Combating Shallow Information with Page-Turning Statistics

Over the past decade or two I’ve become very aware of the importance of depth of knowledge, and how technology has changed our ability to obtain that depth.  Reading books and newspaper articles has been replaced with news soundbites. superficially-researched blog posts (uh… ahem…), and 140 character tweets.  I grew up in the 70s in the middle of a military dictatorship in Peru, with three quasi-government TV channels and where it was often not a good idea to go out of the house in the evening.  Reading was the only entertainment, and I embraced it.

Several years ago I got out of the habit, and even subscribed to a service that provided short 2-3 page summaries of business and leadership books.  Hey, most of those books are fluff and the concepts can be easily summarized, right?  I thought so.  Then, after a concerted effort to read more – on many topics – I realized that what I had called “fluff” was actually the depth that provided context and understanding.  I’ve cancelled the summary service and now read the entire book – even the boring sections – and believe that what I’ve lost in breadth I’ve easily gained in depth.  Breadth becomes a function of time, while depth is a function of intent.

While technology has increased our breadth and connectedness, you can see the negative impact on depth almost everywhere.  From politics to science to social issues, we increasingly believe we understand the topic but it’s really just the superficial concept, not the complexity that lies beneath.  It’s not really the rise of the “low information” consumer or voter, but “shallow information.”

As part of my attempt to read more, I’m always on the lookout for new books, preferably on topics that stretch me a bit.  Over the last few weeks I came across a couple articles mentioning that the like of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg thought one particular book was especially important to them.  Usually I’m pretty skeptical as those suggestions can be irrelevant or sometimes, as with benchmarking, even dangerous.  But this one was a little different.  They were recommending a book that dived deep into the history of violence, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

An 800 page book filled to the brim with the statistics and history of violence over the past 5,000 years?  Why? It seemed odd, so of course I had to order it.  I started it one morning, and read it nearly non-stop for the next two days.  It really is that good.

The book is exceptionally well-researched, the statistics are presented in a manner that even I can understand – and stay engaged with, it challenges perceptions driven in part by our sound bite world, and provides many underlying leadership lessons if you look for them.

Fundamentally, as Pinker says, “As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look different.  The past seems less innocent, the present less sinister.”  It really does change your perception of the world, on many levels.

Violence really has declined to a tiny fraction of what it once was, even since the end of the Cold War in 1989.  News soundbites make it seem like jihad and terror are rampant, but even compared to just a couple decades ago, statistically violence is down.

So what causes this?  Pinker dives into this in detail, but fundamentally it is driven by an increase in connectedness among societies, leading to an increase in both understanding (and reasoning) and the value of individuals.  Technologies have allowed information and reason to be shared and consumed.  An increase in reasoning leads to solutions that support the common good and to debunk superstitions.

The ominous thing is that the book is also a warning.  Will the statistics continue to improve?  Or are we at the bottom?  Over the last few years we’ve seen an increase in separatism… people want to only associate with others that believe just like themselves instead of using differences to increase understanding.  Science, even when 99% of scientists agree, is discounted, and any news that doesn’t align with what you want it to be is considered “fake.”  Instead of understanding a complex issue in depth, we rely on news soundbites, Facebook, and Twitter – and only from sources we self-select as “trustworthy.”  Will the Flynn Effect start moving in reverse?  There are indications, none yet statistically relevant, that it might.

Consider the importance of depth.  Immerse yourself in the detail of fluff.  Better Angels is a great read and a good place to start.

3 Comments

  1. Shrikant Kalegaonkar

    July 14, 2017 - 5:58 pm

    Hi Kevin,

    I was just telling my friend that it’s not enough to read just one book on a topic. That’s one data point. It may be an outlier. In order to get a proper feel for the topic, i.e. what is its central idea and how are views distributed about it, one needs to read a good sample from different authors.

    So cheers on cancelling your subscription to book summaries and digging into the material yourself. Nothing beats direct experience, no?

    Best regards,
    Shrikant Kalegaonkar

  2. Bill Waddell

    July 17, 2017 - 5:46 pm

    Great piece, Kevin. An observation – more of a question than anything else. You praised the value of statistics (who can argue with that?) and the richness of taking deep dives, rather than superficial skims across interesting and relevant subjects. But it was your almost off-hand dismissal of those who would disagree with 99% of the scientists that caught my eye and started the train of thought.

    You wrote, “Over the last few years we’ve seen an increase in separatism…people want to only associate with others that believe just like themselves instead of using differences to increase understanding. Science, even when 99% of scientists agree, is discounted …”

    The problem I have is that you have assumed that scientists are somehow exempt from the “increase in separatism”. The 99% you cited is a not too subtle reference to the climate change issue; and the 99% is almost entirely from the academic world. And if we think Facebook is full of people who “only want to associate with others that believe just like themselves” we should take a long hard look at academia. It has become a virtual echo chamber of mono-thought.

    No big surprise that 99% of academia believes in one view of climate change. 99% of academia supported Hillary Clinton. 99% of academia believes that big data and ERP are the only ways to run a business. 99% of academia thinks that free trade and a borderless economy with a heavy government hand regulating things is the only economy that makes sense. My point is not that academia is necessarily wrong in any of these areas (although they probably are!). My point is that academia is rapidly losing all credibility with the intolerance of opposing opinions. “Using differences to increase understanding” is a concept that has been all but banished from college campuses in everything from the political and social sciences to the business schools to even the hard sciences.

    When is the last time you or any of the folks at Gemba cited anything from the Harvard Business Review or from the Sloan Management Review when it comes to how to manage a business? You probably quit reading it long ago because they only advance one theory and there is no valid give and take over competing ideas. As a result, who would believe any of the data they cite to advance their one theory of management?

    When intolerance of differing opinions is the norm, the value of the dominant opinion plummets. How can the prevailing opinion have merit if those who hold it are unwilling to subject it to rigorous debate?

    I am not writing this to start a debate over global warming. Rather, it is to point out that many of the sources we should be able to rely on for the sort of in-depth study and analysis of issues has gone into a mindless lockstep. When it comes to statistics, the old adage that ‘figures lie and liars figure’ is true, and genuine knowledge comes from statistics in the hands (or pens) of people with the integrity to avoid that trap. Academia no longer has the reputation for intellectual integrity to be trusted with statistics. Whether it is social justice, economics or climate science, are we getting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from these academic scientists and other experts? Or merely those statistics that support the campus groupthink?

    Moral of the story, I suppose, is that you are right …. Reading in depth is much better than getting all of our information from blogs and Tweets; and that statistics and data are important inputs to understanding and knowledge. But the sources of the books and the authors of the data are just as prone to “want to only associate with others that believe just like themselves instead of using differences to increase understanding”. So reader beware!

  3. Kevin Meyer

    July 17, 2017 - 6:19 pm

    I agree – I should have framed it as those that disagree simply because they don’t believe it, but without having any data of their own. The concept of “settled science” flies right in the face of the concept of science itself.