A cautionary note on the heavy deluge of unnecessary knowledge that surrounds us.
Today the whole world is obsessed with the coronavirus and all of us are busy tuning into various sources of news to find out the latest ‘score’ and feel more depressed because there does not seem to be any light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Yet our instinct makes us monitor this virus for hours together and all discussions are on what various news reports say, which, when combined, creates a mountain of depression.
This is where Rolf Dobelli’s book, Stop Reading the News, makes a lot of sense. If you actually ask yourself, what exactly are we gaining from the deluge of news, the answer is ‘nothing really’. We may end up feeling knowledgeable, but feel down in spirit. Dobelli wrote this book before the virus came in, but his insights are quite amazing and after reading his views, the reader will actually spend time in a better manner being surrounded with positive feelings by reading a book or watching a movie or listening to music.
The author grew up picking up as much news as possible, and the thirst was so immense that with change in technology, he was able to gather even more free news that came through online mediums and the RSS feeds. Then one fine day he asked himself a personal question. By knowing so much of clutter do you understand the world better, and second, does it help you make better decisions? When the answers were not in the affirmative, he gave up reading news and instead spent time on what he liked doing.
His view is that selecting one or two credible sources of news is enough to know what has happened in the world of politics and business. It is better to read long articles than short ones and books and academic papers are knowledge-enriching. By doing so one’s attention span increases and one can concentrate better reading a long essay rather than a short piece, which is really not relevant for your life. Earthquakes somewhere in the world, divorces of celebrities, missile launch in Korea or ECB warning of recession are not really important in your life and one can do without such clutter that abounds the Internet particularly. He supports news sources that are not commercial and provide unbiased news which does not seek to influence your thinking and is more factual. He feels the Internet can be a labyrinth that confuses the reader or follower.
One can ask if news is really that bad? The author thinks it works up our mind over things we can do nothing about. For instance, if we do not like a PM or president, we get agitated when we can do nothing about it and hence a lot of negativity is created. If we are not interested in what happens on Mars, why should an earthquake or volcano in a distant land worry us? He strongly advocates what Warren Buffet called our ‘circle of competence’. Basically, we all have a fixed amount of absorption capacity in our mind and if it is filled with junk, and there is less space to retain other things important in life.
Now there are some interesting maxims that he puts forward where the reader cannot have any quarrel. Let us look at some of them. First news gets risk assessment wrong. Our system reacts disproportionately to scandalous and sensational news, which the creators of news exploit. Too much news can make us lose long-time focus. More importance to negative news can be toxic for us. News can also produce fake fame. We read so much on celebrities who do not matter, but know little about people who made a difference to world health, like Donald Henderson who wiped out small pox.
It is a book to be read in these times of Covid-19, as the sheer amount of information and theories going around, many of them inaccurate from unreliable sources, leaves us confused and misguided.
Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings.