What information should we consume?

This is my second “Ted talk”.  Ted asked:

How do you fight against selection bias as you consume information about the world?

One answer is to read “everything”, as does Tyler Cowen.

But you may not have the time, in which case I’d focus on a “diverse” set of reading material. This means much more than avoiding ideological bias (although that’s important too.)

1.  Read material on both sides of the ideological spectrum, indeed on many different sides.  I subscribe to three magazines, which represent three different ideological perspectives.  (NYR of Books, The Economist, Reason.)  I also spend a lot of time reading the NYT, WSJ, FT, WaPo, National Review, Bloomberg, South China Morning Post, Yahoo and lots of other outlets—mostly online.  Don’t let your ideological bias affect how you view a news outlet.

2.  Avoid geographic bias.  It’s almost inevitable that you’ll be biased toward your own country (I’m no exception), but push back against that bias.  Try to read lots of news about other countries.  Don’t focus on the countries that the news media considers important; focus on what’s actually important.  For instance, a few decades ago I decided to stop reading about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  I’d had enough.  It’s not that the conflict is not important; it is.  Rather it’s not as important as the news media (on both sides of the issue) assumes it to be.  There’s no objective reason why you would want to pay more attention to the Palestinians than to the plight of Muslim minorities in western Burma, northwest China, or some other region. (One exception is if you are Palestinian or Jewish, or in the case of Northern Ireland, if you are Irish.)

3.  Read about a wide range of topics.  I just read a book about psychedelics, and I now realize that prior to reading the book I knew almost nothing about the subject. That was because I had little interest in the topic, and had never really paid attention.  While reading Michael Pollan’s book I found some interesting material on a wide range of topics, such as mental health, meditation, drug laws, consciousness, the culture of Silicon Valley, etc.  Indeed the book might even be of some interest to a person who has absolutely no interest in LSD.  The book’s main flaw is that it focuses too much on the US (see previous point.)  My next book (on the Great Recession) has the same problem.

4.  Most non-economists assume that economics is the field that studies the economy.  In fact, it would be more accurate to describe economics as a certain way of thinking about the world.  (Think of the joke, “Economics is about how people make choices; sociology is about how people don’t have any choice.”)  If you are an economist you should occasionally look at other social sciences, so that you can examine alternative ways of thinking about problems.

5.  Read lots of fiction.  One of our biases is to put too much weight on our own life experience, and not enough on the life experience of others, especially people from different cultures.  Reading fiction helps us to overcome that bias.  Good films are also helpful, especially when they are not too political.  Books or films with obvious messages are likely to have oversimplified the issue.  (The film “Three Identical Strangers” is a recent example.)  Films where the message is less obvious (say The Death of Lazarescu) are often ones with the more important implications. It’s become a cliche that fiction is often truer than non-fiction.

6.  Read extremely smart bloggers, not people you agree with.  Read people who annoy you.  Paul Krugman has a way of writing that many conservatives and libertarians find to be quite annoying. But he’s still a very bright intellectual who often has interesting things to say.  Ditto for Brad DeLong. I often come across commenters who say, “I don’t see why everyone thinks X is such a genius.”  If you don’t understand why everyone thinks X is such a genius, then it’s likely the problem is with you, not X.

7.  Try to double-check both sides of the story.  If the liberal media describes some conservative outrage, see what the conservative media says about the same event before forming an opinion.  Vice versa if the conservative media describes some liberal outrage.  If necessary, check the moderate media, defined as outlets that frequently criticize both sides.  Also check data sources.  One of my comparative advantages is that I know the data better than most other people. I often read posts by people who are smarter than me, and immediately notice that they are citing implausible data.  Either they made a mistake or their data source was unreliable.  For instance, almost all of the media stories on the richest people who ever lived are based on completely false data.

8.  On the other hand, I don’t know if it’s worthwhile for most people to read as many data sources as I do.  I have an unusually good memory for data and an unusually bad memory for names and other forms of verbal information.  So I’m not typical.

9.  You should occasionally change your media outlets.  After a while you’ll have gotten most of the insights you can expect from any given source, so try a different outlet. Yes, that means TheMoneyIllusion long ago reached the point of diminishing returns. (I don’t do very well following this advice—indeed I probably should have shifted from reading blogs to twitter, but I’m lazy.)

10.  Try to avoid TV news, except perhaps to get a sense of the zeitgeist.  If you consume too much TV then you become a part of the zeitgeist, i.e., a part of the problem.

11.  Travel is another good source of information.  If you travel to China and speak with the people you meet, it might give you a very different view of the country than what you get reading about China in the US media.  I know it did for me.  Travel makes you realize that countries are very complex, not the sort of cartoonish vision you get from the mainstream media.

