This could be the stupidest article The Guardian has ever published

I realise it’s up against some pretty stiff competition, stupid articles being pretty much The Guardian‘s stock-in-trade (or stocking trade, as they would probably mangle the phrase). But I genuinely think this may be the stupidest article they’ve ever printed.

The article is adapted from the website of one Rolf Dobelli, an alumnus of a small business university in Switzerland, who has a book to promote. The book is called The Art of Thinking Clearly. You may come to find this amusing.

In his Guardian article, Dr Dobelli is trying to argue that news is bad for us:

In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body.

Well, sugar is essential to the functioning of the body, since glucose is the means by which energy reaches our cells, and without it we die. So if news really is to the mind as sugar is to the body then that means news is essential to the functioning of the mind. This, clearly, is not the argument Dobelli was hoping to make – in fact, it’s the precise opposite of the argument he was hoping to make. Two sentences in, and already the clear-thought guru has failed to think through one of his own analogies. Oh, dear.

Undaunted, Dobelli continues,

News misleads. [...] A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges.

Some news media focus on the “human angle” to the exclusion of everything else, but not all news media will do so. Some news media will investigate why the bridge collapsed, will talk to structural engineers, will interview the people charged with maintaining the bridge, will dig out details of other bridges built to a similar design, and so on. So this is an argument to change your news supplier, not to abandon news altogether.

And if you were to avail yourself of what Dobelli describes as ‘the only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely’, how will you ever find out that there might be a structural problem affecting bridges in general? Dobelli himself argues that’s ‘relevant’, so the logical action is to find a news supplier who tells you what’s relevant, not to cut yourself off entirely.

Onwards:

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.

Who says that the only reason for reading the news is to make better decisions? Knowing what’s going on in the world is a good thing, in and of itself: it’s part of what it is to be a responsible citizen. And even if I’m as self-involved as Dobelli recommends, and only interested in news stories that will directly affect me, how do I find out about those news stories if I’m ignoring the news? If I follow Dobelli’s advice, I’ll be ignorant, and will have no way of knowing whether that ignorance will negatively impact me.

Then there’s this rather bizarre assertion:

The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age.

So not, say, humanity versus preventable disease and unnecessary death? Or the emerging BRIC countries versus the established G8? Or development versus conservation? Or religion versus rationalism? Or – well, the list could go on, but you get my point. It’s highly unlikely that the new versus the relevant will turn out to have been the fundamental battle of the current age. My guess is that in 100 years’ time no historian will even mention it.

Now Dobelli moves on to the relationship of news to business success:

Media organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. [...] In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage.

That will come as a shock to traders in the stock market. They think that a news story about, say, a worse than expected set of results at a listed company will affect its share price, and that traders who take up early positions on the basis of breaking news stories will be best placed to profit. It’ll come as news to them (oh, the irony!) that a less well-informed trader is at a competitive advantage. Alternatively, they might conclude that Dr Dobelli doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

What’s next?

If more information leads to higher economic success, we’d expect journalists to be at the top of the pyramid. That’s not the case.

That’s like saying, “If gold was valuable, we’d expect gold miners to be the wealthiest people in the world. They aren’t.” If miners owned the gold they dig out of the ground, they’d be rich; if journalists owned the information they gather, they’d be in a position to profit from it. That neither the journalist nor the miner – both of whom sell their labour – are wealthy does not indicate that gold and news are worthless commodities. All it indicates is that people who are directly involved in the production of a commodity are rarely those who profit most from it.

Next, Dr Dobelli wants us to know that news damages our brains:

The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. [...] It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.

I’ll leave it to neuroscientists to comment on this in detail, but one thing even I know is that the brain is plastic – it changes depending on how you use it. So the ability to read long articles or books will only atrophy if you don’t read long articles and books. A person who finds themselves unable to concentrate on a lengthy piece of reading is not a victim of something they’ve done (reading lots of news), but of something they haven’t done (reading at length).

Elsewhere in his article, Dr Dobelli expands on the idea that news damages our cognitive abilities:

things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas.

I wonder if Dr Dobelli has any evidence for the bold assertion that it’s their (supposed) ignorance that enables young people to think effectively? In the absence of any link to supporting evidence, I’m forced to note that this, what I guess we might call “empty mind”, theory of cognitive brilliance is strikingly similar to one that was memorably set out by Sherlock Holmes. But surely Dr Dobelli’s source for so central a concept can’t be a popular fictional detective?

