How to Interpret Information in an Infinite Knowledge World
If you know me in person or follow me on Twitter, you know that I’m a pretty voracious reader. Having been like this for quite a while now, I have developed an approach on how I interpret information. This includes both news and books; temporary and permanent knowledge.
Despite years of stagnation, Twitter remains by far my favorite social network. It gives you a glimpse into the head of another person; what they read and how they spend their time. A lot of hush hush watercooler conversations are actually public on Twitter, if you follow the right people. That said, there is also an incredible amount of noise, most of which can be safely ignored (e.g. politics Twitter, where facts go to die).
When I browse my timeline, I try to remind myself of an old idea someone told me a while back (unfortunately I do not remember who that someone was). That idea is as follows. Imagine how much work goes into writing a book. Often times, the author has years of requisite knowledge (it’s common to write your first book at 50 — 70 years old), puts in countless hours of research, and has a publisher fact check the results. Obviously not all books go through this rigorous process, but the best ones certainly do. Now think about the process of writing a tweet. Perhaps the person has years of knowledge, but it’s unlikely she put in hours into thinking and fact checking the tweet. That wouldn’t be practical. Think about that next time you retweet something you like. How much thought do you think went into it, and is it actually factually correct? I don’t know about you, but my most popular tweets have been those I’ve posted after midnight, usually around my 3rd or 4th glass of wine. Twitter is fun, but don’t treat every tweet as gospel.
So we’ve established it takes a few seconds to post a tweet. What about to publish a news article or a blog post? Not every news outlet can be like The New Yorker and give the author months or years of investigative journalism before he hits publish. Or this post. I’ve thought about this topic for a while now, and even did some light research too, but who fact checked it except me? It would be hypocritical of me not to say proceed with caution, even with my own writing!
Now, here is another trope I use, this time when I read news. A while back I was reading a Wall Street Journal article about some accounting standards a company misapplied. Now, it just so happened to be that I was just learning about that very same accounting standard in school, and my professor was a former partner at a big accounting firm — a subject matter expert. You might see where I’m going with this. The Wall Street Journal writer had the facts totally wrong! Not only did he apply the incorrect accounting standard, but he also misunderstood the standard he misapplied (if only two wrongs made a right?). The writer wasn’t a bad guy; he was simply given a topic he hadn’t much experience in. The WSJ is for the most part an excellent source of financial news, but even they make mistakes. Hiring a CPA to fact check every news article is impractical, and besides, even a CPA doesn’t know about every new accounting standard.
The only reason I caught this mistake was because I just happened to be studying that exact same topic by an expert in the field. Unless you were also an expert in this topic, you probably took the whole thing as fact. And who could blame you, why should you know better about advanced accounting standards? Think about that next time you’re reading about a topic you are otherwise clueless about. Is it possible the author is writing beyond his subject matter expertise? Probably.
There were 304,912 books published and republished only in the United States in 2013. I will eat my shoe (Allen Edmonds uses good, tough leather, so I strike a fair dare) if each of these books were actually any good. What is a good book, anyway? For purposes of this post, a good book is one that is factually correct not today, but in the short to medium term future. On an infinite timescale, every knowledge book will be factually incorrect because we will discover new things that we did not know at the time of writing. The goal of reading a book today, then, is for the information contained within it to be useful in your life (20 — 80 years).
What further complicates things is that out of the millions of books published every year, few will be great, many will be good, and the majority will be a waste of your time. How then, should you choose what to read when the constraining resource is time? In the past, I’ve used Google, GoodReads, and countless other book review websites to help me separate the good recent books from the bad. But what I’ve noticed is some good books became bad books as time went on. Reviews slowly went from four and a half stars to four, and then even to three stars in the span of a few years as the ‘facts’ presented in the books turned to actually be opinions.
Rather than trust reviews of modern day books, I’ve found another process that eliminates hype and filters for the best books: time. For the most part, I now read books that are still well-received at least ten years after they were published. What this tells me is the information contained in the book stood the test of time (Another fun exercise: take a look at your tweets from two months ago and cringe in absolute horror from all the things you got wrong). A book that was published fifty years ago and is still read today tells me it’s a book with lasting content. If it’s a business or investing book (which are notoriously trendy) that lasted that long, you can be sure it’s got long lasting nuggets of wisdom. The last thing you want to spend your time on is reading ephemeral books — that’s the definition of a waste of time.
Books (and art, music, and all other knowledge content) are derivative instruments of prior work repackaged to the taste of modern times. I was watching a season of Dexter a few years ago, and I thought the episode finale was very well done, original, and downright chilling. A character that we were lead to believe is dead actually turned out to be alive, and not only that, but the true murderer in the case. A short time later I watched Psycho, a classic Alfred Hitchcock film from 1960, that essentially uses the same premise of assumed-dead-but-actually-isn’t to even greater chilling effect. In short, Dexter copied Psycho, which I bet you copied something else from a time before that. What’s old is new again; original wouldn’t exist to a person who has seen all of history.
Summing it all up
We live in a time where an almost infinite source of information is thrown at you. That makes it really hard to know what to spend your time on. The internet has also made it incredibly simple and free to publish ideas, lowering the standard of quality to the substandard. The above themes help me cope with the abundance of information, and I hope they will to you as well.