12.  If you are a macroeconomist then read the pre-war macroeconomists, such as Keynes, Fisher, Cassel and Hawtrey.  Learn about time series data over the past 100 years, not just since WWII.  Read Keynesians, monetarists, and other perspectives as well.

13.  Podcast interviews can provide a perspective that one might not get by simply reading some material written by the interviewee.

14.  When you read articles about social science research, treat the findings as an interesting hypothesis, not settled science.  Much of it does not replicate.

15.  Talk to average people, especially when you travel.  And remember, there are no average people.  Frame questions carefully.  Thus don’t ask if people like Trump, ask what they like and don’t like about him.

PS.  I’m actually not very well read in literature, philosophy, history, etc.  So do as I say, not as I do.



23 Responses to “What information should we consume?”

  1. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    3. September 2018 at 16:26

    Sounds like good advice. I think being on Twitter and following a diverse range of people is an ok shortcut to following it. I have found much food for thought from the perspectives I have found on Twitter, most of which I wouldn’t have bothered discovering if I had to read more than a few lines of text – plus interactions (eg Nick Rowe and David Andolfatto)- and the odd link.

  2. Gravatar of Matthew Moore Matthew Moore
    3. September 2018 at 16:39

    Frequency is crucial.

    The marginal value of ‘news’, day by day, is close to zero. Read weekly summaries (or daily briefings, if your peers expect up to date knowledge). Keeping up to date with RSS feeds of news sources is to information as Facebook is to friendship (high on dopamine, low on satisfaction).

    Instead, focus on articles that are long form, or otherwise about trends, patterns or levels. Events are mostly noise. The Economist is pretty good at this, as are many monthly magazines and some podcasts.

  3. Gravatar of Patrick R Sullivan Patrick R Sullivan
    3. September 2018 at 19:12

    IOW, don’t be a wimp like David Remnick (and his pals);


    The New Yorker joins the growing list of news organizations that have reversed their decision to engage with conservatives after a public outcry. In April, the Atlantic magazine announced its decision to cut ties with Kevin Williamson, a conservative political commentator, after critics called attention to previous statements that likened abortion to a capital crime. The New York Times reversed its decision to hire Quinn Norton, a libertarian technology writer, as an op-ed columnist after her critics pointed out that Ms. Norton used slurs against gay people on Twitter and called attention to her friendship with a white supremacist.

    Mr. Bannon left the White House last year shortly after giving an interview to the American Prospect magazine in which he dismissed the potential for military action in North Korea, a position that then ran counter to Mr. Trump’s public positions.

    In an interview with the New York Times before he reconsidered his decision to invite Mr. Bannon, Mr. Remnick promised “a serious and even combative conversation.” He struck a similar note in his memo to staff Monday evening, noting that Mr. Bannon’s status as a newsmaker makes him a worthy interview subject, especially given his influence on the election of President Trump.

  4. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    3. September 2018 at 21:03


    Since you brought it up, Twitter allows for twice as many characters-per-post now, and sometimes you can fall into good discussions about economics. For good monetary policy discussions, for example, following Andolfatto, Beckworth, Self in, Stephen Williamson, etc. often exposes one to good discussions.

  5. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    4. September 2018 at 04:17

    I have to search far and wide to confirm my biases. Broad reading is encouraged, like mining for nuggets.

  6. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    4. September 2018 at 06:32

    #9 is true and a bit sad. I have learned so much from you. Thanks.

    P.S. Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson had some very good conversations in Toronto recently.

  7. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    4. September 2018 at 06:53

    I read only TMI. You get the best TDS there. And quite some MM.

  8. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    4. September 2018 at 09:59

    “I’m actually not very well read in literature, philosophy, history, etc. So do as I say, not as I do.” Some of your readers will do well to reject this advice. Becoming well read is a full-time job; one’s comparative advantage may lie elsewhere.

  9. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    4. September 2018 at 10:09

    I think you underestimate the value of reading writers with whom one generally agrees. When I do so, I often find slight differences in our views. The result is usually either that I correct some small error I was making, or that I can offer a correction to some small error that the (generally like-minded) writer was making. Either way, the result is worth while.

  10. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    5. September 2018 at 08:43

    “One answer is to read “everything”, as does Tyler Cowen.”

    You don’t. He doesn’t. I do (except books, which is the main flaw of my reading patterns).



    “Avoid geographic bias.” “push back against that bias”

    Says a man who reads zero Russian sources. I strongly recommend A. Karlin’s blog, which I’m sure will be to your liking.

