The post-fact era of information anarchy has caused many people to be overwhelmed with useless and misleading information. That is causing us collectively and individually to make more irrational and destructive decisions, e.g. see the posts Has Your Mind Become Infected, When Distraction Becomes Catastrophic, Lulz Rules. Consequently, concentration and focus are becoming increasingly valuable faculties for maintaining a semblance of equanimity and increasing the effectiveness of personal time-management and productivity.
One means of sharpening focus that I have read about recently in the works of Nassim Taleb seems to work, at least on a personal basis it has. That is, training oneself to differentiate ‘noise’ from ‘signal.’ Signal is the message of a communication – the substance of what one is invited to consider. ‘Noise’ is the carrier wave it rides in on often jazzed up to jar your wits, have your emotion override your reason, or is just plain alarming distraction. We most often see ‘noise’ in the form of appeals to emotion rather than to intellect or understanding. Emotion does and should play a role in the weight we give to data. But, when emotion is overemphasized and manipulated to override reason and interject deception, irrationality and worse results. In the past year in the US we have seen an unprecedented level of appeals to passion, prejudice, and particularly to anger (by both sides of the political spectrum). It has served in lieu of important issue education and understanding to influence decision-making. The noise to message ratio across established media and social media has risen to absurd levels in favor of emotional prejudice over intellect. Practice noticing the distinction between signal and noise and you might find that many ‘messages’ themselves are nothing more than ‘noise’.
More means of recognizing and rationally evaluating message before getting distracted in and unduly influenced by time-consuming and potentially destructive noise is covered in Nobel prize recipient Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. One way is to learn to be wary of experts, particularly in the fields of politics and social sciences. Kahneman cites to clinical studies that evaluated the prediction reliability of the most commonly touted experts increasingly populating news and current events shows – those sitting on panels telling us how to view matters. Their long-term prediction success rates are well below 50% accurate when actually studied. In other words your chances of making correct decisions based on raw information – without relying on those ostensibly more qualified to make them for you – are better than if you waste a lot of time listening to those paid to tell you how to think. Taleb goes into this phenomenon in a lot more detail in his books as it pertains to economics and politics.
Kahneman provides more information that can serve as another handy index. That is, studies have shown that – no matter how counter-intuitive it may seem – often the more absolutism and unyielding certainty an expert asserts or excudes, the less likely his predictions will be accurate.
Another useful noise-detection tool is contained in Kahneman’s book where he covers the ‘availability cascade.’ Here is a short section where he defines the term and describes the pitfall which capitalizes on the human tendency to follow like sheep:
An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports or a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by “availability entrepreneurs”, individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile: anyone who claims the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a “heinous cover-up.” The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.
It is not difficult to spot availability entrepreneurs if you apply some of the tips covered above. An increasing percentage of ‘news’ online and on television is reporting on the reactions to ‘news’ and then reactions to reactions, and reactions to reactions to reactions, and having those reactions evaluated by experts, etc. If one could teach oneself to spot such and to identify availability entrepreneurs, one could be spared a lot of time, anguish and potential grief. And one might even wind up being a little bit smarter and happier.