Rob's experience with quitting the news
Rob Wiblin: After hearing the arguments Rolf makes in Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life, my wife and I decided to stop reading the news basically cold turkey Christmas last year, because we thought it was making us sad and anxious without actually doing that much to help us make the world a better place, or even understand the world. I’m kind of naturally a news junkie, and before that I was spending maybe one to three hours reading the news, on average, a day — and that’s probably about what I’ve been doing for most of my adult life.
Since then we’ve mostly stuck to it, and I’d say my news consumption is down about 90%. Some stuff still gets through in the comedy we watch. I listen to a Spanish language learning programme which has news in it sometimes. People bring it up in conversation in person, which is fine I guess. Sometimes preparing for the show, I check out specific news things that I’m actively looking for for more technical stuff, and I don’t try to avoid that. But basically, I haven’t checked the homepage at the Financial Times or The New York Times or The Atlantic or The New Yorker or the BBC, or the newsfeed on Twitter or Reddit or anything like that, for about 10 months. It’s all been blocked.
And I really do think I’m happier and more productive than I used to be. Certainly I’m not as anxious, and my moods are not as volatile as they were before.
I was spending 10% of my waking life reading the news. That is a lot of time. It’s not enough to say that there is some benefit to that; you really want to say that this is providing 10% of the value in your life. It has to be actually providing a significant amount of goodness. And it just is so unclear that it’s doing that. It’s unclear whether it’s positive or negative, let alone providing 10% of my wellbeing.
Now I think that as a result of reading less news, I do read more books and I do listen to more lecture series. This company The Great Courses produces fantastic lecture series, and I’ve just been churning through them this year. But I would say about half of the time that we’ve freed up, I just play computer games with my wife. But I honestly think that is a much better use of time, because, firstly, it’s just fun. I come away from playing computer games with my wife feeling refreshed. I’m excited and happy. I’ve had a good time rather than feeling actively worse, rather than feeling drained because I was reading about something horrible, and it’s good for our relationship and it’s just inherently enjoyable during the time. So I’d say even playing computer games is maybe a more respectable [use of time].
Two angles on why you shouldn't read the news
Bryan Caplan: One is: What is the actual effect of following the news on the life of the individual that’s doing it? And I think it’s hard to imagine that it’s not just what you’re saying. Just imagine doing a time diary approach, where you are talking about what you’re doing and what your mood is at every minute of the day. Obviously, when people are watching the news, normally stuff on the news is quite horrifying, and they’re getting upset and agitated. If you just think about people that are angry about things every day, normally they don’t have enough stuff going on in their personal lives to actually get that angry — so what they are angry about is stuff that they are hearing about on the news. So that one I would just say is the main selfish case.
And then to say, “But what if I fail to learn something that’s really important for me personally?” Well, what are the odds of that? That hardly ever happens. And especially if it were going to be that important, you would hear about it almost certainly in a number of other ways and therefore it wouldn’t matter. I remember actually my family was driving down from DC to Florida on the very day that the George Floyd riots were hitting the country. So I had heard something about it from Facebook. But if we were just totally not following the news, since I was going to be visiting some friends, I would have gotten emails from them — I did get emails from them — saying, “Don’t come to Charleston, South Carolina; it’s a war zone here.” And therefore it would have been fine.
So it really just very rarely happens that not following the news would actually wind up having any harm to you personally because you were uninformed, and there are the psychological gains from not having the negativity — because as we know, news veers very negative.
Now, in terms of “How can you become an informed and enlightened person?” — that’s the other perspective. And this is one where my first reaction is: read it in history books. If it’s that important, it’ll be in history books. Read that. When I do want to get up to date with something that’s been going on, I find it’s very helpful just to read Wikipedia. It’s a lot less emotionally affecting because they’re aggregating a whole lot of information. It’s not this sense of, “What’s going to happen next? What’s going to happen next? Oh no. Oh good. Oh no.”
So in that way, you wind up getting not only less of an emotional rollercoaster, but you also get a better picture of what’s really going on when you read the Wikipedia article on an event — because there’s filtration, there’s curation, stuff that turns out to be not actually true and important generally doesn’t appear on the Wikipedia article. And in that way, you can still be highly informed.