    “Paul Krugman has a way of writing that many conservatives and libertarians find to be quite annoying. But he’s still a very bright intellectual who often has interesting things to say. Ditto for Brad DeLong.”

    Both are hacks and liars. I do suggest reading very smart people who aren’t hacks and don’t lie, like Pseudoerasmus, Branko Milanovic, Nate Cohn, U.S. Election Atlas’s MT Treasurer, and Xenocryptsite.

    “Reading fiction helps us to overcome that bias.”

    I suggest old travelogues.

    “Try to double-check both sides of the story.”

    Good idea. But you don’t do it. Read the Occidental Dissent, for instance, to read a White Nationalist perspective. Read the Red Kahina Twitter account to get a Stalinist perspective.

    10. is unquestionably good advice.

    9. is true. But blogs are unquestionably better than Twitter in their formatting, which is why it’s probably a good thing you keep using this medium.

    14. and 15. is good advice.

    I also fit the PS.

    “Travel makes you realize that countries are very complex, not the sort of cartoonish vision you get from the mainstream media.”

    And yet, you believe Russia is Mordor.

  11. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    5. September 2018 at 08:49

    Oh, and I also recommend following Michael Tracey, Glenn Greenwald, David Shor, MDLiberalDude, etc. due to their tendency for correct counter-zeitgeist takes.

  12. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    5. September 2018 at 09:56

    Russia is not Mordor because Mordor is hot at least.

  13. Gravatar of Anon Anon
    6. September 2018 at 09:28

    Do not switch from blogs to Twitter. I did it, found it to be much worse, but can’t switch back because outrage is addictive

  14. Gravatar of Anon Anon
    6. September 2018 at 12:13

    Largely agree with all here save for this: I do NOT (and admit this could well be because of me) see why Krugman is admired. I do not see intelligence. I see hipshot, scattershot, foolish and not well-thought out blasts that much more often than not are proven wrong and FEEL wrong literally every time I read him.

    And I do not feel this way about a thinker such as, say, Chomsky, with whom I rarely agree but in him I CAN see that he is a deep thinker.

    Krugman is just a hack.

  15. Gravatar of luiz eduardo cruz luiz eduardo cruz
    6. September 2018 at 13:28

    great advice! thanks!

  16. Gravatar of P. Binder P. Binder
    6. September 2018 at 14:06

    You didn’t mention a time bias.

  17. Gravatar of miles jacob miles jacob
    6. September 2018 at 16:10

    from the nyrb to the economist to reason? find some sources that don’t reflexively worship liberalism and instrumental rationality!

  18. Gravatar of Today's Good Reads – 07 September 2018 – The Daily Muse Today's Good Reads - 07 September 2018 - The Daily Muse
    7. September 2018 at 06:49

    […] How To Parse the Noise (Money Illusion) […]

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. September 2018 at 09:43

    Anon, If smart people believe North Vietnam is more democratic than the US, and that the US is the source of all evil in the world, then I’d rather be a hack.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. September 2018 at 09:43

    Miles, Didn’t I list the National Review?

  21. Gravatar of Tony Crowell Tony Crowell
    7. September 2018 at 10:44

    The quality of my reading shot up after I started keeping a spread sheet of the books I read. This quickly showed that I was spending too much time on “thrillers” and encouraged me to go back to books i read years ago.

    What made this fun was that I graded them on a scale of 1 to 5. After a few months, the only “5” went to Orwell’s “1984”. I was surprised how much plot and character there was. This led to revisiting Hemmingway and discovering that I had never read “Farewell to Arms.” I thought it was another war story but it is, of course, a love story in time of war. Now, I’m enjoying [!] “Human Bondage.”

  22. Gravatar of Charles Carter Charles Carter
    7. September 2018 at 17:18

    Seems to be good advice. I think I do meat of these already, which leads me to wonder if most people with an interest in staying informed don’t believe likewise. So how accurate is our self-assessment?

  23. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    10. September 2018 at 13:21

    16. Focus on making modest inferences from reliable statistics, not strong inferences from interesting stories. For example, The Economist’s statistics page can tell you an awful lot about the world that is important but typically not a “good story” to feature in the rest of the journal.

    17. For speculation, look at markets, where people at least have some skin in the game and are voting with their wallets. The TIPS spread is gold, except in the sense of being an economic signal, where it’s much better than gold.

    Most news/analysis/popular intellectual work is entertainment. Statistics are a mix of propaganda and information, but they can be great if you know how to interpret them. And markets are brilliant; someone should work out a way to use them for monetary policy…

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