Does Reading the Newspaper Actually Make You Smarter?

For the last few years I’ve toyed with the idea of instituting a policy of total current-events abstinence. No newspapers, no blogs, no BBC World, at least for a few weeks. I’d still read, but I’d devote my time to history, economics and science. You know, looking at the world with binoculars rather than a microscope.

This comes from my growing anxiety that the hour I spend consuming daily news and analysis isn’t actually teaching me anything. X celebrity died. Y is wrong on the internet. The former governor of Z is a living shenanigan.

The problem is that very little of the so-called daily news is actually news. I was reading this article today speculating about the Greek crisis and the end of the Eurozone. It’s interesting analysis, but I probably would have gotten more intellectual nutrition from just reading the currency union page on Wikipedia or this description of some other prior attempts.

If Greece decides to leave the euro, that’s legitimate news. But until that happens, am I really learning anything from speculation and various never-gonna-happen scenarios?

We have a strongly entrenched cultural value that being informed of current affairs is synonymous with intelligence. You can use ‘what do you think is going to happen with Greece?’ as a conversation-starter in a way you can’t with, say, ‘Why do you think communism failed?’

I wish I knew of more publications that occupied a space between news and history. Somewhere from rough draft to conventional wisdom, there are a lot of lessons to be learned, and a lot of former lessons to be edited. If journalism’s mandate is to inform the public, this is what it should be doing. And it would be a nice transition into forgoing it entirely.

1 Comment

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One response to “Does Reading the Newspaper Actually Make You Smarter?

  1. elephantwoman

    You REALLY should read Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which I’ve mentioned a few times to you. His book touches on what you’ve written in this post; from what he says, he has spent most of his life looking at history to see what he can learn about why the world is the way it is. But he never follows the news. I wanted to quote from the book but haven’t been able to find the exactly passage, but essentially he talks about how the more current affairs you consume, the less you end up actually knowing and that no one is any the wiser; and that having so much information obscures what’s really going on. That knowing what’s going on does not mean more intelligence at all. After having more than a year, news-free, I totally agree with his proposition. I’m completely out of touch with what’s going on and it’s freed up a lot of headspace.