favor of important stuff has to be likely the biggest and most important failure mode of news; I agree with Dobelli on that. However, nobody’s forcing anyone to read every bit of news they come upon. I don’t think anyone does, in fact. Dobelli’s making up a person who compulsively reads every piece of news from every news source, and suddenly becomes able to exercise a godlike power of distinction when it comes to other types of information, such as books. More likely this hypothetical person would starve to death if they were taken to a library, because they wouldn’t be able to leave until finishing every book on every shelf.

News has no explanatory power. — the facts that they prize are just epiphenomena of deeper causes. — it’s not the “news facts” that are important, but the threads that connect them. What we really want is to understand the underlying processes, how things happen. — Few news organizations manage to explain causation because the underlying processes are comlex, non-linear and hard for our — brains to digest.”

No facts have explanatory power, according to Dobelli’s logic. Should we, then avoid facts, and solely focus on analysis? Maybe, for the most part. That also means, then, that we should read books with that in mind, and avoid all references to factual events in order to grasp solely the underlying processes instead of flooding our brains with useless tidbits of facts. This is not a straw man. How many facts presented in a given book are inarguably the most essential facts of a presented phenomenon? How many of those phenomena are in fact relevant? Why should we trust that the writer has any idea at all which facts are the ones that are relevant to explaining the underlying non-linear, complex, chaotic processes at hand? From this point of view, we should avoid most facts at all costs, and I doubt that’s exactly what Dobelli’s going after, here.

“The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below the journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect.”

This seems hand-wavey to me. Slow, powerful movements develop under almost everybody’s radar but have a transforming effect. News is not an exception to this. Most of the stuff that we know about that are likely going to have a transformative effect – climate change, nukes, biotechnology, AI, quantum computing, China’s rise, population displacements, falling birth rates, crop monocultures, peak this-or-that, social media, 5-to-6G networks, maybe blockchain and so on – we see on the news, in fact on a regular basis. Most news are unable predicting these issues until they already begin being relevant, but that same thing applies to most books, most research, most debates, most thoughts, most panels, most conventions and most sermons just as much as news.

No evidence exists to indicate that information junkies are better decision makers. They are certainly not more successful than the average Joe. If more information leads to higher economic success, we would expect journalists to be at the top of the pyramid. That’s not the case. Quite the contrary. We don’t know what makes people successful, but amassing news tidbits is certainly not it. Reading news to understand the world is worse than not reading anything.”

I’m sure well-informed people are better decision makers than uninformed people. They’re also likely better decision makers than misinformed people, which Dobelli thinks news addicts are. News also bias us significantly toward catastrophic and needlessly pessimistic thinking. However, this does not prove that reading news is worse than not reading anything – which is a ludicrous claim. Not reading anything means you might as well be illiterate, and illiteracy is generally held to be a bad thing. What Dobelli is saying that illiterate people should do better in life, on average, than people who consume news, other factors being the same. I doubt that’s the case.

Journalists are also not a good example of people flooded with information. Journalists don’t likely spend most their time consuming news – their time goes to background work, traveling, interviewing, editing and other things necessary to produce news and have a good career in journalistics in the first place. That doesn’t leave too much room for flooding oneself with information.

Moreover, similar issues in decision making arise in actual highly informed positions as well. Top politicians might be so informed on stuff that they lose sight of the forest for the trees. They are also significantly biased towards whatever ideology is being fed to them, leading to bad policy decisions and actions (think Obama, Trump, Biden and Afghanistan). Would this be solved if top politicians read less news?

We might also argue that good decisions don’t necessarily result in linear economic success. More likely is that good decisions result in logarithmic economic success, as most smart people also value other things than money, and as wealth is also due to factors other than individual decision making. Terry Tao, Richard Feynman, John von Neumann, Scott Aaronson and Grigori Perelman are undoubtedly among the smartest people over the last century or so, but they’re not among the wealthiest. Does that mean they all made very bad decisions in order for that to happen?

News constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocordicoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocordicoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. News consumers risk impairing their physical health. The other potential side effects of news include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitization.”

This reads like a bad piece of news. Dobelli goes from “news bias us towards the scary” to “scary means limbic system active” to “limbic system and HPA-axis overactivity means unhealthy” to “news means all this so news unhealthy”. Even a single reference would make it better. To claim that reading news is a significant health risk more so than reading books on scary stuff or talking with other people about scary stuff is a strong claim, which Dobelli simply takes for granted here.

News feeds — confirmation bias. — News consumption… …exacerbates this human flaw. — News not only feends the confirmation bias, it exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that “make sense” – even if they don’t correspond to reality. And news organizations are happy to deliver those fake stories.”

I think this is true, and that – say it with me – this holds true for nearly all information, analysis and factoids we might come across any other way than via news. Dobelli also doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether he wants news to focus on stories (apart from mindlessly spreading factoids) or on facts (apart from creating fake stories). News might be particularly bad to this end – that is, more susceptible to creating and reinforcing false narratives, especially those which concern individual people who are left unable to retort via the same channel – but quitting news hardly goes a long way in solving the confirmation and story biases.

“And we don’t know why the stock market moves as it moves. Too many factors go into such shifts. We don’t know why a war breaks out, a technological breakthrough is achieved or why the oil price jumps. Any journalist who writes, “The market moved because of X” or “the company went bankrupt because of Y” is an idiot.”

What does this have to do with news in particular? Again, earlier Dobelli was blaming news for not even trying to explain anything. Now the narrative has shifted from “news don’t explain anything” to “they do try, and they do it wrong” to “if you explain why stuff happens, you’re an idiot.” Alright, news might fail explaining why things happen. Usually, as far as I’m aware, news present an expert or an aficionado saying this or that. That’s far from saying “X leads to Y”, and at least news in my country often try to present opposite views too. I suppose that’s bad too, as it creates a “false balance” between uneven positions (such as “evolutionism versus creationism”), but then again, that applies to information other than… and so on.

“Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News items are like free-floating radicals that interfere with clear thinking. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. This is not about stealing time (see reason 8). This is about the inability to think clearly because you have opened yourself up to the disruptive factoid stream. News makes us shallow thinkers.”

This is possible and maybe important. I’m not aware whether there are studies on this, but it seems worth looking into. There might be a thing called ADT, attention deficit trait, which means basically that an otherwise healthy, neurologically normal person suffers from ADD/ADHD -type issues such as a short attention span, lack of concentration and impulsivity due to having constantly (had to) switch their attention (in digisphere), leading to a kind of “artificial ADD”. I’m not sure whether this has been studied, either, but it seems important enough an idea to take seriously. Dobelli, of course, takes if for granted.

“News severely affects memory. — Because news disrupts concentration, it actively weakens comprehension.”

This is also very important if true. Dobelli goes on about the difference between long-term memory and short-term memory, but doesn’t present good arguments for his claim besides the link between the supposed news-induced lack of concentration and memory formation. He also doesn’t provide any evidence for the link but again simply assumes it to be true:

Building up concentration takes a minimum of a 10-minute read. Given less time, your brain will process the information superficially and barely store it.”

I don’t know how much time building up concentration takes, but I’m almost sure it doesn’t take ten minutes. We have ten fingers and ten toes, and we have a base-ten number system, which are the likely reasons we like to think in units of ten. However, they have little to do with building focus. It’s also unclear to me what Dobelli means by concentration here. Sufficient concentration required for memory formation? If so, that doesn’t make sense. I remember lots of stuff people have said to me without me having read ten minutes first. For example, I remember vividly an old man greeting me at a bus stop more than ten years ago. I hadn’t read anything for at least an hour or so – or perhaps a couple of news items.

Ask yourself: What are the top ten news items from a month ago (that are no longer in the news today)? If you have a hard time remembering, you are not alone. Why would you want to consume something that doesn’t add to your body of knowledge?

