How To Read The News

There are three main kinds of news that you might end up reading — and by the way, you might want to reflect on why I am confining myself to text media. The two important kinds are emergent phenomena that are of consequence (i.e. there will be sequelae with impact) and abnormal phenomena that have no consequence unless we are mad enough to assume that they are commonplace (i.e. they influence our actions when they shouldn’t). The third kind is quotidian phenomena with commonplace consequences (i.e. stuff like Arsenal beating Fulham 2-1 at home). I am not talking about opinion, debate, or argument; neither am I talking about advertising or humour of any kind.

When reading the news, what we should not do is react to it as if it required immediate action. The time for immediacy is past, and what ought to take place is rapid analysis based on as many data sources as you can get hold of.

Neither should we assume that what has happened is typical or commonplace. If it were, it would not be news material. What follows is a chain of loosely-linked paragraphs on what I thought about while I was reading the local news. It’s been modified a bit to protect the useless news organisation involved.

If a person is murdered five kilometres from you, but this has been only the fourth murder reported in a population of five million for the last 3 months, then you live in a pretty safe area. If murders are no longer reported, then either your population is incredibly safe or extremely dangerous, because the alternative is that murders are so common that they’re not worth reporting.

When I read about a person who has made $25m since she went bankrupt three years ago, my instinct is to say, “Good for her!” and not “I’m going to do what she did!” Why? Because that would entail me going bankrupt first and then suffering for three years, of course. (There is a direct parallel to those people who claim Biblical promises out of context.) Besides, this is not a normal occurrence. It can’t be.

When I read about North Korea firing missiles into South Korean territory, I don’t draw parallels between Israel and Lebanon, Pakistan and India, or Singapore and Malaysia. Would we draw parallels between the US and Mexico and the two Koreas? I think not. There is seldom any fitting parallel between events in one part of the world and another, unless extensive historical analysis shows extreme equivalence.

In fact, the larger the body of people involved, the more likely the equivalence, simply because of the statistical regression towards the mean for behaviour of large numbers of humans. So rough parallels between world-spanning empires can be drawn — but only if they have many points of similarity. So far, the best cultural fit is that between the Pax Romana and the Pax Britannica. Whether there is a Pax Americana with sufficient points of equivalence is disputable.

So how should we read the news? I will have to disappoint everyone by saying, “Sparingly and with a very ruthless eye. Most events reported have zero impact on readers, except to make them think they know what is happening in the world around them. And the TV news is worse.”


Original post here.

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