What information should we consume?

Posted on Oct 29, 2018 by JulieHarrisonC2C


This is my second “Ted talk”.  Ted asked:

How do you fight against selection bias as you consume information about the world?

One answer is to read “everything”, as does Tyler Cowen.

But you may not have the time, in which case I’d focus on a “diverse” set of reading material. This means much more than avoiding ideological bias (although that’s important too.)

1.  Read the material on both sides of the ideological spectrum, indeed on many different sides.  I subscribe to three magazines, which represent three different ideological perspectives.  (NYR of Books, The Economist, Reason.)  I also spend a lot of time reading the NYT, WSJ, FT, WaPo, National Review, Bloomberg, South China Morning Post, Yahoo and lots of other outlets—mostly online.  Don’t let your ideological bias affect how you view a news outlet.

2.  Avoid geographic bias.  It’s almost inevitable that you’ll be biased toward your own country (I’m no exception), but push back against that bias.  Try to read lots of news about other countries.  Don’t focus on the countries that the news media considers important; focus on what’s actually important.  For instance, a few decades ago I decided to stop reading about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  I’d had enough.  It’s not that the conflict is not important; it is.  Rather it’s not as important as the news media (on both sides of the issue) assumes it to be.  There’s no objective reason why you would want to pay more attention to the Palestinians than to the plight of Muslim minorities in western Burma, northwest China, or some other region. (One exception is if you are Palestinian or Jewish, or in the case of Northern Ireland if you are Irish.)

3.  Read about a wide range of topics.  I just read a book about psychedelics, and I now realize that prior to reading the book I knew almost nothing about the subject. That was because I had little interest in the topic, and had never really paid attention.  While reading Michael Pollan’s book I found some interesting material on a wide range of topics, such as mental health, meditation, drug laws, consciousness, the culture of Silicon Valley, etc.  Indeed the book might even be of some interest to a person who has absolutely no interest in LSD.  The book’s main flaw is that it focuses too much on the US (see the previous point.)  My next book (on the Great Recession) has the same problem.

4.  Most non-economists assume that economics is the field that studies the economy.  In fact, it would be more accurate to describe economics as a certain way of thinking about the world.  (Think of the joke, “Economics is about how people make choices; sociology is about how people don’t have any choice.”)  If you are an economist you should occasionally look at other social sciences, so that you can examine alternative ways of thinking about problems.

5.  Read lots of fiction.  One of our biases is to put too much weight on our own life experience, and not enough on the life experience of others, especially people from different cultures.  Reading fiction helps us to overcome that bias.  Good films are also helpful, especially when they are not too political.  Books or films with obvious messages are likely to have oversimplified the issue.  (The film “Three Identical Strangers” is a recent example.)  Films, where the message is less obvious (say The Death of Lazarescu), are often ones with the more important implications. It’s become a cliche that fiction is often truer than non-fiction.

6.  Read extremely smart bloggers, not people you agree with.  Read people who annoy you.  Paul Krugman has a way of writing that many conservatives and libertarians find to be quite annoying. But he’s still a very bright intellectual who often has interesting things to say.  Ditto for Brad DeLong. I often come across commenters who say, “I don’t see why everyone thinks X is such a genius.”  If you don’t understand why everyone thinks X is such a genius, then it’s likely the problem is with you, not X.

7.  Try to double-check both sides of the story.  If the liberal media describes some conservative outrage, see what the conservative media says about the same event before forming an opinion.  Vice versa if the conservative media describes some liberal outrage.  If necessary, check the moderate media, defined as outlets that frequently criticize both sides.  Also check data sources.  One of my comparative advantages is that I know the data better than most other people. I often read posts by people who are smarter than me, and immediately notice that they are citing implausible data.  Either they made a mistake or their data source was unreliable.  For instance, almost all of the media stories on the richest people who ever lived are based on completely false data.

8.  On the other hand, I don’t know if it’s worthwhile for most people to read as many data sources as I do.  I have an unusually good memory for data and an unusually bad memory for names and other forms of verbal information.  So I’m not typical.

9.  You should occasionally change your media outlets.  After a while you’ll have gotten most of the insights you can expect from any given source, so try a different outlet. Yes, that means TheMoneyIllusion long ago reached the point of diminishing returns. (I don’t do very well following this advice—indeed I probably should have shifted from reading blogs to twitter, but I’m lazy.)

10.  Try to avoid TV news, except perhaps to get a sense of the zeitgeist.  If you consume too much TV then you become a part of the zeitgeist, i.e., a part of the problem.

11.  Travel is another good source of information.  If you travel to China and speak with the people you meet, it might give you a very different view of the country than what you get reading about China in the US media.  I know it did for me.  Travel makes you realize that countries are very complex, not the sort of cartoonish vision you get from the mainstream media.

12.  If you are a macroeconomist then read the pre-war macroeconomists, such as Keynes, Fisher, Cassel, and Hawtrey.  Learn about time series data over the past 100 years, not just since WWII.  Read Keynesians, monetarists, and other perspectives as well.

13.  Podcast interviews can provide a perspective that one might not get by simply reading some material written by the interviewee.

14.  When you read articles about social science research, treat the findings as an interesting hypothesis, not settled science.  Much of it does not replicate.

15.  Talk to average people, especially when you travel.  And remember, there are no average people.  Frame questions carefully.  Thus don’t ask if people like Trump, ask what they like and don’t like about him.

PS.  I’m actually not very well read in literature, philosophy, history, etc.  So do as I say, not as I do.


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