Ask yourself: What are the top ten book chapter openings from a month ago (from books that you are no longer reading)? If you have a hard time remembering, you are not alone… and so on.

“The online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study(1) two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increase. Why?”

The study mentioned recruited three “web surfing experts” and three “web surfing novices” and studied their brains while under the influence of Internet. (I actually misread that, and read “2007”, a study mentioned in the beginning of the given Wired article. The -01 study included 70 people, a quiz and a summary writing assignment.

I’m not going to go further than this – maybe because reading news has made me yet another shallow thinker – and I’m going to simply claim that Dobelli likely falls victim to confirmation and story biases here, cherry picking evidence to support his story and failing to rigorously analyze that evidence before assuming it to be true. EDIT: I stand by this evaluation after correcting the reference, but am willing to change my view if it turns out that the findings replicate!

“Besides a lack of glucose in your blood stream, news distraction is the biggest barricade to clear thinking.”

An alternative hypothesis: bounded cognition factors are likely the biggest barricade to clear thinking.

News works like a drug. As stories develop, we naturally want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary story lines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to
ignore. Why is news addictive?”

Is news addictive? Seems maybe important if it is. I’d place more blame on social media nowadays if true, but Dobelli’s bottom line here might have merit. I’m not sure about the increasingly compelling cravings, though. I like to follow news on economics and geopolitics, and I don’t feel much craving towards those besides the craving I feel when I want to play guitar or go for a run. I quit social media years ago, not because it was addictive but because I felt it was nigh-impossible to have a reasonable conversation or debate through Facebook.

“Your attention is set on fast-breaking events, so you hunger for more data about them. This has to do with a process called “long-term potentiation” (LTP) and the reward circuits in your brain. Addicts seek more of an addictive substance to get their fix, because they need more stimulation than non-addicts to reach a satisfying reward threshold. If you set your attention on other things – like literature, science, art, history, cooking, pet grooming, whatever – you will become more focused on those things. That’s just how the brain works.”

Dobelli’s main claim here is that news changes the structure of our brain. He begins by claiming that news is addictive and uses this paragraph to elaborate why that is. However, he does little at explaining how LTP makes news any more addictive than craving for that new lick you can play with guitar, or craving for that new route you can run through, and why that is a bad thing if it is so. Almost anything can be addictive, some things more than others, but that says little of those activities themselves. Heroin is addictive, but so is coffee. Unlike heroin, regular coffee consumption doesn’t hurt you and might even be healthy. Therefore Dobelli builds up on his earlier arguments that news is unhealthy, but those were not convincing by themselves. That leaves open whether or not news being addictive – if they are, Dobelli doesn’t convince me of that either – is bad for you.

“The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to read and absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.”

Is this true? Dobelli assumes it is, but doesn’t provide evidence. If it is, a complementary and alternative hypothesis might be that people whose brains are better wired for multitasking and skimming instead of reading deeply are more prone to (over-)consuming the news and reinforcing this sort of behavior (e.g. those on the ADHD side of concentration and attention factors’ distributions).

And an alternative point of view: should everyone try to think deeply and with profound focus? Does that unequivocally make for a better world for everyone, or might it be better that we have skimmers besides those thinking with deep focus? Or might it be trivial whether “the great masses of people” think superficially or with deep focus? If one’s capability for processing information is relatively limited in the first place (as is the case with most people), does it really matter whether or not they form relatively deep opinions on a given subject, given that that ‘depth’ will be superficial by somebody else’s standards?

“News wastes time. It exacts exorbitant costs. News taxes productivity three ways. First, count the consumption-time that news demands. That’s the time you actually waste reading, listening to or watching the news.”

Any activity wastes time. Count the consumption-time that doing anything demands. That’s the time you waste doing stuff.

Second, tally up the refocusing time – or switching cost. That’s the time you waste trying to get back
to what you were doing before the news interrupted you.”

