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Don't Read the News

Following my recent criticism of a Stat article, you may be wondering, who can we trust?

I have written several harsh criticisms in the past, railing against Substack and Lambda School (2). Let me be clear: in none of these cases do I mean to imply that I prefer the alternative. I am merely attempting to correct simple factual errors and reduce the status of what I perceive to be over-hyped institutions in my particular corner of the internet.

So sure, Substack has its problems, but I am not telling you to run off and use Wordpress! [1] Lambda School’s CEO has lied, but that does not mean you should attend a competing bootcamp, or get a 4-year CS degree. [2]

Analogously, there was a bad Stat article, but I am certainly not recommending that you go off and read CNN or Huffpost or whatever. The only reason I don’t critique those other sources is because I already know they’re unreliable, and I assume you do as well. [3]

And yet, presumably, you would like to “stay informed”. So what’s the solution?

One option is to rigorously fact check everything you read, but that’s cumbersome and still bottoms out somewhere. I found errors in the Stat article, but then took reports from the CDC at face value. More importantly, you just don’t have the time.

Instead, I propose a much simpler solution: don’t read the news.

Could it be that simple? Surely there are serious repercussions for being so dangerously and completely uninformed?

Here are some of the headlines on the front page of the New York Times:

  • See the complete list of insults President Trump posted on Twitter from 2015 to 2021.
  • Bryan Cranston tells Kara Swisher why he won’t play Donald Trump.
  • Biden’s Stimulus Plan Will Bring Relief, but There’s One Flaw
  • Joe Did It. But How?
  • Democrats Are About to Control Congress. What Will They Do?
  • Man Lived Undetected at O’Hare Airport for 3 Months, Officials Say
  • Improve Your Life With These Tiny Chores

I compiled those on January 18th when I wrote a first draft of this post. On the 25th as I prepare to publish, it’s not much better:

  • Are We Ready for a Monday Without Trump?
  • I Want to Call the Capitol Rioters ‘Terrorists.’ Here’s Why We Shouldn’t.
  • Something Special Just Happened in Russia
  • Ninja, a Gaming Superstar, Has a Message for Parents
  • Rupert Murdoch, Accepting Award, Condemns ‘Awful Woke Orthodoxy’

Wow! how can you not click those? How did Joe do it? What’s the one flaw of his stimulus plan? What are these tiny chores I can use to improve my life? Why won’t Bryan Cranston play Trump?

This is not news. It’s clickbait, and it’s bad for you. I don’t mean to pick on the NYT. It’s among the best of the popular outlets, and it is still horrible.

Here’s Aaron Swartz writing in 2006:

None of these stories have relevance to my life. Reading them may be enjoyable, but it’s an enjoyable waste of time. They will have no impact on my actions one way or another.

….With the time people waste reading a newspaper every day, they could have read an entire book about most subjects covered and thereby learned about it with far more detail and far more impact than the daily doses they get dribbled out by the paper. But people, of course, wouldn’t read a book about most subjects covered in the paper, because most of them are simply irrelevant.

….I have not followed the news at least since I was 13 (with occasional lapses on particular topics). My life does not seem to be impoverished for it; indeed, I think it has been greatly enhanced.

You might think such a person would be civically disengaged to a slovenly degree, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! In his brief life, Aaron led a successful campaign against SOPA, helped create Creative Commons and attempted to create a proto-Sci-Hub. On a less political note, Aaron is credited with the co-creation of Reddit, RSS and Markdown.

It was not despite, but thanks to his news-aversion that Aaron was able to build projects with continued relevance a decade later. Rather than being caught up in the news of the day, he worked on things that actually matter in the long run.

And so convinced by his arguments and inspired by his life, I also don’t read the news. I stopped in 2013 when I first came across his writing, and have never looked back. Like Aaron, I find this has substantially improved my quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

I’m still not convinced, news has a lot of merit, and you haven’t come close to a full refutation of it’s supposed benefits.
For a longer treatment, see Rolf Dobelli’s Avoid News, an excellent and persuasive perspective. There’s more on the harm of news in Aaron’s full piece, as well as his earlier All News is Bad News.

How do you know anything about what’s going on?
I do read, just not the news. I have a long research agenda, and read according to the work I want to publish in the next few months. I do subscribe to a couple regular sources, but only other blogs that publish infrequently. I also skim Marginal Revolution, which takes all of 3 minutes.

But mostly, my friends and family tell me about the news, because they are all reading it. If something truly important happens, I am fairly confident that I will find out.

Isn’t that unfair? Aren’t you just shifting the burden of labor onto your friends, and benefiting from their curation?
Yes, it is unfair. That’s why I have attempted to propose a better scheme: N friends will take turns reading the news and update the others if anything important happens, while each expending just 1/Nth of their current effort. To date, no one has accepted this proposal, or even considered it seriously.

But for the most part, the news simply isn’t important. The 2020 presidential election had no immediate impact on me, nor did the recent inauguration. Rather than anxiously waiting for live updates, I would rather see well-reasoned retrospectives days or even months after the event. I avoided all political news after the 2016 presidential election, but then read Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Similarly, I avoided nearly all Covid news once I had already committed to a fairly strict lockdown, then read Apollo’s Arrow.

You don’t know what you’re missing!
I do occasionally sample the news for this exact reason, and regularly find that I am missing approximately nothing of consequence.

What if I have to make a decision informed by current events?
Occasionally, a genuinely important event will surface.

Say you may need to make a decision about whether to flee the country to avoid Covid. In that case, reading the news is still not important. You should identify the matter at hand, consider it carefully, and then make a decision. At this point, you may wish to consult news articles, but that is very different from reading them regularly or following a specific outlet. You are deciding what to view and have a specific purpose in mind, rather than being passively fed content that simply makes you miserable and anxious.