For example, with all due modesty, I’ll say I think I’m at 99.9% on Israel and Palestine. For Americans anyway. You can say, “Well, for an American…” But still, I think that’s way beyond what most people who follow the news are. That’s because I’ve just read a number of books on it, as well as some really good graphic novels — honestly, some great graphic novels on this topic. But in terms of knowing what’s going on, I think I’m really quite good, but without that sense of dread and horror and outrage that people who are watching the news minute to minute actually experience.
Isn't it important for good citizens to follow what's going on?
Bryan Caplan: First of all, of course, there’s the general effective altruism point that unless you think that this is the most important problem in the universe, you should be directing all of your altruistic energy towards the number one cause. So this is probably not the number one most important cause in the universe. So take that time you’re spending reading on the news, and put it into whatever is the number one most important problem — whether it’s deworming or bed nets or whatever you have.
But another key point is: Like I said, you could believe that and still recognise that you could cut down by 90% without any loss in your ability to perform that function. And I would say you could go and cut down way more and just go and read the Wikipedia article instead; I think the political bias in Wikipedia is quite a bit lower, and the “getting the big picture” is a lot better. So I would just say you could do that instead and then you are performing this duty in a much more effective way. This is where you can tell the people that only read the daily stories, “Actually, there was a story that got a lot of coverage that turned out to be wrong. And therefore, rather than helping us to go and hold the government to account, it is scapegoating people for something that didn’t even really happen in the way that people imagine. And so it’s not in fact a big deal.”
Other things to think about are certainly if you’re just using it for voting: What are the odds that the news stories will be sufficiently severe that it would even change your vote? So there’s that.
And then in terms of the story of “Even if the people that I like are in power, I still want to be able to be monitoring them and making sure they’re doing good things”: Again, on the one hand, there’s something to the argument, but what about the point of there’s a base rate of honest, standard human error, below which you ought to actually be worrying that they’re just not trying hard enough? There’s the old joke in economics about how if you’ve never missed a plane, you spend too much time hanging around in airports. Similarly, if you were to say “I’m going to get really angry over every mistake the politicians make,” well, isn’t there just some base rate of mistakes that they will make if they’re doing a good job? And if you only punish the kinds of mistakes that are covered in the media, aren’t you going and actually giving them incentive to basically make the mistakes that come from avoiding risk?
Rob Wiblin: From avoiding acting and just being as conservative as possible, to not be associated with any actions, even if they had positive expected value — because then you’ll be blamed if they go badly.
Bryan Caplan: Right. Or especially when you realise that some actions are not counted as actions by the media. So failing to repeal doesn’t count as an action. This is a general problem with any kind of deregulation or repeal: If, after it happens, any bad thing occurs that would have been prevented, or at least even imagined to be prevented, by keeping the regulation on the books, this is seen as the hard proof that the regulation should never have been repealed — even though cost-benefit analysis might say it’s better to go and cut the price of housing by 20% and have three more buildings collapse from earthquakes per year.
Another nice illustration of this is whenever there is a disaster, the normal reaction is, “Something has to be done to stop this from ever happening again.” Again, the question is: Maybe we should just stay the course, because this is the right number of disasters to have? Which horrifies people. But look, we shouldn’t have earthquake codes so strict that no building ever collapses, no matter what, because the effect on housing costs would be astronomical. So why don’t you tell me what is the correct number of houses to collapse in earthquakes? And then we’re only going to cover it in the media if we exceed that number. You just imagine people’s heads exploding, like, “No, we have to cover every single one so that we can have the proper reaction!” This proper reaction is what makes housing costs too high.
But what if I mostly read good news? And what if I miss the frenetic energy?
Rob Wiblin: Maybe the first rebuttal that I could imagine someone saying is, “I mostly read good news — like a weekly summary of the world events in The Economist, or long essays in The New Yorker, or long big-idea pieces in the Financial Times — and I’m not that interested in random grabbing, shocking headlines. Is that really so wrong? Maybe this is a net benefit.”
Bryan Caplan: That doesn’t sound crazy. I would just say that if someone were to say, “You’re basically right, but I can cut down 90%; I can still be almost as well informed while reducing the harm,” I think that’s a really obvious position, and I think that one’s almost impossible to argue against. What if you spent half as much time in the news? Would you really be noticeably less informed? No. But would you be less unhappy? At least in the time diary sense, where you are counting the experiences of the day, then I don’t see how you could fail to be more happy as a result of cutting down 50%, with really virtually no change in the level of knowledge that you have, even about the events themselves.