This doesn’t make sense to me. I read news in the morning and perhaps once or twice during daytime. If I read news during daytime, I’ve already stopped doing whatever I was doing before that. There is no refocusing time or switching cost. Dobelli’s making up a situation where news just jumped into somebody’s head, forcing them to read news instead of working productively until they regained focus. I don’t think this is compelling.

Third, news distracts us even hours after we’ve digested today’s hot items. News stories and images may pop into your mind hours, sometimes days later, constantly interrupting your train of thought. Why would you want to do that to yourself?”

Does this… happen? I’m not sure – maybe? On the other hand, I get lots of thoughts in my head throughout the day, most of which are memories from my childhoods, tasks I’ve left undone and ideas I get of future activities. Almost none of them are news items. Although if they aren’t, I’m sure Dobelli would find a way to try to make that seem like a bad thing, too (see? You don’t even think about the news after you’ve read them!).

“On a global level, the loss in potential productivity is huge.”

On a global level, the loss of potential productivity of people doing anything besides the potentially most productive activity they might be able to do, is huge. Dobelli goes on making up numbers, and those same made up numbers apply to every other activity, making this argument irrelevant to his crusade against news and moving on to a more general point of him being unhappy with how other people spend their time.

“News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement. The tragedy is that pop notoriety crowds out the achievements of those who make more substantive contributions.”

I agree. I’m not sure news in particular is to be blamed for this, but it is undoubtedly true that news present disproportionate amounts of celebrity stuff relative to important stuff. It’s also, however, true that they do so because there exists a demand for celebrity stuff. That is, people are not perfect, and are likely predisposed to preferring celebrity stuff over boring, important stuff – or prioritizing important stuff starring celebrities over important stuff without them. If so, this makes for a dilemma for people working in news organizations: either keep up with the celebrity stuff or face the consequence of possibly losing your clientele to those that do.

“Good professional journalists take time with their stories, authenticate their facts and try to think things through. But like any profession, journalism has some incompetent, unfair practitioners who don’t have the time – or the capacity – for deep analysis. You might not be able to tell the difference between a polished professional report and a rushed, glib, paid-by-the-piece article by a writer with an ax to grind. It all looks like news.”

Replace “journalists” with “writers”, or “scientists” “news” with “books” or “analysis” or “education materials” or “articles”, and all of the above is still true. This is a general argument against incompetence.

“Sometimes, reported facts are simply mistaken. With reduced editorial budgets at major publications, fact checking may be an endangered step in the news process.”

I agree that this is likely a very big issue with news. I don’t think things might be much better if people didn’t read any news, as 1) news doesn’t preclude fact-checking, and 2) the lack of news doesn’t magically create fact-checking out of thin air. People will always gossip, and gossiping isn’t always strong on fact-checking.

“Many news stories include predictions, but accurately predicting anything in a complex world is impossible. Overwhelming evidence indicates that forecasts by journalists and by experts in finance, social development, global conflicts and technology are almost always completely wrong. So, why consume that junk?”

I’m not sure whether Dobelli is arguing against 1) people trying to make predictions, 2) news items presenting those predictions, 3) people reading news and taking those predictions for granted or 4) people trying to understand the logic behind those predictions and perhaps form their own.

“Incorrect forecast are not only useless, they are harmful.”

Disagreed. As Dobelli does neither elaborate on this thought or present a single argument for it, neither will I.

News is manipulative. –Today, even conscientious readers find that distinguishing even-handed news stories from ones that have a private agenda is difficult and energy consuming. Why go through that?”

I agree. Reading news takes a certain kind of skeptical mindset, which would be very good to apply to – once again – all sorts of information offered to us in any kind of a package. Most human-produced information is manipulative, from this point of view. Including scientific articles and books.

