Where do you get your information about the world from?
Newspapers? Facebook or Twitter? Radio or Podcasts?
I’m serious. Why are you getting your info from this source? This isn’t a trivial question, in fact, it is essential. Where you get your information determines your opinions and worldview, impacts your happiness, and influences your decision-making.
But I don’t have to tell you that. We live in the age of fake news and media distrust, do we not? You see the damage of ignorant or falsely opinionated people all the time on the news and social media… (oh the irony).
I myself recently bought some newspapers and weekly magazines, which for me was kind of an occasion because I have avoided any type of news publication for at least three years. It was a conscious decision back then, largely inspired by one of my favorite authors, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
He wrote in one of his books, and I’m paraphrasing here, that if some piece of news is important enough you’ll hear about it from other people. I aptly started to call this my “social filter” and refrained from touching a newspaper for about a month to see how it went.
It was great! I had more time on my hands, didn’t miss anything, and was less pessimistic about people and the world. I shouted “Experiment complete!” and invested the newly gained time into reading books.
So why the change of heart you may ask. Well for one, I try to re-evaluate my habits and opinions once in a while to see if I still agree with them. But the factor that kicked it off was that my reading list grew longer and longer both in books, blog articles, and newsletters. I simply couldn’t hold on to my illusion that one day I would read it all.
So I asked myself this fundamental question: What are good sources of information and knowledge?
To figure that out we’ve got to ask three questions:
- What goals are there for acquiring knowledge?
- What sources are there?
- What criteria differentiate the different sources and express the different goals?
The Quest: Turning Information into Knowledge
Before evaluating the different sources and mediums, one has to be clear about the goals. I see three goals for knowledge acquisition.
Being informed: This one is all about the feeling of being informed of knowing what is happening in the world. I don’t know where this originates or why we have this need. And it’s a fuzzy need to, after all, what does being informed even mean? It’s purely subjective and can’t really be measured. I think for many people it’s the ability to join and participate in the small talk at the water cooler. A keeping up with the Joneses if you will. So there is the social side, “I want to be seen as an informed and knowledgeable citizen”.
Further, there might be a biological side to it too. This is purely speculative, but I imagine that the feeling of being informed reduces our anxiety in light of the inevitable uncertainty of our world. We’re constantly on the lookout for potential dangers and risks to our lives, this is purely instinctual. How does uncertainty diminish? By knowing stuff. Hence, we are hardwired to look for information and updates to the status quo.
The second goal, I call it exploration, is strongly related to the first and describes our curiosity and thirst for understanding the world. It’s what drives a child to ask all those annoying questions and thousand “whys”. If this sounds very similar to the first goal I feel you, but I think the main difference is in the motive. While with the “being informed” goal we’re acting out of a place of anxiety, with the second one we’re driven by curiosity and exploration. The goal is to marvel at the world and how things function and a deep fascination with what I would call “play” - an aimless exploration of possibilities just for the fun of it.
The last one is practical. This one is drive by functionality and being able to do something. I want to learn to cook so I learn about everything cooking-related. Everything that helps you learn something tangible and specific that has a direct application in the world belongs to this category.
Personally, I have clear priorities in mind when it comes to these goals.
Being informed is definitely last because I don’t think it’s that important for me. First, I don’t need too much up-to-date knowledge in my field since it operates more in the realm of first principles and trends instead of day-to-day changes. And second, I don’t need to talk about the news in social settings - hell I don’t even want to. There are many more interesting things to talk about usually.
Curiosity is a big driver for me and I’d guess that most of my knowledge acquisition efforts go into this goal. I want to know more and gladly let myself be guided by my interests and curiosity.
On a close second, there is the practical knowledge acquisition. The importance of this fluctuates over time and sometimes I need to learn a specific skill, other times I just want to have an answer to a specific question.
So now that I know what I want to achieve, it’s time to see what tools there are for me to achieve it.
What makes the news the news?
This might be too meta but to figure out what good sources for our knowledge goals are, we’ve got to figure out what characteristics determine the mediums.
By asking yourself what makes the news the news, or a book, you quickly realize there are a few characteristics that define each one. This is probably something one can fight about, however, as long as the resulting characteristics reflect the main criteria for evaluating the medium we’re fine.
A few come to mind quickly:
- How current or up to date the information is
- Breadth vs. depth
- Information density
Others are less obvious:
If you’ve got any other criteria that are relevant for evaluating the mediums, please let me know.
Based on these we know can also list all the mediums that are distinctive based on these criteria:
- Daily newspapers
- Weekly magazines or newspapers
- Academic journals
Let me know if I forgot any.
Now to the juicy part.
Evaluation: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Let’s put this in a graph shall we?
Of course, all of this categorization and evaluation is subjective and highly dependent on the exact publication. Some newspapers might have less bias than others, there are books with more and less substance and hence depth, etc. In the end, you have to make your own evaluation. The above is based on my recent experience with those mediums.
For me, it quickly turned out that I should stay away from Newspapers, especially from daily issues since they have little depth and information density as well as a high noise-to-signal ratio. If I want to get up to date or read for pleasure, I should go for weekly publications.
Academic journals are performing well on my metrics, however, they’re just terrible to read and often quite expensive. Quality blog posts or podcasts with the authors of the individual papers are more enjoyable and give the same insight into the concepts and implications. If I read an academic publication, I’ll stick to the abstract and conclusion.
Books are an all-time favorite. It takes a lot of time and effort to compile a good book, hence, they often aren’t up to date and well thought out. Not being up to date might even be a good thing, since time often tells how good a book is. If it’s good it will still be around years from now.
Also, I try to stay away from the modern form of the “one-idea-book” where the author explains one concept and uses 300 pages to illustrate it with anecdotal examples and case studies.
Documentaries nowadays have more entertainment than informational value. There is little density there and one documentary often relies on a handful of scientific papers while eliminating the complexity that is often inherent in the topic.