Signal and Noise, or Why I Don’t Watch the News

This is an oscilloscope. It’s measuring an electrical signal.

Notice how the line is defined by many small jagged variations, but if you zoom out a little, perhaps if you unfocus your eyes a bit, you see a larger trend as well. It spikes up, then down, then back to the middle, before sinking down again. The larger, more interesting, more long-term information is the signal, and all the minute disturbances along the way are the noise.

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Or another way to think of it: suppose you’re in a crowded restaurant, struggling to hear your date over the loud conversations taking place at all the adjacent tables. You have to mentally phase out all the other talking, chewing, slurping, clinking, and laughing– not easy, but possible. Signal and noise.

Nassim Taleb, in his incredible book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, makes a case for avoiding the news, mainstream or otherwise, based on this principle. It’s obvious that not all news is worth watching. So much of what we consume is overhyped and turns out to be inconsequential. We’re looking for the signal, but sometimes all we hear is noise.

Let’s imagine that during the course of a year, pieces of real, imporatant news (signal) and pieces of overhyped news that publications use to fill their pages and get viewers on slow days (noise) come in equal proportions. But what happens if you zoom in, say to every day? You suddenly can’t see the big picture, and you see less of the signal. If you’re checking news daily, you are exposing yourself to a higher proportion of noise-to-signal, maybe 95% to 5%. And if you’re a day trader or a person who refers to the front page of the NYT every few hours “to stay informed,” the proportion might be more like 99.5% noise, 0.05% signal.

The irony, of course, is that you’ll actually feel more informed. But the truth is that so much of the stuff we consume every day is meaningless and prone to exaggeration and speculation unless we can view it in the context of the long term. Watching the news crowds our brains with information that will likely be of no use, all the while giving us a false sense of understanding and “awareness” of the world.

It’s remarkable how the truly important things have a way of finding their way into my brain. I don’t watch the news, but I know all about the failings of the ACA, Justin Bieber’s arrest (OK maybe not so important), the conflict in the Ukraine, and Governer Christie’s bridge closing debacle. Like magic. Instead of following the painstaking fluctuations, I let time and distance filter out most of the noise.

Whether it’s in the news, in restaurant conversations, in physics, in your weight-loss regimen, in inventing, and in business or military strategy, this is a universal law: If you bother less with the day-to-day minutia, the longer-term trends, which are ALWAYS more important, present themselves to you more readily.

So stop watching the news.

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