“Stories are selected or slanted to please advertisers (advertising bias) or the owners of the media (corporate bias), and each media outlet has a tendency to report what everyone else is reporting, and to avoid stories that will offend anyone (mainstream bias). The public relations (PR) industry is as large as the news reporting industry – the best proof that journalists and news organizations can be manipulated, or at least influenced or swayed.”

I think this is likely true, really important and spot-on.

Journalism shapes a common picture of the world and a common set of narratives for discussing it. It sets the public agenda. Hold on: do we really want news reporters to set the public agenda? I believe that agenda setting by the media is just bad democracy.”

I think this is less important. Media might be overrepresented in shaping public discussion, the hegemonic narratives and therefore democracy, but media is also a very large and heterogenous phenomenon nowadays. I don’t think news reporters set the public agenda inasmuch as they reflect transformations and changes in the public agenda, perhaps reinforcing phenomena already in process.

News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. This sets readers up to have a fatalistic outlook on the world.”

#notallnews. Think Vietnam war and the media coverage, leading to sustained campaigning from activists, which later spread to universities and got media attention of their own. Think Arab Spring, BLM protests or yellow vest protests.

“News gives us the illusion of caring. — News wraps us in a warm global feeling. — This gives us a glowing, fuzzy feeling that delivers the illusion of caring but doesn’t get us anywhere. This allure of anything bespeaking global brotherhood smells like a gigantic chimera. The fact is, consuming news does not make us more connected to each other. We are connected because we interact and trade.”

I don’t think this is an issue of news, in particular – not sure what Dobelli is getting at, here, as he doesn’t elaborate on the harms this supposed, supposedly news-induced warm feeling causes.

News kills creativity. Things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age.”

I’ll just disagree. Nobody’s forced to spend their entire lives consuming news, and consuming reasonable or unreasonable amounts of news hasn’t, as far as I’m aware, been shown to limit creativity. This is yet another example of Dobelli simply assuming his claim to be true.

“I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I
know a whole bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs.”

I guess I don’t, either (Noam Chomsky does come to mind). Although come to think of it, I don’t really personally know a single truly creative mind in the first place. Dobelli’s making an universal claim from first-person experience, which is just bad rhetorics.

_________________________

Dobelli goes on talking about what to do instead of reading news, most of which is reasonably good advice. He talks about reading deeply, skimming a bit of analysis, studying various sciences and humanities and finishes up with a motivational self-help “get a grip” speech.

The essay finishes with a vision of alternative journalism:


Investigative journalism is relevant in any society. We need more hard-core journalists digging into meaningful stories. We need reporting that polices our society and uncovers the truth. The best example is Watergate. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Often, reporting is not time sensitive. Long journal
articles and in-depth books are fine forums for investigative journalism – and now that you’ve gone cold turkey on the news, you’ll have time to read them.”

I think the journalism he has in mind would, in pratice, end up looking awfully lot like the journalism we have today. It’s easy to point out flaws in how things are currently being done, and harder to come up with actual, workable solutions to those issues instead of abstract, idealistic visions. For example, the time sensitivity: if people are not informed in time of their corrupted politicians’ shenanigans, this creates demand for time sensitive journalism, which might eventually evolve into just the kind of clickbait cancer we suffer from today.

All in all, I think Dobelli makes important points, and mostly fails to present them in a convincing way. Moreover, the actually important points in the essay are drowned out by trivial, insignificant tidbits of facts, personal anecdotes and storytelling, making his own essay its primary and best counterargument by showing that these flaws characterize information besides news.

Enlightenment Now 2/23

I’m going to include a bunch of quotes, because I don’t think I could put it any better than how Pinker already has.

