In a short story called Ludwig, a character points out that pretty much all knowledge is reliant on authority and that we really don’t know much for ourselves. Certainty is mostly impossible, and the best we can approach is confidence. When we think for ourselves, it’s still deeply influenced by the thinking of other people. George Orwell made similar points, but even today, I don’t think this dilemma is taken with the seriousness it deserves.
So, realizing certainty is practically impossible, turn on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News and decide what’s true. Global Warming will kill us all? Global Warming is overblown? Vaccines are an opportunity for pharmaceuticals to make profits? China created the Coronavirus to take over the world? Ridiculous? How do you know? There’s an expert over here who says Covid19 could be man-made. Never mind: there’s another expert who says that’s ridiculous. Which went to the better university? Who’s Harvard? But everyone knows universities are exploited by the wealthy to create ideologies that benefit them. That’s not true? How do you know?
I could go on.
The point is that knowing what to believe about anything is super hard, but it’s especially hard to know what to think about something that’s still in the process of happening now. The newer the story, the more intense the problem of certainty (the more Ludwig laughs).
If you’re studying WWII, it’s not easy to know what to think, but at least WWII is over: the situation is frozen and static. New information isn’t pouring in every second, and friends and family around you probably aren’t emotionally attached to one view versus another. People usually don’t worry about WWII coming up at Thanksgiving…
When trying to decide if bombing Hiroshima was a good decision, you don’t turn on the television today and see a story about a mother who’s son was captured by the Japanese and tortured, only to change the channel and hear about Japanese citizens who lost arms due to the blast. Both stories are emotionally powerful and hard to hear, and they make discernment difficult. And in some ways, that’s good: political stories are human stories; we should never forget that. But on the other hand, it makes objectivity and sticking to the facts much harder.
Take hearing the difficult stories about the Coronavirus, which is a live story right now: you flip from one story about the small business owner losing her flower shop due to the lockdown, only to flip to another story about someone whose mother died from the virus. What should we do? Keep the lockdown going and destroy the economy? Or save lives? Keep in mind certainty is impossible.
A similar point can be made about abstract works like sociology, philosophy, and economics. These entail a lot of models, generalities, and thought experiments, and consequently the information is more static than changing, Also, your friends probably aren’t going to stop talking to you if you say you like Kant (whereas they might if you vote Democrat). Subjects like this and old books are just things you can really study without fear of distraction or upsetting someone emotionally. You can just learn.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be informed.
The point I want to make is an ironic one. Most people watch a lot of news and don’t read many books.
It should be the exact opposite.
Breaking news and live stories are way harder to understand and make decisions about. They’re for experts, while someone like me can get a better grasp around the stories of history and general theory. Breaking news is live and constantly changing, while old books are frozen and the information about them more easily available. Certainty about history is still impossible, sure, but confidence about it can be a lot stronger than about current events.
Furthermore, not only is it easier to actually know what you learn from old books versus the news, the likelihood that what you learn will be relevant for the long term is much higher. Nassim Taleb makes the point that while old humans are those you have reason to think won’t be around as long as young people, it’s the exact opposite with books. If you must bet which books will still be in print fifty years from now, it’s safer to bet on the classics. That doesn’t mean Normal People won’t be around in 2070, but it’s more likely Jane Eyre will be, if you must wager.
C.S. Lewis makes a similar point about modern book versus old books, concerned about the modern preference for new books versus old. He says that new books “[are] still on [their] trial[s] and [that] the amateur is not in a position to judge [them].” This suggests the main point I want to get at: the logic of Lewis here also applies to current events versus history, new theories versus old ones, and so on.
If a book or idea is around for ten years, we have less reason to think it is true than a book or idea that has been around for twenty years, less compared to one that is thirty years old, and so on. History and tradition entail testing, and since verification is impossible (as we learn from Karl Popper), all that is possible is confidence, a “reason to believe” this or that thanks to falsification, which history and extended study better provide.
The more present the event is, the less falsification it has gone through, and thus the more likely we make mistakes about it.
In other words, our understandings of breaking news are more likely to be wrong than our understandings of old news. And this is especially true if you lack any practice trying to understand old news.
Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and I guess that makes sight 20/1000. Imagine you needed glasses and tried to navigate yourself through a room without them (maybe it’s even a matter of life and death). If you’d never walked through the room wearing glasses before, that would be hard (maybe impossible), but if you had some experience, you might be able to grope your way around. Well, not studying old books is like going into a room that you’ve never been in before without glasses. You’re pretty much blind, but if you were blind and at least had an idea where things might be, you might have a chance navigating it (though no guarantee, of course). Since historic situations tend to come back around, political dilemmas reemerge, and human nature keeps at it, the rooms humanity has had to walk through are rooms it often has to walk through again, so we should take all the test runs we can while we can. But that’s not very good for marketing, mass appeal, and commercials, so never mind…
Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC are marketed to the general public, and old books are marketed to scholars. It should be the exact opposite. The more you’ve trained and practiced thinking through old books, the more you might be able to handle live events, but paradoxically scholars who read old books don’t tend to care about the news, while people who watch the news all day don’t usually care much about old books (Neil Postman might provide insight into why). Scholars who might be more able to handle live events are those who study other things, while those who don’t have training with complex information try to tackle the most complex and live information of all.
So here’s my point: read old books. Be more concerned with “learning from” versus “keeping up.” Teach yourself how to think before you try to think about the Coronavirus, the 2020 election, or tariffs with China. No one do it perfect but train and try. If you try to take a shortcut and go straight to the breaking news, it will probably just break you. Make you anxious. Confuse you. And for what? Because it’s good to be informed? But here’s the thing: if you don’t train yourself with old books, static situations, and tested ideas, you probably won’t be informed. You’ll have no idea what’s going on beyond generalities, and no idea what to do with the knowledge that you don’t know what’s going on. It’s a no win. So turn off the TV, and pick up a book. Don’t turn it back on until you’re done with your training.
But don’t we have to make decisions about live events? Yes, which seeing as this is incredibly hard, suggests the importance of listening to Hayek and Kohr. To cut to the chase, since we’re so prone to error, it’s best to keep systems small and thus able to make mistakes without bringing the whole thing down. But large systems can do a lot of good, can’t they? Theoretically, though be sure to read Hayek’s “Why do the Worst Get on Top.” But this is another line of thought for another time…
Now, you might argue that there’s no time to read old books: Donald Trump is coming for you, or the Socialists are taking over America. But that’s the kind of pressure and nervousness that tempt people to take shortcuts and go straight for “the modern conversation” and breaking news. And then they end up part of the problem, adding to the noise and confusion. Maybe people should have prepared more starting ten years ago and worked on teaching themselves how to think then? Well if they didn’t, you can start to make up for it, but that’s about all you can do. If you suddenly need to lift a hundred pounds to save someone’s life, if you chose not to go to the gym, reality won’t shift to suddenly make you capable of something you’re not. Choices have consequences, but there’s always time to live differently.