Rob Wiblin: [Another] stream of defence that I hear is to say that, and maybe this is the one that I’m most sympathetic to: The one thing that I feel maybe I’ve lost from not reading the news is this kind of frenetic energy that you get from engaging with live events. On the one hand, it’s kind of anxiety and it’s kind of feeling bad; it’s kind of feeling overwhelmed by events. But there’s also this kind of enthusiasm, energy, uncertainty. It’s like watching a sports match in real time. And you’re like, this is kind of bad because I’m worried that things will go badly. But also I’m so engaged, and this is really activating me. I think on balance I don’t really want to have more of that in my life. I value the calm. But I do slightly miss that at times. I guess there were times when that was fun.
Bryan Caplan: I think that’s the secret to the business model. It can’t be that people are made happy by it. So it’s got to be that you’re tapping into some other emotion that is at least partly positive. It’s anxiety, but yeah, it’s the frenetic anxiety. It’s being part of something, it’s flow. So yeah, definitely there’s a lot of flow from news, but with moderate effort, I think you can find some much better substitutes for it.
Really, a much better substitute for the news is just friendship, just having people that you would like spending time with. This is the main secret of human happiness. People are primarily happy when they’re spending time with people whose company they enjoy. You might compare the news to spending time with your cousin that you hate, but you’ve known each other and you sit there pushing each other’s buttons. Wouldn’t you rather be with a relative that you have positive flow with than this negative flow? It’s like, yeah, well, it’s too hard to find that. But if you don’t recognise what you’re really looking for, you’re really not likely to find it.
Terrorism and the news
Rob Wiblin: So here’s a controversial point that Rolf makes in the book, to begin to close out this section: that reading the news and journalism and the media in general are the direct cause of terrorism. The notion there being that terrorists commit terrorism in large part to get massive media coverage. So when the media provides massive media coverage to terrorist attacks and we choose to read about it, that motivates further terrorism. What do you think of that argument?
Bryan Caplan: I think it’s got to be at least 70% true. If you were to just get rid of news entirely, there’d still be some terrorism. They’re hoping to spread it through word of mouth or whatever. But yeah, obviously they’re highly motivated by these social dynamics. It’s hard to see how you can doubt it. If you were to just go back historically, were there things that we would classify today as terrorism before there was any mass media?
There’s a few things that you might go and count, but really it’s anachronistic, because in the past there’s a pogrom and they aren’t doing it for the purposes of getting a reaction; they’re doing it just to kill a bunch of people that they’re mad about in that area. You might say pogroms have a motivation of, “We go and massacre a couple of towns, and this will lead to mass flight from the country, from all the other people that are worried about it.” And that’s terrorists in a sense.
But this is actually one of several examples of things where if you know the broad span of human history, mass media seems to just change the way that bad things happen. Closely related to terrorism is if you look at the way that the motivations and the dynamics in the way that wars played out in the past. Normally, the ways that wars used to work is there’d be two countries, one would attack another, one side would be decisively defeated, and then there’d be a peace treaty where they would go and “permanently” hand over some land to the other side. That’s the way that it worked. And in those days, you could very plausibly see they’re fighting because this side wants the city of Cologne with its salt mines or whatever.
Now, if you look at the modern world, there are a lot of wars where really the whole point of it is just to antagonise people. There’s no actual goal, there’s no resource anyone wants, there’s no plausible risk. And furthermore, there’s no actual resolution. The normal result of a war in the modern period is what was called a frozen conflict zone — no peace, no war; we have a ceasefire, and that’s the end of it — until, of course, war fighting breaks out again.
So if you just look at, prior to Ukraine, all Russian military interventions, they basically go and there’s some incident and they grab a little piece of territory and they basically just give the middle finger to the rest of the world. And then there’s a ceasefire, and that’s it. It’s just not the kind of war that used to be fought. There’s very little strategic, military, economic point to the territory that’s seized. It’s more of just showboating for the media, and saying, “There were some ethnic Russians there. You can’t push us around. Ha!”
Rob Wiblin: An important question here, if we’re trying to just take this from a very pragmatic point of view, is: If the media just had a blanket ban on reporting of terrorism in the long run, how much would we expect terrorism to decline? I guess you were saying something like 70%. That seems kind of reasonable to me.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. Presumably you wouldn’t be able to go and ban people from emailing things. There’d be viral emails. I believe there’d be a lot of substitution, like, “The terrorism the media doesn’t want you to know about!” So there’d be kooks with internet lists and you’d have to have a real police state to go and totally crack down on it.
