All the News That’s Fit to Ignore

Shouted epithets, violence and threats of violence increasingly replace what once was vigorous, informed public debate.

When I consider whether news can survive as a foundation of our participatory democracy, I’m more a soiled idealist than the optimist I used to be.

Reasons for optimism include some national news media that refuse to be cowed and myriad local news media where toilers remain dedicated to fact-based journalism and traditional ethics.

However, they don’t come together to create a critical mass to challenge our Axis of Evil: Oval Office, alt-right websites and Fox News, whose disinformation stokes fear and anger with alternative facts, deceptions, dishonest spins, falsehoods, lies and conspiratorial theories.

Shouted epithets, violence and threats of violence increasingly replace what once was vigorous, informed public debate.

And now, Donald Trump’s resident handler, Reince Priebus, is renewing Trump’s vengeful campaign threats to journalism’s constitutional protections.

I’m not shelving my notebook and Leica, but I have a new respect for Sisyphus and his labors and my mood darkened further when I read recent essays in the New York Times Review of Books and London’s Guardian.

Reviewing “The Knowledge Illusion for the Times,” Yuval Harari said the authors reject the assumption that democracy is founded on the idea that the individual, rational voter knows best.

Not now. Not ever. Citing the authors — cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach — Harari writes that “not just rationality but the very idea of individual thinking is a myth. Humans rarely think for themselves.” Instead, “as individuals we … rely on the expertise of others for almost all our needs.”

That’s not all bad, but “people fail to realize just how ignorant they are of what’s going on.”

Harari continued, saying, “Consequently some who know next to nothing about meteorology or biology nevertheless conduct fierce debates about climate change and genetically modified crops, while others hold extremely strong views about what should be done in Iraq or Ukraine without being able to locate them on a map. 

“People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.”

More frightening for the future of my trade and our democracy, the authors argue that providing people with more and better information is unlikely to improve matters. 

Harari writes that “Such hopes are grounded in a misunderstanding of how humans actually think. Most of our views are shaped by communal groupthink rather than individual rationality, and we cling to these views because of group loyalty. 

“Bombarding people with facts and exposing their individual ignorance is likely to backfire. Most people don’t like too many facts, and they certainly don’t like to feel stupid.”

And in an increasingly complex world, Harari writes, “Individual humans will consequently know even less about the technological gadgets, the economic currents and the political dynamics that shape the world. How could we then vest authority in voters and customers who are so ignorant and susceptible to manipulation? If Sloman and Fernbach are correct, providing future voters and customers with more and better facts would hardly solve the problem.”

Compared to that dismal picture, the Guardian essay by Rolf Dobelli is almost lighthearted when he concluded, “News is bad for you.” Here is my summary of his essay, drawn from his book, The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions. The quotes are his. 

“News misleads. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is under-rated.

“News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that … allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.

“News has no explanatory power. News items are bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world. Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect. The more ‘news factoids’ you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand. 

“If more information leads to higher economic success, we’d expect journalists to be at the top of the pyramid. That’s not the case.

“News is toxic to your body. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (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 glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.

“News increases cognitive errors. News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias. In the words of Warren Buffett: ‘What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.’ News exacerbates this flaw. 

“We become prone to overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities. It also exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that ‘make sense’ even if they don’t correspond to reality. 

“News inhibits thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. 

“Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.

“News kills creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas.

“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 bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]