Forty years ago, we all got our news from three TV stations (CBS, ABC and NBC), the same local newspapers, and a small handful of magazines (Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News). A few would supplement their reading with The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and magazines like Atlantic or the New Yorker. The choices were much more limited than today but the trust in journalism was much greater. We all read the same stories and few people felt the need to ‘fact check’ anchors like Peter Jennings or Walter Conkrite. We may have reached different conclusions but we began from a common point of information.
This radically changed with the growth of cable television, the internet and social media. The massive proliferation of choices was overwhelming. Instead of common sources we leaned toward those that confirmed our views. The left watched MSNBC and the right watched Fox News. We no longer watched the same stories with the same frequency. Our differences widened and hardened.
Social media gave everyone a big microphone and a big audience. Some independents broke major stories, but most knew little of basic journalistic standards or lacked the resources to properly vet a story. News became entertainment and sport more than information.
After years of trying to cut through the clutter I developed a few axioms and observations to focus my time better on information that is useful, meaningful, and hopefully accurate.
- Get the whole story. A piece of the truth can be more misleading than all of a lie. Bias is much about what is not said. Context matters.
- Never attribute to a conspiracy what can as easily be explained by chance or incompetence.
- When you trust nothing, you will believe anything.
- Even the brightest are subject to cognitive biases and ignorance of probability.
- The more data you have the more likely you are to see patterns that only appear relevant.
- In the face of irrefutable evidence, it is still possible to reach the wrong conclusion.
- Drastic changes and discoveries are rare. We advance more from evolution than revolution. History is mostly about the exceptions.
- Basic journalistic standards have been undermined by a preference for narratives and competition from social media where everyone regardless of merit or qualifications gets space to vent.
- Successful journalism is less likely to be measured by objective truth, clarity, and illumination than by clicks and shares. Clicks and shares are generated by outrage and fear mongering. If your first response to an article is outrage or vindication, put it aside for a few days; there is a good chance you are being played.
- “The risk of offense is the price of clarity.” Roy Williams
- More people read the news for confirmation than information.
- “The great enemy of the truth is not the lie-deliberate, contrived and dishonest; but the myth- persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” JFK
- Most issues and decisions are not between good and evil or right and wrong but involve tradeoffs. More often our choices are between good or better, or bad and worse. Life is complicated and rarely comports to any unified theory.
- Avoid Bulverism, the subversion of an argument’s merits or reason to the identity of the source. Demonization of dissent and differences is just intellectual bigotry.
- If it needs to be fact checked it is not worth your time. The mere existence of fact checking sites speaks volumes about the loss of trust in media. Stop wasting time on sites you cannot trust.
- Trust is not measured in percentages. It is not good enough to be accurate 95% of the time. A few errors admitted and corrected may be tolerable over a period of many years, but multiple errors always made with the same bias means it is time to find a more reliable source.
- A fact or a sound position must be falsifiable. If it cannot conceivably be proven incorrect it is not a fact, it is a belief.
- The goal is illumination. Accuracy is only the first step.
- In our obsession with diversity we neglected intellectual diversity, the range of ideas and experiences. When 95% of a news organization votes the same way bias is inevitable but so is misreporting. When a story fits a common narrative, it is tempting to relax journalistic diligence.
- Much of our disagreements and differences can be attributed to the different meanings we assign to words.
- Correlation is not causation. The Phillips Curve.
- Don’t confuse trends with laws. The Phillips Curve again.
- We are subject to emotional rationalism. We decide quickly from emotions and then rationalize our decision. There is a world of difference between rationalization and rational.
- Do not confuse confidence with competence.
- Be cautious with anecdotes. They can put a face on the data. Anecdotes can be used to confirm rational conclusions or their exceptions, but they are never a substitute for the data.
- “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples – while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” George W. Bush
- The strength of an argument is proportional to its tolerance for dissent.
- Crisis is the rallying cry of the tyrant.
- When you silence you amplify.
- The prevailing wisdom also includes the prevailing biases and myths. Dissent is essential to finding the truth. Dissent is respect for minority rights. The prevailing wisdom in the time of Galileo was that the universe was geocentric.
- Beware of weasel words that can have very different meanings. Most, almost, and always can convey different meanings to different readers. The difference between a plurality and a majority can be substantial.
- Know your denominator. The fact that 30% of drug dealers belong to a single ethnic group, does not mean that 30% of that ethnic group are drug dealers.
- Beware the Straw Man argument- when the debater does not address the question involved but responds to a completely different point. For example if you speak in favor of open trade with China and your opponent says, “Oh, you are in favor of forced child labor.”