Of course the other possibility is that Dobelli expected this to be interpreted as his evidence:

I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs.

Those sentences do follow directly on from the ones I quoted above, but as a passionate devotee of clear thought, not to mention a highly qualified academic, Dr Dobelli must realise that anecdotes are not data, and that the news-reading habits of his personal acquaintances can tell us nothing about news-reading habits in general. (That’s assuming the habits of his acquaintances are accurately recorded: the use of the term ‘a bunch’ does tend to suggest a certain lack of empirical rigour.)

Actually, I’m misrepresenting Dr Dobelli here. You see, he thinks that trying to understand the world in terms of data and facts is counterproductive:

Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted.

Well, someone should tell the scientists. They think that accumulating facts has literally transformed our collective understanding of the world. But it turns out they’re wrong, and actually we’d understand far more if they hadn’t bothered with any of their finicky fact-gathering. According to Dr Dobelli, if scientists had just put down the damn microscopes, we’d have cured cancer long ago.

Except, actually, it’s not just their interest in facts that’s led scientists astray. They’ve also been misled by their insistence that there’s such a thing as cause and effect:

Any journalist who writes, “The market moved because of X” or “the company went bankrupt because of Y” is an idiot. I am fed up with this cheap way of “explaining” the world.

Take those journalists who explained to their readers that the Challenger disaster was caused by the failure of a rubber component, and that the rubber failed because of extreme cold. Were they idiots? Or is it just journalists who follow Dr Dobelli’s earlier advice not to bother accumulating facts who should avoid saying why stuff happens?

If so, then I agree. Much better they leave it to people who haven’t followed Dobelli’s advice on ‘clear thinking’. Much better it should be left to people who still go through the tiresome business of accumulating evidence and drawing rational conclusions from it. They’re certainly much better placed to say why something happened than an acolyte of Dr Dobelli would be.

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3 Responses to This could be the stupidest article The Guardian has ever published

  1. Tom Flapwell says:

    Wow. There’s more truth in The Onion. I’ll never take The Guardian seriously again.

  2. franhunne4u says:

    Could not resist to test those theories on my (german language) blog some days ago.
    Isn’t a theory busted, when you find ONE example to the contrary, or am I wrongly informed (not a scientist myself)?
    I did not agree with a single one of his theories fully, only partly with one and disagreed completely with all the other points he made.
    For example creativity – being killed by news? When an author starts a story he/she usually thinks some development through that is already there. In the news. Drugs – Trainspotting.
    Dickens wrote his novels from the grim times he lived in. Those were in the news (plus, he lived them himself).
    Even Hollywood’s great minds use what is already there: The Day After Tomorrow – climate change news anyone?
    That point was easily dissolved. Or are Welsh, Dickens and Emmerich not creative???
    Indeed a stupid book by Dr. D.!Stupid article by the Graun?
    Now, that is unfair – they just represented the content of the book.
    Of course they could have destroyed the theories like you did (and like I tried) – but did I not see that book being sold in the Guardian bookshop? “Buy it for £7.99 at guardianbookshop.co.uk ”
    Honi soit …

  3. Pancakes says:

    I’m not going to defend Dobelli’s specific arguments but there are two big reasons for not consuming news. Dobelli doesn’t mention either of these which is surprising.

    Firstly, the news is usually wrong. Simple as that. On a basic, factual level, 90% of the facts stated in a news report turn out to be, on further investigation, wrong. I know this from first hand experience. At work we often send out press releases. We work hard on drafting those press releases, making sure that the facts are simple and comprehensible and relevant. But when it appears on the tv or in the papers, everything is mangled! It’s like head of a journalist is a machine for turning facts into nonsense.

    Whenever I see a news item on a subject I know a lot about, I can tell that 90% of the facts are wrong. So, many years ago I realised that the media are probably wrong about everything else too. In fact the only things I really read now in newspapers are opinions. Opinions are perhaps accurate, in the sense that the article reflects the writer’s actual opinion, to an extent. But facts are wrong.

    You know this yourself from the Radio 2 survey! – the “facts” reported in the media were that it was a vote on people’s favourite albums – but even that fact, on further investigation, turned out to be wrong.

    Second reason: news overwhelms people’s capacity to question things, just be sheer volume. If you read a Daily Mail article once in a while, you can see its political slant. You can question it, and laugh it off. But if you read all the articles in the Daily Mail, every day, for your life, your judgement gets screwed. It would be better if you consumed less.

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