What about your civic duty? It’s important to be an informed voter.
Although it’s a short article, writing The Epistemic Pain of Prop 22 took a week of full-time background research. I am fairly confident that I spent more time thinking seriously about my ballot than 99% of voters.

Again, this has nothing to do with reading the news. When an election comes around, I encourage you to become informed and make the best decisions you can! That may involve reading voter guides, thinking deeply about your values, and yes, maybe even consulting the news. But even here you are free to remain ignorant on every other day.

Note that even this level of engagement is only acceptable if you are a genuinely conflicted voter! If you were pretty sure every day of the last 4 years that you were going to vote against Trump, you have no excuse for trying to “stay informed”, as your decision had already been made.

I read the Swartz/Dobelli articles, and I now think even books and blogs cause the same harms as the actual news.
That’s fair. I’ll admit to sometimes beings sidetracked Marginal Revolution, and can relate to this quote from the Swartz piece:

Edward Tufte notes that when he used to read the New York Times in the morning, it scrambled his brain with so many different topics that he couldn’t get any real intellectual work done the rest of the day.

In the past, I have had to cut down my media diet further to avoid distractions. This choice was easy to execute because I do not receive automatic newsletters, so reading those outlets is an intentional choice every time.

I’ve taken the further action of blocking some sources on my main browser, such that I’m forced to open a different application, wait a few seconds, and then navigate to the site. This is a minor burden, but it’s enough to prevent me from getting locked into compulsive habits.

In considering your media diet, think not only about what value it brings you, but about the potential harm. I can skim today’s posts on MR in just a couple minutes and see if anything catches my interest. There is rarely anything aggravating that will ruin my mood or “scramble my brain”.

What about listening to the news or watching it on TV?
Even worse. It is too easy to be stimulated by things that don’t matter, and too hard to skim or skip ahead.

Reading the news is enjoyable.
It might be stimulating in the moment, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s detrimental to your overall quality of life, and the tradeoff isn’t worth it.

What about particular news stories with breaking updates?
I’ll admit to neurotically refreshing the NYT map every 30 seconds on election night just like the rest of you. Though I look back on this as a tremendous waste of mental energy, it really was fun to participate in the collective orgy of anxiety and madness.

But think of this as an occasional vice, the way you think about gambling or drinking. It is a fun thing to indulge in on occasion, but it is not a good way to live your life.

But seriously, what do you read?
I read Marginal Revolution, Alexey Guzey’s Twitter, Byrne Hobart’s Medium, Gwern’s newsletter, and a few blogs. I occasionally read Hacker News.

Occasionally, upon finding a great new source, I will binge read the best pieces. When I first found out about Everything Studies, I felt nearly enlightened. But after reading his archives, I feel that I’ve properly internalized the blog’s worldview. I still check it occasionally, but the marginal impact of each new post on my thinking is fairly low.

Sometimes blogs have blogrolls that list other blogs the author likes. These are also great sources of new writing that don’t require you to actually read the news.

For what it’s worth, I’ve have enjoyed the blogs from Nintil, Andy Matuschak, Dormin, Devon Zuegel, Mark Lutter, Vitalik, Dan Luu, Ben Kuhn, Zvi, sam[ ]zdat, Sarah Constantin, The Scholar’s Stage, Aaron Swartz and Scott Alexander.

I would love to see a Best Of compilation for Matt Levine or Andrew Gelman, please let me know if these exist. Both seem like good sources, but the backlogs are simply too big.

What do you read in the morning? How do you start your day?
Because I’m unemployed, I wake up without an alarm and don’t consume caffeine. That means by the time I’m out of bed, I’m ready to do whatever I’ve planned for the day, and do not need to spend the first hour of my morning “waking up” or shaking off grogginess.

What about “dead time”? What do you do while you’re commuting or waiting for water to boil?
Since I’m unemployed and under fairly strict lockdown, I have very little deadtime. When I do have deadtime, I think and let my mind wander.

Why do so many people report having their best thoughts in the shower? Probably because it’s the only time we have without artificial stimulation. If you listen to podcasts in the shower you’re cheating yourself. There’s nothing magic about water, every other piece of “dead time” could be equally valuable if we weren’t so intent on cramming it full of useless trivia.

This isn’t a question, but I’m still not totally convinced.
Seriously, go read the earlier articles:

Aaron Swartz: I Hate the News

Rolf Dobelli: Avoid News

Then go read Andy Matuschak’s Why Books Don’t Work and consider how many of his arguments apply even more strongly to the news.

Should I unsubscribe from Applied Divinity Studies?
I don’t send out emails for all my posts, only the ones I really take pride in. That ends up being about twice a week. If you feel that it’s a serious distraction, you should filter these emails, and read them only when you have time.

I’ve also made an effort to write on things that have lasting importance. Even when I address a recent event, as in Was Vaccine Production Actually Delayed?, it is intended not as an object-level claim, but as a meta-level warning against getting caught up in broader trend without careful thought.

Having said that, I wouldn’t subscribe to my own blog, nor do I subscribe to many of the blogs I like. I read the backlogs, manually check the domain when it comes to mind, and read new posts when it’s convenient for me, without the stress of watching newsletters pile up in my inbox.

That might sound wasteful, but it’s far less wasteful than the alternative.

[1] Having said that, Ghost really does seem good if you want a paid newsletter with flat fees, your own domain, and customization beyond a theme color.

[2] I am also not telling you not to do those things.

[3] I have occasionally cited a mainstream news source at face value. In these cases I am careful to only use it for illustrative purposes such that the quality of the piece as a whole does not hinge on the reliability of a single source.