Monthly Archives: December 2014

Clever & still stupid

A wonderful article over on Scientific American Mind outlines “dysrationalia,“* a term coined by the author, Keith E. Stanovich, and the differences between being intelligent and acting rationally. In other words, it’s about clever people doing stupid things. IQ is an inadequate measure of our capacity for idiocy.

“It is useful to get a handle on dysrationalia and its causes because we are beset by problems that require increasingly more accurate, rational responses. In the 21st century, shallow processing can lead physicians to choose less effective medical treatments, can cause people to fail to adequately assess risks in their environment, can lead to the misuse of information in legal proceedings, and can make parents resist vaccinating their children. Millions of dollars are spent on unneeded projects by government and private industry when decision makers are dysrationalic, billions are wasted on quack remedies, unnecessary surgery is performed and costly financial misjudgments are made.”

Much of the crux of dysrationality comes down to how we allocate our energy for thinking. Most of us default to being “cognitive misers,” in that we often allocate less resources to fully think through more complex problems and, as a result, get the wrong answer.Thinking rationally also requires the right “tools”: “[R]ules, data, procedures, strategies and other cognitive tools (knowledge of probability, logic and scientific inference) that must be retrieved from memory to think rationally,” Stanovich notes.

Look through the test questions he gives, and wonder at your inability to think deeply. I still can’t get my head around the one about the bat and ball cost.


* I’ll also be using this as the name for my metal band.

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Distance diagnostics

Interesting post over on Mindhacks about “celebrity analysis,” or the practice of diagnosing from afar the state of mind or mental issues of people in the spotlight. The post covers some interesting history about how those professional standards arose.

I’ve come across this in my job as an editorial page editor — a columnist wanted to argue that a certain public official was a sociopath — and argued against it. If mental health professionals are discouraged from doing it, how much more so should we have safeguards against the average journalist making those assessments? Even more egregiously, those diagnoses are conducted based on the flimsiest of familiarities, without any personal, intimate knowledge of the diagnosee.

Horrifying. And, in my opinion, potentially libelous, like referring to someone as “crazy” in print. And we all want to avoid a defamation lawsuit.

Frankly, the field of psychiatry is deeply complex, often defies common sense and isn’t easily encapsulated by know-nothing laymen with access to a search field on WebMD.com and a copy of the DSM V. Those without the proper training in mental health shouldn’t be making diagnoses any more than a journalist should do brain surgery.

Broad but not deep: An argument for becoming a news consumer

One of my biggest concerns about the Internet is how the immediate and relentless access to information — both received passively and sought out actively — has dampened our discriminative abilities.

Less prosaically — the batteries in our bullshit detectors are dead. Or if not dead, drained from constant overuse.

“The great irony of our time is that there is more information available at our fingertips than anytime in human history, but less and less confidence in that information. Rather than being better informed because of the proliferation of easily available information, studies show news consumers are less informed on key issues of public policy.”

That’s from a June 2014 paper by the Brookings Institute’s James Klurfeld and Howard Schneider, “News Literacy: Teaching the Internet Generation to Make Reliable Information Choices.” In brief, the paper talks about Stony Brook University’s decision (from an idea of Howard Schneider, the dean of the University’s School of Journalism) to create a “news literacy” course in 2006 “aimed at educating the next generation of news consumers on how to make reliable news and information choices.” Hahaha, I would have said at the time. Good luck.

I love the idea of teaching news literacy, although I have the slightly uneasy feeling that it is a skill parents should really be passing along to their children by example, rather than something introduced at the college level*.

Children of a certain generation — like, ahem, my own and those older than I — soaked up news literacy osmotically by watching our parents watch TV news and read papers. I fondly remember sitting with my grandfather through the afternoon’s news on BBC 1 (we didn’t subscribe to any papers). Of course, the pre-Internet outlets for information were much fewer, more trusted and much, much better funded, and there was much more of it. So, while we may not have learned the critical skills of dissecting news content, many of us learned to appreciate it, because adults we emulated and looked up to appreciated it. We also didn’t have much choice. A lack of selection forced us to engage with the news.

Now we spend a large and increasing majority of our time online primarily looking for something to entertain and otherwise distract us.** Being informed, i.e., being a discriminating reader of news, is part of being a responsible member of society. I could launch here into a disparate analysis of why having this information makes us more rounded people, or how it helps us define our ethical values, or how it widens our perspective, but that could consume another thousand words, and this post is long enough as it is. Suffice to say, these are valuable skills that will benefit you in every area of your life.

