Alex Kouts | The 7 Deadly Sins of Reading the News (Episode 614)

Alex Kouts (@akouts) is a teacher, civic tech startup guy, adventure technologist, and Chief Product Officer of Countable, “your dashboard for democracy.” He rejoins the show to explain the seven deadly sins of reading the news that are committed in our society now more than ever.

“Everybody is one extreme experience away from changing their mind on almost anything.” -Alex Kouts

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Understand the most common logical fallacies and cognitive biases — the seven deadly sins — that betray our ability to understand the news.
  • Learn how to read the news — not just how to select it, but how to scrutinize it.
  • Discover what triggers people and who really benefits from the resultant emotions generated.
  • Recognize how an ever-dizzying amount of information makes that information nearly impossible to rationally process.
  • Find out how laziness in consuming information makes us wilfully ignorant to the point of self-victimization.
  • And so much more…

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We live in a time when information on virtually any topic imaginable is instantly available to anyone who cares to look thanks to the advent of the Internet. On the obverse side of that coin: we live in a time when misinformation is equally available and spread without concern about provenance — only that it supports an established viewpoint.

Returning guest and Countable Chief Product Officer Alex Kouts has advised various political media companies and political advocacy organizations in addition to over thirty-five members of Congress on tech strategy — and he’s currently building a school to teach them how to use tech to better understand and communicate with their constituency. In this episode, he gives us a rundown of the seven deadly sins of reading the news that we’ve probably all committed at some time or another. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

More About This Show

It doesn’t take an election year — or the aftermath of an election year — to see how the news of the day can be a source of contention depending on what that news is, who’s spreading it, and if said news even has a kernel of truth at its center. Fact checking is easier than ever, but so is “fact” creation — to the point that fake news will probably find itself an officially referenced term in the dictionary before too long.

We all know relatives and old classmates from high school who gleefully adorn their Facebook walls with the latest memes supporting their particular worldview without bothering to find out if the information presented is even true. Perhaps we ourselves have been guilty of doing the same. But pointing fingers of blame is less important than recognizing and putting a stop to committing what Countable Chief Product Officer Alex Kouts calls the seven deadly sins of reading the news.

“Over the past couple decades with the advent of the Internet,” says Alex, “in addition to our political climate, we’ve seen a massive unchecked explosion of information that comes in to us. And we all know this.

“But the crime of the Information Age is that the unchecked explosion of information has far outpaced our ability to process that information. So we’re getting more and more content on a regular basis with a lower and lower ability — proportionally speaking — to process that data.”

Alex doesn’t consider himself neatly aligned with either side of the current political spectrum, so perhaps he’s perfectly poised to call a foul when he sees it — no matter which party originates the offense. In fact, he attended both the RNC and the DNC in 2016, an experience he calls simultaneously “amazing” and “horrifying.”

Most problems modern Americans face are complex; this is nothing new. But it’s the reduction from the complex to the binary — skewed more by emotion than rationality and warped by perspective from the side of the aisle with which the observer identifies — that really divides us.

Alex uses the current debate over healthcare as an example.

“Healthcare is one of those issues that it’s very difficult to have a rational conversation about in the court of public opinion,” he says. “Either people say things like, ‘All Republicans want people to die! They want people to lose their healthcare so that all these sick people who can’t afford it die.’

“And that’s reducing a very complex argument to a very emotional, visceral idea, which is not necessarily accurately reflecting what probably most rational Republicans or conservatives would want to say about the issue, but that’s just the way it plays out.

“The rational argument may be, ‘Well, Republicans have a different understanding of the ability of government’s role in everyday life and its ability to execute on a complex thing like healthcare. Maybe Republicans feel that the current healthcare system is a mess because the government’s involvement of not letting drug manufacturers compete against state lines and creating natural monopolies and geographic monopolies for insurance companies.

“So the point is there’s a rational way to have a conversation around that point of view, and then there’s the irrational way. You don’t hear the rational way on Huffington Post. You don’t hear the rational way in your Facebook feed. You hear the irrational, emotional argument.”

So that we at the Art of Charm might be better enlightened and able to discuss the issues we care about from a rational rather than emotional stance, Alex presents…

The Seven Deadly Sins of Reading the News

  • Reasoning By Proxy Bias: In an attempt to cope with the insane amount of information we receive constantly over the course of modern day life, we’ve come to rely on proxies in order to balance the cognitive load and better manage our decisions. In effect, we depend on the views of others to inform the choices we make and the opinions we have — and this ultimately takes the place of critical thinking. Voting along party lines rather than weighing the pros and cons of each issue we care about is just one example of this.
  • Confirmation Bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. Examples: watching Fox News if you’re a conservative, or reading Huffington Post if you’re a liberal.
  • Selection Bias: The selection of individuals, groups, or data for analysis in such a way that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby ensuring that the sample obtained is not representative of the population intended to be analyzed. For example, we commonly say things like, “The world is going to Hell,” when in reality it’s improving by most objective measures.
  • Bandwagon Effect Bias: A phenomenon whereby the rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, fads, and trends increases the more that they have already been adopted by others. Like proxy bias, we’re allowing the group to which we belong or identify stand in to make decisions for us as a way to relieve our cognitive load instead of directly making decisions ourselves. Examples: relying on Yelp reviews or Consumer Reports to inform the restaurants we visit and the purchases we make.Related to this, we also rely on social proofing (of which there are five major types: geographic, crowds, friends, celebrities, experts) — which is basically the Bandwagon Effect applied to more targeted purposes.
  • Straw-Man Fallacy: This is when we misrepresent someone’s argument to make it easier to attack. Talking head punditry on television and most reactionary Internet political commentary fall into this category. Dictators have used this since the beginning of time. Convince someone that the other side is the devil and anything associated with them is sanctioning evil. Examples: Conservatives are all racist, xenophobic jerks, therefore a conservative public servant is all those things. Liberals want to destroy the fabric of American society and therefore every progressive policy should be summarily thrown out and opposed with fury.
  • Appeal to Emotion Fallacy: Use emotion rather than fact to win an argument. This is heavily used in the headline space and by advocacy organizations. Tell an emotional story to supplant the need for steady logic with a narrative that will grab people viscerally. Example: Kony2012 — everyone got so wrapped up in the narrative of child soldiers that they donated without question and without an understanding of the issues affecting the region.
  • False Cause Fallacy: Confusing correlation with causation. Many times when data is presented, correlational statistics (this thing happened when these other things happened) are presented as causation (this thing happened and caused this thing). Example: Most of the time when you read a headline that says “A new study finds…” coffee is healthy, coffee is poison, sportscaster causes cancer, hugs cure polio, etc.

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about what Alex calls content snacks, why we need to cultivate an aversion to conceit of knowledge (the original Socratic sin), why we should strive to have strong opinions loosely held, why respect for those with whom we disagree should be considered requisite, what we can do to discourage the dissemination of illogical and false content, and lots more.

THANKS, ALEX KOUTS!

If you enjoyed this session with Alex Kouts, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:

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AJ Harbinger - author of 1050 posts on The Art of Charm

AJ Harbinger is one of the world’s top relationship development experts. His company, The Art of Charm, is a leading training facility for top performers that want to overcome social anxiety, develop social capital and build relationships of the highest quality. Raised by a single father, AJ felt a strong desire to learn about relationships and the elements that make them successful. However, this interest went largely untapped for many years. Following the path set out for him by his family, AJ studied biology in college and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at the University of Michigan. It was at this time that he began to feel immense pressure from the cancer lab he worked in and began to explore other outlets for expression. It was at this point that The Art of Charm Podcast was born.

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