The Misinformation Age

boat-storm2This age may not be as good for humanity as is commonly assumed. We are in grave danger of being harmed by too much information.

Information, on its own, is neither good nor bad. Rather it is either valid or invalid.

Signal-to-noise ratio is a measure used in science that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. In communication theory, this indicates the amount of valid information (the signal) to the amount of invalid information (the noise).

Signal can’t be analyzed apart from noise. An increase in good signal does not automatically mean we are better informed; if there has been an even greater increase in bad noise, we are less informed.

The current presidential campaign is instructive. Turn on any news channel; by the end of the program, you will be left with more questions than answers. This is due to being given more noise than signal. And each day is increasing the noise, and thereby decreasing the signal.

Brandolini’s Law: The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it

News and journalism should increase signal & decrease noise. There can be no doubt news is now increasing noise. In fact, most journalism now revels in noise, because noise can create controversy, and controversy can increase viewers and readers.

It may be that humanity has not evolved in a way that allows us to process information as quickly as it is being presented. We have not been adequately educated to separate signal and noise.

The point is this: we are less informed today than we were yesterday. But, you may respond, what about all the new information we have received!?! It’s true; we’ve been blessed with unprecedented levels of good information in the recent past. But if in that same period we have been flooded with misinformation, the net result is a reduction in knowledge, not an increase. If there is more noise, there is simply less signal.

This is not a small problem. It may very well be the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. And we are losing.

  • Timothy

    An example from today…

    “Tom Jensen, who runs the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling: “Republicans pretty much universally say they think the country is on the wrong track because they don’t like the president and don’t want to give him any credit. One set of findings we had that really drove that home is that nationally 64 percent of Republicans say the unemployment rate has increased under President Obama, to only 27 percent who say it’s decreased. And 57 percent say the stock market has gone down under Obama, to only 27 percent who say it’s gone up. Obviously, when you see voters saying something that’s just very objectively wrong they don’t care about the actual statistics. Their assessments on that question are just driven by emotion and their negative feelings toward President Obama.”

  • Timothy

    Here’s how this plays in the media: they’ve stopped being editors (or at least editors who care about signal). They throw as much information as they can, and think they are informing. They also amplify noise because it’s titillating and increases audience. But in a democracy, education is paramount. Having good information, not just more information, is critical. And right now, the media just firehose information without regard to its value.

  • Timothy

    Another example from today. Hillary Clinton, being browbeaten by the media this week to reveal MORE…has just released medical documents from her check-ups this week.

    CNN is discussing, with a panel of talking heads. They bring up her triglycerides. Now Americans are thinking “should I worry about her triglycerides?” It’s an added data point…

    BUT it doesn’t provide any actual signal as to whether she’s a better choice as President than Trump. It introduces more noise; and the public is tricked by the media into thinking they have more information. They have less.