The more you know, the less you believe?

Background

I read Fortune–the print magazine–mostly because I decided to give Money another try a year or so ago when Time Inc. offered an absurdly good deal…and the deal included throwing in Fortune.

Even though I’m pretty sure I’m not in the target audience (having never been nor planning to be a Captain of Industry or even a Corporal of Capitalism), I’ve enjoyed much of it–some great long investigative pieces, some fine writing. And, as with most magazines that still have the “yucks-in-the-back” tradition, putting something lighthearted on the last editorial page, I like finishing off an issue with something light–in this case, Stanley Bing’s “While You Were Out” column.

Bing in the February 8, 2010 edition talks about “The Big Issues”–four of them that he says we need to resolve in order to move forward. (Unemployment, Deregulation, Debt and Doubt, if you’re wondering.)

I was taken with the section on Doubt–not that I agree with all of it, but I found the second paragraph particularly interesting.

Foreground

Here’s the paragraph:

The fact is, nearly every article I have read in my life has been wrong, at least in part, about anything I know even a little bit about. I can’t tell if they were wrong about the stuff I don’t know about. So why do we listen to these people? I have an idea. Let’s not.

OK, loads of caveats here. Bing’s writing about “mainstream media” or, rather, newspapers and magazines. He writes light stuff for the last page. (His recommendation for Doubt: “Ignore Depressing People.” Well, maybe, but doubtful and depressing shouldn’t be synonymous.)

But…

I know that, when I read articles in magazines that focus on areas I know really well, I tend to find a lot of flaws–frequently just getting the facts wrong, more often failing to provide appropriate facts and context. All the more so if it’s a general-interest publication writing about a specific area.

I’m not flaming journalists. Journalism is hard–and it’s really hard to cover an area you haven’t been steeped in for years. Ask me to do a 600-word writeup on the latest findings in bioarchaeology (is there such a field?)–or, rather, assign me to do such a writeup, in time for tomorrow’s edition or next month’s issue deadline–and chances are I’ll produce something that a bioarchaeologist will find embarrassingly naive and probably wrong in key areas. (And, if I’m really on deadline and some outfit with a good PR firm has been involved in the story, there’s a very good chance my writeup will rely heavily on that firm’s press releases, quite possibly giving the firm or university or lab more credit than it deserves.)

I’d guess that, for most readers, I’m not saying anything you don’t already know (at least implicitly).

Conclusion

I’m not entirely sure there is one, unless it’s the great blues line,

Don’t believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see.

Realistically, though, maybe the message is:

It’s reasonable to assume that media reports in areas you don’t know intimately are no more correct and complete than media reports in areas you do know intimately.

There is, to be sure, the next blues line (at least in “Small Town Talk”)

And if you’re gonna believe in anything, darlin’, believe in me…

Because, you know, I’m never wrong and I never omit context. I just fasten my wings and fly over the scene again to make sure my super-hearing and x-ray vision got everything right the first time. (I don’t always fly over the scene immediately: Sometimes the squadrons of aeropigs get in the way.)

2 Responses to “The more you know, the less you believe?”

  1. Seth Finkelstein Says:

    A big problem is that while people may know this abstractly about media reports, there is no incentive to practice it, in fact the reverse.

  2. walt Says:

    True–and a bigger problem is that you almost have to ignore that truism to get by in life. We can’t all be in-depth experts on everything, or really on very much.


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