The No News Diet

Rolf Dobelli is an author, novelist (unfortunately it’s difficult to find non-German translations of his work), entrepreneur, and the founder of Zurich Minds. [1]  In 2010, he wrote a very provocative article titled “Avoid News”.  I have now read the article several times (slowly) and it inspired this essay response.  You can read this essay response even if you haven’t read Dobelli’s article, but I highly recommend reading the article before reading my response.

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In The Bed of Procrustes, the aphoristically elegant Nassim Taleb wrote:  “To bankrupt a fool, give him information.”  Rolf Dobelli shares this sentiment and claims that “news is to the mind what sugar is to the body”.  In other words, it’s toxic!

Depending on how one defines “news”, I absolutely agree with Dobelli.  However, I can’t help but notice that Dobelli never explicitly defined what “news” is in his piece — he certainly implicitly defined it — but there is ambiguity in this implied definition that needs to be resolved.  Nonetheless, I get his point and I don’t want to quibble over semantics.

Dobelli claims that “Most people believe that having more information helps them make better decisions.”  It’s not only important to point out that the people who hold this belief are wrong, but also that more information is sometimes better, but not always.  Sometimes more information can also make things worse.

In this vein, there is a particularly important idea that can be generalized.  Most people tend to believe that being proactive is better than doing nothing, but they fail to miss the point that action often, but certainly not always, makes things worse.  Much to your employers dismay, you may actually be a more valuable employee if you read essays on the Web all day than if you try to “make things better” at work.  This is because doing “nothing” generally does not cause harm. Despite the fact that I know this is true, I cannot in good faith recommend that you tell this to your boss because I don’t tell this to my boss (skin in the game).

When it comes to reading, I’ve come up with my own heuristic (i.e., a rule of thumb) to deal with the “news” problem Dobelli describes: when choosing what to read, make sure that it *is not* harming your intellectual health instead of trying to improve your intellectual health.  I find that most people follow the opposite strategy and thus I agree with Dobelli about the following: “Reading news to understand the world is worse than not reading anything.”

Is all “news” really as toxic as Dobelli suggests though?  The answer is certainly no.  Suppose, for instance, that you lived in Colorado Springs this past summer when the fires occurred there and that you followed Dobelli’s advice to the tee.  Also, suppose that all your neighbors did the same.  How would you have ever known when to evacuate your house?  Most “news” is probably worthless, but some “news” can be very valuable as is evidenced here.  It’s absolutely true, then, that not all “news” is of equal value.

I’m sure Facebook updates would fall into the category of “news” in Dobelli’s lexicon, but I cannot agree with him that all Facebook posts are worthless either.  Sure, some types of Facebook usage are harmful, but certainly not all.  I’ve developed a connection with many people who share important, interesting, and insightful things on Facebook — things that create value in my life.  However, too much of a good thing eventually becomes a bad thing, and the onus is on the individual to find that balance. [2]

Since I’ve come to the conclusion that not all “news” is inherently valuable or inherently worthless, I’m left to further conclude that what matters in today’s world is how you filter information.  However, filtering itself leads to a whole host of problems (e.g., confirmation bias) that could (and probably should) be addressed in a separate essay.

Despite the fact that I agree with Dobelli, I do believe that his position is a bit extreme (after-all, he uses a bold title that attracts attention much like many news articles do).  Like most things in life, not all “news” is bad.  Sure, most “news” is useless, irrelevant, or flat out wrong, but there are instances where I think “news” is valuable (the Colorado Springs fire example above).

Even though I know intellectually that not all “news” is bad, I sympathize with the gist of Dobelli’s argument because I also know that it’s easier to fast than diet.  Since all value is subjective, it’s important to remember that some people know things that aren’t worth knowing.  One of the beauties of life is that you get to decide what is.

Notes:

[1] His new non-fiction book The Art of Thinking Clearly will have an English edition.

[2] I think it’s healthy to take prolonged breaks from the Internet.  For this reason, I never take offense if someone misses something I post online that I think is important.

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