From the Brookings report on Stony Brook, Richard Hornik, a faculty member, who will be teaching news literacy in China:

“The ability of the next generation of citizens to judge the reliability and relevance of information,” he says, “will be a leading indicator of the public health of civil societies around the world.”

Reading attentively and critically is tough to do. It’s work. It takes time not all of us have.

Like diet, we’re hard-wired for the easily obtainable sugary treats, and Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr and Twitter provide them in excess, especially when we’re tired. We prize convenience — the easy option — and are averse to the work of carving out the precious time to plan our meals and set aside time for the gym, even though the benefits are clearly proven. On the flip side, we’re reluctant to engage with information that may challenge what we think, or may enrage or depress us.

Like a side of steamed broccoli, we may only ever brush up against the long-chain carbs of real news by accident when a headline shows up in our newsfeeds posted by one of our friends. We may even comment on it.

(I’m kicking myself for not saving the link, but I did read somewhere (probably on Facebook) that most people who comment under linked articles posted to Facebook never actually bother to click through and read them. It might have been NPR, now that I think about it. Whatever. The point is that even when we see news, we brush right past it.)

As I’ve written before, (In the Land of the One-Eyed Men, a title that would be equally applicable for this post) the Internet is impacting our ability to concentrate. Our attention spans are becoming shorter. And it’s a vicious cycle — the more we read Buzzfeed’s top 10 reasons and other listicles, the more we’ll want to read Buzzfeed’s pablum. We’ll read and continue to read, almost certainly, especially if that reading engages and entertains us. But the consequences for long-form journalism — and at this point I mean anything over 500 words — are dire. Why? Because the information we often most need to be informed isn’t that entertaining. I mean, I could write several hundred words on the importance of exceeding maintenance of effort funding in Frederick County schools, for instance, but unless I can somehow tie it to “A group of shirtless guys remade Beyonce’s 7/11 while stuck in a snowstorm,“*** or you’re in the school system, it’s unlikely you’ll take the time to understand it.

It’s a vicious cycle. We only look at the information that entertains us, so information media provides us with the information that entertains us, and so we circle the bowl ever downward. We become less attuned to what’s important, and media providers are less likely to provide meaningful information because it doesn’t get eyeballs.

Thus, we become more and more misinformed, even though we believe that because of our knowledge grazing, we’re not.

How much so? Let’s return to the Brookings report for a second:

“A University of Maryland study of voter knowledge in the 2010 congressional elections conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org found voters substantially misinformed on issues from the impact of the stimulus economic package to whether scientists believe climate change is occurring to President Obama’s birthplace, to cite just a few examples. Said the report: ‘Voters misinformation included beliefs at odds with the conclusion of government agencies, generally regarded as non-partisan, consisting of professional economists and scientists.’ … The survey also reflected a widespread perception of bias in the media that has too often poisoned any reasonable dialogue on the difficult issues of our times.”

Here’s the point: Evolving — becoming better versions of ourselves — takes constant work, constant diligence, and it’s not, as the self-help genre would have us believe, all that easy. At some point, though, we have to make the decision that despite our crowded schedules, we’re not going to settle for the status quo — to go on that diet, sign up for a gym membership, refuse that donut our coworker so thoughtfully provided. We do this because we hope for a better future.

We have to train ourselves to want that news, to seek it out, and when we find it, engage with it in a meaningful way.

Being informed takes an act of willpower. One must commit to it.

So, what I propose is this: Pick a newspaper, any newspaper. A proper paper copy, not a digital subscription or free website version. Why? Because you won’t be tempted down the Internet rabbit hole by all the inline links, and because a printed newspaper, while never absolutely accurate, is about as reliably vetted as it can be. Carve out 20 minutes every morning — 10, if you really have to — lay out the paper at your dining room table, and read the front page. Flip to the inside past the jump. Trust me, just doing this will make you a better-informed person.

If you’re really serious about it, like me. get a pen and underline the important bits. Seriously, I do this. It helps me focus.

Get used to doing that. Then find another newspaper. Read that, too. Before you know it, you’ll be a news junky.

(Lifehacker has some great suggestions for the mechanics of reading to become informed — maybe too many. You don’t have to be that tightly wound about it.)


* Universities, colleges and other bastions of higher education are, of course, often the first time students are exposed to subject matter that requires deep, analytical thought, of which news literacy is a subset.

** Fun fact. According to Nielsen’s 2013 Social Media report, a third of 18 to 34 years olds were on social media sites while using the bathroom. Whether the majority were during No. 1s or No. 2s was not researched.

*** If you clicked through to that link, get the fuck off my blog.

**** It’s probably cheaper _and_ more effective than a Luminosity membership.