Rather than have the same sort of About Us messaging take up real estate in each newsletter, I thought it would be good to shift the explanatory burden to a short essay that covers a few core ideas, both to explain the point of the project and to provide means by which it can ultimately be measured and judged.
For easy reading, I’ve divided it up into a brisk series of Q&A.
What’s the root problem to be solved?
Some ideas are profound in their implications.
One that I think about a lot, as framed by physicist David Deutsch:
Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.
When we think about what human progress is, every coherent answer is reducible to things we accomplish by means of explanations. We invest our lives into discovering how things are, and then we transfer this knowledge so as to let the next torchbearer of consciousness begin where we left off. Without this handoff we’re still apes in the jungle, else in dim caves somewhere. But with explanations we’re able to scaffold upward on each other’s shoulders into the once-distant heavens, increasing the odds of the human experiment surviving both chance and our own worst instincts.
If we extend this logic, just two things stand in our way:
The immutable laws of nature
Our failure to create/package/distribute explanations efficiently
For most of human history we lacked the technology to do the latter well at scale. But then our long chain of innovation hit an inflection point, and in just 66 years we went from 59 seconds of flight at Kitty Hawk to putting men on the goddamn moon.
But in the 50ish years since Apollo 11 we’ve actually moved backward as much as forward on a cultural level. After having eliminated historic scourges like polio and smallpox, only 45% of Americans today confidently agree that vaccines don’t cause autism. There’s an explanatory war going on, and it’s much closer than it ought to be.
But it’s not just that it’s the great trouble of our times. It’s that the degree to which the war goes on unresolved is the degree to which other crises will get worse — some of which could put our fragile light of consciousness in serious risk of being snuffed out.
What does this have to do with journalism?
Educated adults, by and large, shape the world. And journalism is the fountainhead from which most educated adults acquire the majority of their new explanations.
While fine in theory, there are two obvious ways this could go wrong:
A journalist might construct a bad explanation from good knowledge fragments (whether because of hastiness, laziness, bias, malice, or bad incentives)
A journalist might construct a bad explanation from a mix of good knowledge fragments and misinformation masquerading as knowledge, where they’d be less susceptible to the latter if they had stronger working knowledge of the subject
Of course, neither would be too much of a problem so long as efficient feedback loops existed by which bad explanations could be quickly challenged and corrected by a reading public interested and confident in doing so.
But those loops don’t exist today in any meaningful sense.
No major newspaper in the US has a public editor anymore, nor any clear means by which a reader can be sure their concerns will be heard. And even in the rare cases where corrections are issued, they’re often done in the quietest way possible.
Put another way: newspapers are often wrong, and nearly always remain so.
How bad is the problem?
I’ve spent the last few years building up a collection of the worst examples of bad explanations I could find, which I thought I might package together into a sort of wake-up-call book. But said collection now spans something like half a million words, and I’ve had to create this newsletter just for the endless overflow.
And this was me limiting myself almost exclusively to outlets that the professional class is forever telling young people to turn to for credible reporting (e.g., The Guardian, BBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, etc.)!
On average, it takes me under ten minutes to find a new example, and maybe 20-30 more to pull up enough evidence to definitively debunk it. And this isn’t based on some sneaky technique. This is just me looking at sections likely to cover stories I know a thing or two about and then reading until I find something truly outlandish.
(I know this sounds hyperbolic. That’s exactly why I created this newsletter! It’s hard to get a sense of the scope/pervasiveness/cost of the problem until you see just how many examples there are. Absolutely no one should take my word for it!)
Why has the problem persisted so long?
At a high level, I suspect it’s some combination of “no raindrop believes itself responsible for the flood” and “it’s difficult to get a man to understand a thing when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”.
More charitably though, I reckon that no single individual/group has had the right resources and incentives to make a “this is how bad it is” case that’s simultaneously:
Measured (i.e, not over-broad or mired in the ugly sort of contrarianism)
Thorough (i.e, so careful and well-sourced that it can’t be easily dismissed)
Optimistic (i.e., infused with credible commentary as to what is working, what can be done, the likely upsides to strategic tweaks, etc.)
Hence the book. I’m condensing the worst ~40 stories into a narrative that a high schooler can read in one sitting no longer than a Marvel movie. Journalists will be invited to poke holes where they can, with significant rewards for doing so. My sense is that, should they fail in those efforts, more will acknowledge the larger point.
What will winning look like?
Getting the New York Times to hire a new public editor
Getting a few prominent writers/journalists to follow me in adopting a rewards policy for readers who point out anything untrue, unfair, or misleading (or who otherwise provide feedback that makes average explanations better)
On a longer timeline though, my most audacious goal is to witness an age where writers and journalists will have to defend not having a meaningful corrections policy.
What will losing look like?
Having my cases proven to be incorrect, unimportant, and/or poorly presented
The world ultimately saying “we agree with the cases; we just don’t care”
Me giving up
I can control two of those, and intend to. And I’m optimistic about the middle one.
Why am I picking on the New York Times so much?
The NYT is widely read and taken seriously in the halls of power
If I can force them to capitulate, smaller publications will likely follow
They publish a massive volume of content, much of which is wrong
(Even so, I’ve been a paid subscriber of theirs for years, and I think they do produce some exceptional journalism. My concern is the stuff that, uh, isn’t excellent. And I see a strong correlation between their most popular and least excellent coverage.)
Why am I doing this?
I’m hardly the only one saying any of these things. If you were to listen behind closed doors you’d hear loads of journalists voicing similar concerns (including at the NYT).
Why others haven’t made a career of it:
It’s not officially their job
It’s financially expensive
Calling out employers/colleagues can be professional/social suicide
It makes even your non-journalist friends uncomfortable
Some journalists can be pretty fucking mean in how they play defense
There are few things less cool or more annoying than naked sincerity
These forces kept me from taking this on full-time for years. But a number of bad-apple journalists have already written mean things about me, and them doing so again would basically be free content for the book at this point. (Also, having run a summer camp for years, any fears about unabashed sincerity were murdered ages ago. The explanatory crisis is a problem about which “I have worried with all of my heart”, which I say with no shame.)
And, being honest, the potential ROI of any progress here is higher than anything else I could be doing with my time. Given how important our explanation machinery is, this is the epitome of high-risk, high-reward. So why not really.
What can you do as a reader?
In some order, as feels right to you:
Be thoughtful about your own media intake
Send me bad stories when you find them (via Twitter DM @jdotarnold)
To the degree that you believe in this particular project, you can support it with a $5/mo subscription (forwarding emails / linking posts also helps a ton)
Support any similar projects as you come across them
I’ll close with a nakedly sincere message from The Lorax: “unless we care about this problem a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better — it’s not!”
The first adaptation of said book closed on a scene that ought to give more than just children some pause: where once there had been a vibrant forest, there was now a desert of death and decay marked by a memorial with a single word:
The Once-ler waited so long to do something that he had to punt the job to the next generation. The costs of us doing that here would be ruinous. And the only way to avoid that outcome is for us to act as a committee of Loraxes, each of us on our stump being annoying about something as unsexy as the truth being important.