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Ignorant Like Sherlock Holmes? December 18, 2012

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Blogging.
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In “A Study in Scarlet,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes is intentionally ignorant of basic celestial mechanics (he doesn’t know, or care, that the Earth revolves around the Sun), yet his ignorance is to his detriment in “The Musgrave Ritual.” Watson, his companion, notes that his ignorance of how something works caused him to draw an incorrect conclusion. Lately, I’m starting to favor Holmes’ position more, and Watson’s less.


To begin with, I should point out that I’m well aware that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, and am highly aware of some of the intellectual silliness that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle engaged in over the course of his life. However, these issues are tangential to the question of the value of bits of information that we generally call “news.”

Now, I have to admit… I generally don’t watch televised local or national news. I typically read tech news, an occasional sports story, or (during election season) political analysis. When I do watch televised news, I always come away feeling an odd sense of being less informed and not more. I feel the intellectual equivalent of eating a Twinkie (before the Hostess debacle)–lots of pretty fluff, but mostly air and contrived content to make me forget that I wasn’t taking in anything of value.

But this begs the question, why is a general ignorance of news, even of the details of horrific events like those of last week, a bad thing? I dare say that it’s more important to understand Micro- and Macro-Economics than to keep up with the daily posturing of Democrats and Republicans about the “fiscal cliff.” (In fact, having such an understanding about a given topic may well cause one to turn off the news when you realize how little the commentators understand about it.)

When I choose to make a decision about something or engage in a debate about an issue, the relevant facts and information are rarely found in these hastily gathered news programs, or even the post-event analysis that appears in broadcast media. After all, broadcast news has to appeal to (and serve) the attention span of the average American, which is probably measured in milliseconds. The odds of presenting any useful information are low, as it increases the odds that the viewer will change the channel to something more “interesting.”

For example, the recent discussion (what little I *have* seen) in the news about possible assault weapons bans and gun control legislation has ignored many of the relevant issues that came out from a modest debate I had on Facebook, such as: the prevalence of handloading (casting my own bullets, pouring gun powder into empty casings, and assembling usable rounds) for the AR-15 rifle; the broad use and familiarity with this gun for hunting; the fact that simply changing the stock of the gun can make it no longer an “assault weapon;” and the demonstrated fabrication of untraceable plastic and metal receivers for this gun.

In less than an hour, I had gathered more data and understanding relevant to the discussion than I would have gained from hours and hours of watching the sordid details of the recent shooting in CT, the endless (and typically feeble) analysis from “experts,” and generally seen the exact same information presented in a hundred different ways. Had I simply watched the daily news coverage, I might have “felt” informed, but because I went actively looking for information, I most likely am better informed.

In a sense, I feel that watching the news (or even reading many newspapers) is like listening to a small child telling you about their day. You bless the child by giving them your attention. You are doing it for their benefit. If you presume that your child’s narrative of their school day has literal accuracy, or includes all of the important information, you are probably going to be surprised to talk with the teacher or look in on the classroom and see what really happens. Does the media really deserve the blessing of my careful attention, or should their ramblings be treated more like the babbling of the someone else’s child in the grocery, which doesn’t warrant my attention at all?

Giving the news media attention now gives me true fear. In much the same way that I’ve been complaining about TSA efforts in airports being “security theater” and not real security, I fear that most news media are now giving us “news theater,” and not any substantive understanding that will help us make decisions, or lead more productive lives. Even worse, I’m having difficulty pinpointing how long this has been true, and now wishing that so many hours of consuming such “junk news” had been spent learning and remembering something more useful to my job, or of more value to my life.

Cutting the cable sounds better and better all the time.



1. Paul Clifford (@PaulAlanClif) - December 18, 2012

I haven’t watched the news for years and I’m happier for it. I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t get the point of the news.

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