Four strategies for information resilience

Friday’s global economic news was pretty grim: A piss poor jobs report out of the U.S.; crappy PMI in China (down 2.9% from April) indicating a slowing economy; the Euro Zone battered; and the economic contagion in Greece now spilling over to Italy and Spain.

Oh… And we also had scads of coverage about the coming zombie apocalypse with cannibal stories out of Texas, Miami, Canada and Maryland.

But from the standpoint of resilience, how do you drill down on the information that actually matters?

That’s the big question. With the Internet, 24-hour news stations, and hundreds of cable television stations from which to choose, the average news consumer can become overwhelmed separating the wheat (important and actionable news) from the chaff (trifling entertainment or worthless landfill).

Here are a few strategies I recommend.

Turn off your TV

Overwhelmingly, television is a wasteland of cheap reality show garbage. Whether it’s Jersey Shore, Bridalplasty (where brides-to-be compete in wedding related challenges to see who can win plastic surgery) or The Learning Channel’s revolting Toddlers & Tiaras — think hooker makeup and high heels on 5 year old’s (that’s some “learning”) — television has become a mega-buffet of stupefying awfulness that appeals to and reinforces the basest of instincts.

The mainstream “news” is no better: Bruce Krasting had a fantastic blog post this weekend about an ABC News report from three months ago in which a panel of 13 blow-dried stock market“experts” unanimously predicted that the market had nowhere to go but up for the rest of the year. Of course, they were all wrong.

All too often these days, Fox, MSNBC, CNN, CNBC or even your daily newspaper force-feeds news consumers outright political propaganda or news disguised as entertainment. Is it really important whether President Obama smoked weed 35 years ago in high school or should news organizations be drilling down on why MF Global’s Jon Corzine is still at large, or the macro reasons why the economy really stinks and what we can do about it?

Don’t get caught in confirmation bias

As great as the Internet can be in potentially liberating us from the septic tank of mainstream media (and yes, the Internet itself can be just as bad or worse if you end up in its bad neighborhoods) it’s only liberating if we seek to avoid confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is simply our natural tendency to favor information that confirms our beliefs while avoiding information that challenges them.

To use an analogy from agriculture; monocultures (the practice of producing or growing a single crop or plant species over a wide area and for a large number of consecutive years) are inherently unstable, causing genetic erosion, soil loss, pollution, increased resistance to pests, etc.

Information consumption is no different: If all you watch are the “monocultures” of Fox News or MSNBC your ability to make informed decisions will be severely compromised because you’ll be making decisions based on propaganda rather than a diverse news diet that helps you arrive at the big picture.

To avoid confirmation bias, stay in the upscale neighborhoods and force yourself to read news and commentary that challenges your personal and political beliefs – even striving to “consume” news and points of view considered far outside the mainstream.

Having as many different points of view as possible will give you a bigger picture appreciation of circumstances and allow you to make smarter decisions.

Create your own Internet Information Infrastructure (III)

The best way I’ve found to avoid confirmation bias is to set up my own Internet Information Infrastructure and to modify and update the information it “serves” me on a regular basis. There are lots of ways to do this – whether it’s through a newsreader program like Feedburner, XML, RSS or Atom or simply bookmarking your favorite sites.

For simplicity’s sake, I use Google News and have several tabs for finance and economy, politics, health and fitness, etc.  Here’s a partial screenshot of my Google News feed (click photo to expand).

A few things you may notice: First, there’s very little in the news feed that could be considered mainstream – no Fox, Wall Street Journal or New York Times – in fact, my guess is that many of the sites I follow, a lot of people have never heard of.

Second, it’s a fairly diverse mix politically from progressive points of view like Robert Patterson or James Howard Kunstler’s excellent blog Clusterf**k Nation, to Libertarian/Austrian commentary, to folks that defy tidy categorization like Charles Hugh Smith. It also includes a pretty eclectic mix of finance/economy news – Zero Hedge, TF Metals Report, etc.

Third, I update and change my “III” often. Yes, even I’m guilty of confirmation bias — at the moment my news feed skews more towards Libertarian/Austrian points of view (some would say “doom and gloom”, I would say healthy skepticism), but the mix of content changes often.

Allow yourself the occasional indulgence

As the famous line from The Shining suggests, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Utilizing information to make better-informed judgments about your personal finances, your health, politics or business requires work.

So allow yourself the occasional guilty pleasure.  Mine happens to be the Drudge Report, which seems to be hyper-focused of late on cannibalism and the Zombie Apocalypse. Just keep it occasional – overconsumption of “Federal Government Denies Existence of Flesh-Eating Monsters” stories is just not a good brain diet…

Okay, bad choice of words.

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