The Case Against News
By Bryan Caplan
By and large, I think news is a waste of time. If I want to increase my factual knowledge, I read history – or Wikipedia. News, I like to say, is the lie that something important happens every day.
Most people think my position is crazy, even for me. I was surprised to learn, then, that someone even more anti-news than me got to present his arguments at TED. A few of his arguments are silly, and more are poorly documented. But the best parts of the paper that inspired the TED talk are excellent. From Rolf Dobelli’s “Avoid News“:
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.
Assume that, against all odds, you found one piece of news that substantially increased the quality of your life – compared to how your life would have unfolded if you hadn’t read or seen it. How much trivia did your brain have to digest to get to that one relevant nugget? Even that question is a hindsight analysis. 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.
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.
The conclusion is also great.
What to do instead.
Go without news. Cut it out completely. Go cold turkey.
If you want to keep the illusion of “not missing anything important”, I suggest you glance through the summary page of the Economist once a week. Don’t spend more than five minutes on it.
Read magazines and books which explain the world – Science, Nature, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. Go for magazines that connect the dots and don’t shy away from presenting the complexities of life – or from purely entertaining you. The world is complicated, and we can do nothing about it. So, you must read longish and deep articles and books that represent its complexity. Try reading a book a week. Better two or three. History is good. Biology. Psychology. That way you’ll learn to understand the underlying mechanisms of the world. Go deep instead of broad. Enjoy material that truly interests you. Have fun reading.
What you can look forward to:
After a while, you will realize that despite your personal news blackout, you have not missed – and you’re not going to miss – any important facts. If some bit of information is truly important to your profession, your company, your family or your community, you will hear it in time – from your friends, your mother-in-law or whomever you talk to or see. [All too true! -BC] When you are with your friends, ask them if anything important is happening in the world. The question is a great conversation starter. Most of the time, the answer will be: “not really.”
P.S. When I read this passage, the counter-example of Tyler Cowen came immediately to mind.
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.
HT: Tim Harford