Why I’m not watching the news for six months

Wake me before November.

The shrill battle of the network talking heads is kicking into high hear. Well, here’s some news for them: Count me out. For the next six months, I plan to unplug.

The press exists to seek truth. I get that. But media companies survive by processing the truth into the most disturbing, revolting parody of itself that it succeeds more in its ability to disturb than enlighten.

Frankly, I don’t know who or what to blame. I’m a systems theory guy, so I can’t pin the cause to any one thing. Nor am I really asserting that anything is wrong or needs to be fixed with the press itself. They’re mostly good people doing the best they can.

One day, maybe we will reach a critical mass of critical thinkers in the US. Until that happens, I think I’ll skip the fourth estate drama, send in my absentee ballot for Gary Johnson and catch up on my circle of fifths.

At least until the sixth.

Why Twitter may create bird brains

We all tend to grab on to some beliefs and not let go.

Ignorance of past events has never proven to be a large obstacle to people having certainty about past events. The Martin/Zimmerman case is merely the latest example.

Only one living human being knows exactly what happened in those tragic few minutes. But a lot of people are certain as to what happened. One only has to look at the hash tags on Twitter to see the oceans of certainty.

What’s of particular interest here is the confluence of three factors:

  • One, our tendency to “lock in” to certain beliefs.
  • Two, our recent tendency to express our beliefs faster (via social networks).
  • Three, the impact of these social networks on the decision-making process itself.

Our tendency to hold on to certain beliefs is an old observation. There are many things we accept as true that we simultaneously seem to keep outside of the area of careful examination. Once we get one of these ideas in our heads, we hold on to them like a pit bull with the golden ticket.

These beliefs are varied and far reaching. These might include religious beliefs (talking snakes), political positions (liberal war mongers) or even preferences in musicians (Britany Spears’ auto-tuned voice is genuine).

Outlandish as some of these notions seem, it seems that people have a very difficult time considering any evidence to the contrary. Sure, we know that confirmation bias exists. But what is the evolutionary value of it?

If reason is really our sharpest claw, why are we anything but sharp about certain beliefs?

Consider the tweet below that hit Twitter nanoseconds before mine:

Notwithstanding the obvious rebuttal of, “Don’t you think it may have been better if God just jammed the gun?” the earlier tweet is merely one that exemplifies thousands of a newly established faith – a faith in a version of past events (that only one living human actually saw).

One explanation for this nearly immediate consensus on events is discussed in the theory of bounded reality. In short, the theory discusses how humans might skip a more rational approach to decision making when they are rushed into reaching a conclusion.

Viewed in this context, the evolutionary value of confirmation bias may be tied into the utility of reaching conclusions quickly, like when we’re under the threat of a predator  (I am biased against lions). But what threat are we under today that would evoke a similar jump to conclusions?

Maybe the threat isn’t to life or limb. Maybe it’s a threat to our friend count.

If social media is a large part of our life, we’re often compelled to express a position on a complex event the moment we learn of it. The allure of our Google+ circles, Facebook friends and Twitter followers call out to us, demanding offerings of loyalty. And as we continue to learn of things faster, the compulsion may be getting worse.

Surely, the answer to such a question is beyond the scope of this article. But it’s the question that’s equally compelling. “What is the effect of social media on an individual’s ability to apply critical thinking?”

If our “friends” continue to demand our points of view at an increasingly faster pace, will our rational mind be able to keep up? Or will Twitter make bird brains of us all?