Bryan's overall take on AI risk
Bryan Caplan: So the number of times I’ve been told by people, “Oh my god, the AI is so fantastically good,” and then I look at it and it doesn’t seem to work at all; what are you talking about? Or people go and say, “It’s gotten so good at chess.” Yeah, well, that’s just what I would expect that it would be good at. And who cares? Chess isn’t important. It’s like, “Now it can do Go.” Yeah, Go is an even dumber game than chess. And I have actually told friends that when it’s good at Dungeons and Dragons, let me know. That’s a real game. That’s a game that I actually care about, that really is essential to being a human being.
So that was my view for a long time, because people just made claims that seemed unlikely to be true, and I checked them out and they were false. And then when GPT-3 came along, once again, people started saying, “This is fantastic.” And I said, let’s see what happens if I give my labour economics midterm to GPT-3. And it got a D. Then the reaction from some fans is, “To get a D on that exam is an incredible achievement!” I’m like, do you realise how low my standards are? No. A D is not an incredible achievement. It’s basically what you get for just mentioning some key terms and rambling on a bit about the question. So that was where I said this is basically vaporware #173.
But then GPT-4 came out, and I gave it the same exams and it did great. It got As. And I’m like, all right. And this is in the course of three months: over the course of three months, it goes from a D to an A. I remember when I was arguing with my friends, I was even saying, “So you’re saying the next version is going to do a lot better on the test?” Tyler Cowen just said, “Your tests don’t count for anything anyway. Who cares about your stupid tests?” I care about my stupid test. To my mind, these tests show whether people are really thinking about the subject, whether they understand it on a deep level, where they can take what I have taught them and apply it in ways that are not just rote memorisation. And of course, since I’ve been giving these tests for 25 years, I feel like I’ve got a really good sense of what level of thought and depth goes behind certain levels of answers versus others. And of course, and I just feel like I understand this metric much better than I understand most other metrics.
Furthermore, I consider it to be a lot more impressive than being able to do well on an SAT. They’ve got hundreds of SATs that they can train off of; it’s not that surprising that you can get a machine to go and do well on a test that it has all this training data on. But on the other hand, my tests are either not on the training data, or at least there’s just not that much of it. So if a machine can do well on it, then that would really say something. It’s saying that it’s actually got some kind of general performance capability.
Anyway, so I went and gave it a test three months later with GPT-4, and it got an A. And I will say my jaw did drop. I had a bet on it. The bet doesn’t mature until 2030, and it’s a higher bar than just getting an A once, so I still feel like maybe I’ll win just by virtue of bad luck for the AI. But I will say that in terms of the substance, the guy that bet me, I think that it shows that he in particular was right.
So that’s where it really changed my mind about the ability to go and perform well on tasks of this kind, which do mean a lot to me. I mean, I do actually consider the ability to go and learn material to the degree where you can get an A on one of my tests, that is something where… I’m not going to say it’s what separates humans from the animals, but at some level it’s what separates someone that I want to have lunch with from someone that I don’t want to have lunch with: whether they are capable of learning this material to the degree where they can get an A one of my tests. It’s not like I don’t want to talk to you if you haven’t taken the class with me, but if you couldn’t, after taking the class, go and do well in the test, then it’s just there’s something about you that isn’t engaging to me anyway.
So I did change my mind about the performance there. But where this all comes back to me is base rates. Now, Scott Alexander has this phrase of “base rate ping pong,” where he says anytime someone makes a base rates argument, you can always make a different base rate argument, and then base rates really aren’t meaningful. So I say “base rate” for people saying something is going to be the end of humanity, and then how often have they been right? They’ve never been right. But I could have the base rate of a new weaponisable technology gets released, and then we do the average of how many people it would kill and then that winds up being high. So it is true that you can go and do this. And this really actually is almost directly out of Hume’s problem of induction. Not quite the same, but still it is very much in the same ballpark of: for any observation, what is the correct generalisation to draw?
Now, it is hard for almost any rationalist to really stick with this base rate ping pong nihilism — because it is a nihilistic view. Remember, one of the main lessons out of books like Superforecasting is that an essential skill for good forecasting is thinking in terms of base rates. So just to go and say, “No, you can’t trick me with this base rate trick. Base rates, we can just do ping pong all day and there’s no such thing as a right base rate or even a better or worse base rate” — if you’re going to say that, then the whole rationalist project crumbles. It is very close to saying we can’t learn anything from experience, per the original Hume’s problem of induction.
