Friday, January 18, 2008

Why I Don't Watch the News

Or at least I try not to. Here is why.

The stories reported are predominantly events that happened that day or the day or two before. So much that happens on a daily basis ultimately amounts to nothing. In statistical terms, the vast majority of news is nothing more than random noise. Many stories that have tremendous fanfare attached (a Hillary Clinton campaign stop in Iowa) or that have some supposed psychological impact (crude oil rising to $100 per barrel) are in the great scheme of things pure random noise. If so much news is just random noise, why clutter my brain with it?

It is also obvious that newscasters have no background in statistics, probability, or maybe even rationality. On January 3, a local weatherman in Waco showed a table listing average rainfall year to date (that is for 2008) and current rainfall year to date. According to this table, we were already 0.14 inches behind for the year. One problem though. You can't make statistical arguments based on a sample size of three days! Showing such a figure was nothing short of pointless and lent itself to misinterpretation. Some basic statistics and probability training would do wonders for news coverage. I'm not holding my breath that it happens.

I believe George Will was the first to say this, but I'm not sure: It is not news when planes land safely. The only time planes are in the news is when they skid off the runway, have engine trouble mid flight, the pilot is drunk or they crash. Over long travel distances you are much safer travelling by air than my automobile, but you would never guess it my watching the news. Once again, a statistics and probability lesson would do wonders.

I mean this in the best possible way: reporters are ignorant. Their sphere of knowledge, just like mine or yours, is severely limited. However, they report on a wide variety of topics in which they can't have more than a cursory understanding. An example: a reporter did a story on the troubles facing a municipal water company. She reported that the water pump was buried so many feet in the ground. Buried implies that the pump is covered by several yards of dirt. But water pumps are not buried, they're covered and fairly easily removed by a mechanical lift with no movement of dirt required. And this is just an example of a silly mistake that I happened to catch. I shudder to think about how many mistakes I miss due to my ignorance of the topic. How many fallacies and erroneous facts abound because reporters don't realize their ignorance?

Since I've more or less stopped watching the news, I am not one bit less informed and my mind is not cluttered with meaningless garbage (Britney Spears). I get a great deal of news off the Internet which allows me to filter out the random noise and instantly check facts if something sounds fishy or if I just want more information. Plus there are non journalists (economists, lawyers, political scientists, mathematicians, you name it) all over the Net who share their specialized knowledge via blogs. I've gotten to the point where I trust a Tyler Cowen or a Michael Barone more than a Brian Williams or Charles Gibson because Cowen and Barone have well known specialities (economics and politics, respectively) and stick to them while Williams and Gibson report on everything from the environment to consumer trends to a UFO in Stephenville. (By the way, what would aliens be doing in Stephenville? I could make a bad joke along the lines of "They can't be looking for intelligent life" but I will refrain from doing so.) I've found that Cowen and Barone will admit their ignorance on any given topic. I'm not sure Williams, Gibson or their type would.

So from what I've discovered, one of the best things you can do for your health, your sanity, and the world (aside from only using one piece of toilet paper per trip) is to stop watching the news.

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