People only Read What is Published

(In a sense this post is a generalization of the fundamental principle of science, but it’s worth looking at that generalization in detail.) It is obviously true that people cannot read what hasn’t been published because if it was not published, it would not be available to read. From this utterly trivial point we can predict several non-trivial things which in a fallen world will reliably be true about many of the people who create for publication.

Actually, there is a second fact which we need, but it is only slightly more controversial than the first: people do not re-read material often. If we put these two together, for a creator to be read as often as possible, they will need to publish a lot of work. There are exceptions, of course—I’ve re-read Pride & Prejudice around twenty times now—but in general this holds true and is especially true of anyone who wants to make an ongoing living from their creative work. (It’s also true of anyone who simply wants ongoing attention even if they don’t make any money from it.)

In order to publish frequently, a person must have many things to say, and this is the crux of the problem. There several ways to have a lot to say, and—outside of explicit fiction—only one of them is good. The good way is to study the world and talk to the wise so that one becomes wise oneself. This is a long, hard road, and it will be inevitable that there will be things which come up in popular discussion which might be well-read if one could write them, but one simply doesn’t know enough to write about them well. Many people take this long, difficult path, and it is good idea to not lose track of them when you can find them.

There are much easier ways to have a lot to say, though. Making stuff up is the easiest, but also the most dangerous way, as a number of disgraced reporters and academics have proven. Outright lying is very hard to defend and also very offensive to readers. Several orders of magnitude safer is explicit speculation. You can see this in articles that have a question mark in their title. “Did [Famous Politician] Buy And Eat Sudanese Sex Slaves?” is an article that can be based on as little as a trip to the Sudan—or a neighboring country if necessary—and the politician being the sort of person who would do that sort of thing. It’s not hard to make things seem plausible, especially if one picks things that aren’t as extreme as this silly example. There are many variants of this approach, too. One can speculate about the implications of what it would mean if someone in a position of authority were to say something. One can also speculate on why a politician won’t say something at a particular time. Since a politician can’t say everything in every speech, there will always be a wasted opportunity to talk about. If the important people aren’t sufficiently obliging, one can also talk about what other people are saying about what was—or wasn’t—said.

Speculation on its own is not very interesting, however. One wants not only to publish material, but to have people read it. For that the writing must seem important as well as new. Now, it is possible to write about important things through hard work coupled with the patience to wait for important subjects to come along. But once again there is a much easier way to do this: throw perspective out the window. There are variants, of course, but they at their heart they all consist of some sort of skewed perspective. Probably the most popular is to take whatever topic one is writing about and imply that it spells the end of civilization as we know it, or if it isn’t utterly trivial even the death of any possibility of happiness in this world. Extrapolation is a very useful tool for this.

When exaggerating, the easiest approach is to assume that the world is static and project all trends out to infinity with no reactions to the trends or changes in behavior. Now, human beings have many flaws, and chief among them is that most of us do very little by principle. This is why so many people profess terrible principles—what’s the point in considering the truth of something one has no intention of living by anyway? But there is an upside to this, and it is that extrapolating out from people’s bad principles to their actions is usually quite misleading. The more principles have terrible results, the more people ignore the principles—sometimes even going so far as to reinterpret them to mean the opposite of what they originally meant. Whether this speaks well of the people or not, it is simply unreasonable to pretend that they will stick to their principles as things get worse and worse. Civilizations do die off, but at vastly lower frequencies than publishing cycles demand.

There is also the flip side of this coin—science reporting always has to include some section about how the discovery will cure a disease, make people thinner, make phones thinner, finally bring about the electric car, or at least significantly impact half the population’s life within the next few years. The overwhelming majority of them won’t, of course, but on the plus side this provides some grist for the worry mill because [political bad guys] will prevent the good things from happening. And don’t forget that every change hurts someone. Interestingly, this constant stream of good things coming in the future, rather than being here in the present, may also help to raise people’s ideas of what can be expected about life now—it really sucks in comparison to how good it will be ten years from now—so even without spin this works synergistically with the world-is-ending articles. Focusing people’s attention on what they don’t have is a great way to make them discontent and in need of an explanation for that unhappiness.

I should probably also point out that since really interesting new facts come along fairly infrequently, if a person is sloppy with their facts and doesn’t check into whether the things they have heard as facts are actually true, this will make them far more likely to come across “facts” which seem important. (Scientific studies with small sample sizes and no pre-registered hypothesis are a goldmine for this.)

The point, of course, is not nearly so much that all of this is a temptation to disciplined writers, but that it is a selective pressure which greatly rewards undisciplined writers and punishes disciplined writers. When considering the big picture, it doesn’t much matter whether disciplined writers resist temptation because the undisciplined writers will succeed and do very well regardless. And writing is not a zero-sum game. Undisciplined writers who trick people into reading material of exaggerated importance will increase the amount of reading that goes on. (Which editors who come up with headlines have known for as long as there have been headlines.)

But more more reading is not always better than less reading; reading which unbalances the mind through doomsday predictions breathlessly uttered makes people less able to understand truth spoken calmly. People also have finite and often small amounts of time and mental energy for reading, so consuming large amounts of exaggerated fluff can squeeze out real reading, even where it doesn’t habituate a person out of being able to do it.

(And everything I’ve said here applies to things that are watched or listened to just as much as for reading. As the saying goes, it’s not the medium, it’s the message.)

The takeaway is very simple: be very careful in how much news and news commentary you consume, and remember how big a selective pressure there is on the people who are giving you the news to exaggerate and distort it.