And if you don’t think you can learn anything from experience, there’s no EA project. And of course, there’s no existing, other than Hume saying, “I just kind of pretend that I don’t know this stuff and have a beer with my friends and try to get through the next day.” So I would say if we’re not willing to go and think in terms of base rates, then we can barely converse anymore, if we’re going to say that there’s just no such thing as a more or less reasonable base rate.
Rational irrationality on the part of voters
Bryan Caplan: Imagine that you go to the grocery store and you just start throwing objects in at random and buy them. What happens? Well, you waste a pile of your own money on a bunch of stuff you don’t actually want, right? Or imagine, even more strongly, what if you just go in there and you just buy a bunch of stuff that you’re supposed to want? So you just go and put in a whole bunch of rice cakes or whatever stuff is allegedly super healthy, and then you buy it. And what’s happened? Yeah, you just have a bunch of stuff that you don’t even want to eat because it sounds good, but in fact it’s disgusting and you can’t stand it, right?
And when you make decisions on this basis, you are the one that suffers: it is your money that is wasted. Which doesn’t mean that no one will ever do it. We’ve all made purchases that afterwards we’re like, “Man, that was kind of dumb. Why did I buy that thing?” And yet it is quite abnormal for you to go fill your cart with a bunch of total junk that you don’t even want and then get home and say, “Why did this happen to me?”
On the other hand, if you go and vote randomly, or go and vote for a bunch of stuff that just sounds good, even though it doesn’t work very well in practice, what happens to you? And the answer is: the same thing that would have happened to you if you were the most diligent, thoughtful voter in the world and voted on that basis. Because you’re just one person. You’re just one person out of millions or tens of millions or even 100 million voters. So effectively, you have no influence on the outcome, which means that you really can safely go and vote randomly, or you could very safely go and vote for what sounds good rather than what actually works well.
Now, many people say, well, why would I vote randomly? Yeah, probably it’s going to be more of you’ll vote emotionally. You’ll vote based upon what sounds good; you’ll vote based upon ideology. If you were to say, “I’m going to go and figure out what job to do based on philosophy,” your philosophy is not going to be very helpful for figuring out these questions. But if you go and vote based on a philosophy, that’s actually quite normal for people to go and do it in that way.
Now we’re in the middle of a new book, where I think that I really am taking the argument from The Myth of Rational Voter and I’m giving it a lot more psychological structure, and I’m really happy with how it’s coming out. And this is where I build very heavily on the idea of social desirability bias. It’s basically very simple. It’s a commonsense idea with a fancy name. It just says: When the truth is ugly, people lie. And when the lies become ubiquitous enough, people often just even forget that they’re lying. They lose consciousness of it because no one’s ever even challenging them. And I say this is really the general theory of democracy: what rules policy is just what sounds good, not what is good. Because virtually everyone really is voting based purely upon the most superficial appearances, and even curiosity about what the real effects of policies are is so low.
Another one, and this one is great for EAs: Almost every country, I think really every rich country spends considerably more on universal redistribution than on means-tested redistribution. From an EA perspective, this is just insanity. Just imagine what EAs would say about a billionaire who says, “I have $8 billion to give away. Here’s my plan: $1 to each person on Earth.” All right, there are worse things you could do, like you give $8 billion to a terrorist group or something, but it’s about as dumb of a helpful thing as you could do.
It’s like, target your resources to where they do the most good. And yet every first-world government anyway, they spend a lot more on universal redistribution. The intellectual case is pretty simple; it comes down to: Why take money from everyone to give to everyone? Why not instead focus on the biggest problems, and just say most people just don’t need help and can take care of themselves?
And then the defences of this, even social scientists are so pathetic. It’s pathetic just in the sense of they hardly even exist. If you just go to Google Scholar and try to find all the defences of the way that first-world governments spend trillions of dollars every year, you’ve got like 20 articles. And that’s it. It’s like 20 articles to justify spending trillions of dollars every year? And what are the defences? Well, there’s the one of the only way to redistribute is to do it universally, because otherwise people vote too selfishly and you have to basically trick them into thinking that they’re benefiting — even though, of course, on net they are not — which is an awfully specific theory of human error.