During my years as a manager at General Steel, I learned to respond slowly to most problems brought to me. Most of the time when I researched the problem and got the whole story, there was no problem. When a co-worker brought me a problem, I learned to ask a few questions to see if they had the whole story. Once they got used to this, I stopped wasting time on nonexistent problems or mere misunderstandings.
Rolph Dobelli wrote The Art of Thinking Clearly as a checklist of cognitive biases to avoid in his decision-making processes. I reread it frequently and recommend it more than any other book. These biases are a part of our human nature and conditioning and infects the most intelligent as much as any other segment. We tend to see patterns where there is none and we are subject to a confirmation bias; quickly accepting (and retweeting and sharing) what confirms our current views and beliefs and ignoring what challenges it.
The diagnosis bias is a form of the confirmation bias. If we reach a conclusion too quickly subsequent facts will be filtered to confirm our diagnosis rather than challenge it. In the medical world this leads to unnecessary procedures and costs, and often bad outcomes. Einstein is quoted, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
Peggy Noonan noted in her book Patriotic Grace that we once shared the same news sources before the proliferation of cable news, the blogosphere and social media where we have learned to filter through the crowded landscape of news and opinions by reading for confirmation rather than information. The ironic result is that we are more poorly informed from having too many sources.
This widening of partisanship and hostility is fertilized by a media that now values clicks, retweets, and shares as currency. They have quickly learned that outrage is their product and social media is their market. A media organization that lacks intellectual diversity (the most important diversity) is unlikely to recognize the common fallacies and biases in their reporting. This is made only worse when journalistic integrity is sacrificed to moral supremacy and virtue signaling.
A few principles to remember when you consume our media soup:
A good decision can yield bad results. We live in a world of tradeoffs and uncertainty. Wall Street was seduced by the delusional certainty of complicated mathematical risk models and we got the financial collapse of 2008.
If your initial reaction to a post or an article is outrage, pause and ask if you have the whole story. A piece of the truth can be more misleading than all of a lie. I can mislead more by what I leave out than in what I disclose.
Rage and hatred make you stupid. History is filled with highly flawed individuals who made good decisions, and very capable leaders who were humbled by events. FDR was so impressed by Herbert Hoover’s accomplishments that he suggested the Democrats draft him as a presidential nominee in 1920. Scarred by the Great Depression Hoover was soundly defeated by FDR in 1932.
The less tolerant you are of a dissenting opinion the less likely you are to acknowledge the obvious flaws in your own view. The more likely you are to demonize an opponent the less likely you are to find flaws in your own thinking. The same is true of pathologizing the opposition, attributing his dissent to a physical or mental handicap. It is much easier to dismiss an opposing view as morally or mentally deficient, that to defend your own argument. It is intellectually lazy.
Objective analysis is hard work. Good opinion columnists can provide context to existing facts that is often missing even when you acknowledge their bias.
Social media offers a big microphone to the ill-informed and virtue posturing. Learn to ignore most of it. Disconnect from the chronically stupid. If social media actors first got the whole story and learned to avoid the biases in Rolph Dobelli’s book, Facebook and Twitter would be a fraction of their size.