  • Pinker argues that the three keystones in understanding the human condition are entropy, evolution and information.
  • Entropy is a concept that describes disorder, emerging from 19th-century physics and is generally credited to Ludwig Boltzmann.
    • The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy can only ever decrease in a closed system, meaning that things will generally fall apart, unless work is done on them to keep them from falling apart.
    • This applies doubly to the human race, whose life and happiness “depend on an infinitesimal sliver of orderly arrangements of matter amid the astronomical number of possibilities”.
    • Why the awe for the Second Law? From an Olympian vantage point, it defines the fate of the universe and the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.
  • A process called self-organization allows temporary and limited zones of order to emerge.
    • Self-organizing processes of physics and chemistry gave rise to matter which could replicate itself.
    • Due to the second law of thermodynamics, this copying process is imperfect, leading to errors building up.
    • Due to dumb luck, some of these errors are beneficial and will result in more copies of the replicator.
    • As copying errors that enhance stability and replication accumulate over the generations, the replicating system – we call it an organism – will appear to have been engineered for survival and reproduction in the future, though it only preserved the copying errors that led to survival and reproduction in the past.”
  • “Information may be thought of as a reduction in entropy – as the ingredient that distinguishes an orderly, structured system from the vast set of random, useless ones.”
  • Information is what gets accumulated in a genome in the course of evolution. The sequence of bases in a DNA molecule correlates with the sequence of amino acids in the proteins that make up the organism’s body, and they got that sequence by structuring the organism’s ancestors – reducing their entropy – into the improbable configurations that allowed them to capture energy and grow and reproduce.”
  • Information is also collected by an animal’s nervous system as it lives its life.”
  • A momentous discovery of 20th-century theoretical neuroscience is that networks of neurons can — transform [the brain] in ways that — explain how brains can be intelligent. Two input neurons can be connected to an output neuron un such a way that their firing patterns correspond to logical relations such as AND, OR, and NOT, or to a statistical decision that depends on the weight of the incoming evidence. This gives neural networks the power to engage in information processing or computation.”
  • Internal representations that reliably correlate with states of the world, and that participate in inferences that tend to derive true implications from true premises, may be called knowledge”.
  • Getting back to evolution, a brain wired by information in the genome to perform computations on information coming in from the senses could organize the animal’s behaviour in a way that allowed it to capture energy and resist entropy.”
  • Pinker also argues – reasonably – that humans’ ability to “manipulate mental models of the world and predict what would happen it…” enabled us to coordinate our actions, channel gained experience into culture and norms and use those to access ever-growing pools of energy, providing us with more energy with which to stave off entropy.

Pinker finishes with some conclusions:

  • Misfortune may be no one’s fault. Due to the unhappy circumstances the human race was born into – a world in which replicating organisms compete for resources to combat entropy in a permanent state of war – the fact that some things really suck doesn’t need to be explained by evil intent or human wrongdoings. That means, we needn’t necessarily blame poverty on the rich, lower female salaries on men, famines on the fat, blacks’ social issues on the white, white’s social issues on the immigrants, industry collapse on the Left, terror on the Right, sickness on God, and so on. These unfortunate things have plenty of candidates to explain them, and few require malicious people to work. Entropy, evolution and information suffice to explain a lot.
  • The fact that we’re ill-equipped to deal with the complex problems of a 21th-century post-industrial society is best explained by the fact that our brains are not highly adapted to such an environment. People are naturally irrational, attempting to make sense of the world with alghoritms and shortcuts not well suited in a world where rational thought is required.
  • When large and connected communities take shape, they can come up with ways of organizing their affairs that work to their members’ mutual advantage. — With the right rules, a community of less than fully rational thinkers can cultivate rational thoughts.”

Why are UK Covid cases dropping?

New Covid cases in UK are dropping sharply in spite of lockdowns being lifted. Similar trends have been observed in other countries. Even in India the delta variant produced a very sharp, steep peak with an equally steep drop.

Reasons that can’t be it include less testing (UK tests like crazy), more cases going through the net (would show in hospital admissions, which it doesn’t) and lockdown (which just ended). Reasons that probably are not it include school being out (too soon) and vaccinations (too steep a decline).

What’s going on? Vaccinations and otherwise-acquired-antibodies producing herd immunity? It’s probably nothing too weird or specific, since it’s happening in several countries.