I read a lot, but recently, what I read has changed. A couple of weeks ago I started to read the Financial Times, as well as reading more articles from the New York Times. My previous reading list came mostly from recommendations from Medium and LinkedIn. Do I think that this change is a positive one? Not exclusively, but overall, yes.
I think that it is important to think about news consumption as part of an overall information diet. Consuming high quality information leads to a brain that is both more accurate in what it thinks, but also better able to generate new thoughts. Alternatively, exclusively consuming information from unverified sources and from social media sites is the informational equivalent of a junk food diet, leaving your brain in worse shape.
It’s all very well to talk about consumption of information using an analogy to food, and trying to analyse the context, source, author, and motivations of an article is a valuable activity, just like checking the salt and calories in food before eating. But having to do this every time that we start reading a text is tiresome, and frankly unnecessary.
This is why it is important to think about what we read in the context of a full information diet. Instead of creating rules about what we should and should not be consuming, we should be aware of overall trends in what we consume, aiming for quality and variety.
These two factors, quality and variety, are equally important in both nutritional and informational diets. But why? Why is it that quality and variety in our information diet matters?
First, and most obvious, it is important that what we read is high quality, otherwise we risk believing a falsehood. A more complex question is why it is bad to believe things that are false. William Clifford, a 19th century philosopher, claimed that it is morally wrong to believe without sufficient evidence on the basis that believing falsehoods influences our chances of survival, influences our further thoughts and beliefs, and influences the thoughts of others. Clifford was well ahead of his time in understanding the damaging effects of fake news, and his three reasons why misbelief is a moral affront should be reason enough for everyone to be epistemically (relating to what is true) active.
The first reason, that believing falsehoods effects our survival and the survival of those around us, has rarely been more obvious than in the time we currently live. People are turning down the Covid vaccine because of misinformation, as well as not wearing masks, putting themselves and their families at risk. These misinformational falsehoods have undoubtably cost lives, and will continue to do so.
Clifford’s second reason, that what we believe lays the groundwork for further beliefs, is more nuanced. There are two ways in which our current beliefs, no matter how seemingly irrelevant to action, effect further beliefs. The first is through confirmation bias – a tendency unknown by Clifford but described by him accurately nonetheless. (Confirmation bias is the tendency to reject facts that do not align with our already held worldview, and to more readily accept facts that do align with our worldview, no matter how outrageous these facts.) The second way in which current beliefs affect our future beliefs is through the strengthening or weakening of our critical thinking. When we hold beliefs strongly without questioning them, we become more vulnerable to other ideas that describe the world without nuance. On the other hand, if we question even our strongest held beliefs regularly, putting them under the microscope and stress-testing them, then we are more cautious when it comes to adding ideas to our pantheon of reliable knowledge.
The final reason that Clifford provides is a moral obligation to the rest of society. If it is bad for yourself to consume misinformation, then spreading misinformation to others is a moral affront, comparable to selling products known to cause cancer. To some moral theorists, allowing misinformation to spread when you can stop it from spreading is as bad as actively spreading it yourself. Therefore, we all have an obligation to prevent others from consuming misinformation where we can, to prevent the damage to society that is caused by false beliefs.
Overall, Clifford provides a very compelling reason to avoid becoming mislead, and a strong motivation to focus on the quality of what we read.
An even more concrete, not analogical nor philosophical reason to focus on the quality and variety of our reading is because we all write. Whether we write essays, project writeups, novels, articles or emails, we all write. When we read, whatever we read, we absorb the style and vocabulary of the text. Reading high quality writing is important because it helps us to produce high quality writing.
Even better than high quality writing, however, is flexible writing. Reading from a variety of sources allows you to be able to change your vocabulary and style to suit the situation which helps your writing to become even more effective.
If we broaden the conversation about our reading diet to include fiction then we have a further reason to aim for a variety. Fiction reading is essential to the development of empathy. This study found that people who read more fiction are more empathetic. Admittedly, this is correlation not causation, which is why I include this study: people who read stories that make the reader happy for the protagonist when they succeed, or sad for the protagonist when they fail, see measurably higher levels of empathy for up to a week after.
If you extend this effect over months and years of reading, then it is believable that people who read more fiction have more empathy as a result of more reading. And this is why it is important to read a variety of fiction, from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. Feeling empathy for people from different backgrounds to you builds that empathy muscle, making you more empathetic towards people from diverse backgrounds in real life.
How to Diet
So how do we set up an informational diet? Choosing what kind of things we read should be a choice, not a matter of circumstance, so we ought to focus on news sources that provide quality and variety. Rather than telling you what to read and what to avoid, I’ll explain my thinking process behind what I read.
I always have at least one book on the go at once. Reading books rather than just articles allows me to focus on a single topic for a longer period of time which allows me to think about that topic more deeply. I always read before bed to make sure I am making progress, even if it is just a couple of pages. As for what I read, I try to read a combination of new and old non-fiction to balance current thinking with older thoughts. I also alternate between fiction and non-fiction so that I can benefit from some of the empathy boosting properties of fiction, as well as staying motivated to read.
As for news, I have two processes. First, I try to read some newspapers all the way through from beginning to end so that I stumble onto articles that I wouldn’t have otherwise read, the kind of article we miss out on when an algorithm dictates our reading recommendations. I try to do this with the FT and NYT. Second, I try to read a variety of other, less edited writers, like those found on Medium, LinkedIn, or Substack. Even if I need to wade through dozens of naff productivity articles to find an original insight, hearing those original voices is worth it.
These descriptions are idealised, for sure. My current book is the third non-fiction book in a row, and over the last week I have almost exclusively read articles from the NYT and FT, hardly the variety of voices I preach. But being aware of these trends is an important step.
What does your informational diet look like? Have a think over the next week every time you read something about where the information is coming from. Is your reading providing you with sufficient quality and variety for you to intellectually thrive? The best informational diet for one person isn’t the best for others. Some prefer to read almost exclusively books, others prefer magazines. Whatever you read, try to occasionally find an alternative voice to consider, and try to pick for yourself, rather than letting an algorithm dictate the bubble of your experience.