You are what you read

I’ve often heard, “You are what you eat” It’s true. What you eat and how much you eat accounts for a very large part of your physical development.

What you don’t hear as often (if ever) is that, mentally, you are what you read, watch, listen to, or otherwise experience.

Information theory deals with the quantification of information. A primary concern is entropy, which can be thought of as how much a random value differs from the expected value. In this context, the expected value is based on what is already known. The more the random value deviates from the expected value, the higher the entropy and thus the higher the information content.

Think of it this way. Imagine you’re standing outside in a rainstorm. Your friend approaches and says, “It’s raining.” The information content of that message is almost zero. The only thing you learned is that your friend is a master at stating the obvious, and you probably knew that already. Of course it’s raining!

Regardless of how many people approached to tell you that it’s raining, you wouldn’t learn anything new.

If your primary means of learning about what’s happening in the world is Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, you’re not going to learn anything new. Oh, to the extent that you’re “keeping up with world events,” you’ll learn things. But that’s just trivia. The same thing will happen if your only source of news is The Huffington Post or  Michelle Malkin, or whatever narrowly-focused outlet you subscribe to.

If you depend on  just one or a very few sources for your news, the information content of the news that you consume will be incredibly low. Why? Because you’re going to hear exactly what you expect. If Congress passes a new jobs bill that the President signs, you already know what Rush Limbaugh is going to say about it. If the President signs a bill that reduces corporate income taxes, you already know what The Daily Kos is going to say about it.

If you hear exactly what you expect, then you’ve received no new information. You’re not learning anything.

The only learning that matters much is that which modifies your world view. Reading the same old opinions expressed on new topics only reinforces your current world view. If you want to learn something, you have to seek out information from sources that will present world views that differ from yours. Sure, some of them are bunk. Most of what Glenn Beck has to say is bunk, too, but that doesn’t stop millions of lazy people from agreeing with him because they can’t be bothered to seek out new sources of information and put forth the effort to evaluate it.

I’m not talking about changing fundamental beliefs. But all of us hold minor beliefs that are based on incorrect or outdated information. We believe things without understanding how we arrived at those beliefs, and then we hold onto those beliefs in spite of obviously correct conflicting evidence.

There’s nothing wrong with strong opinions. Without a strong opinion, it’s impossible to develop a strong argument for or against anything, and it’s impossible to devote your full energy to any pursuit. But those opinions must be weakly held, subject to examination and revision at any time based on new information. A truly wise person has strong opinions that are weakly held–the exact opposite of what partisans or tribalists of all stripes advocate.

There are incredibly intelligent people who are not particularly wise. They continually express just one point of view (typically in the political arena, but sometimes in others) blindly, pointing out the virtues of their side and the faults and foibles of the other side, but acknowledging neither the virtues of the other side nor the faults of their own side. At best, these people are unaware of their own ignorance. At worst, they’re intentionally trying to mislead or manipulate you. Either way, they are not credible sources of information.