When He Googled 'Newscasters,' Two Results Were Wikipedia Entries. The Other Three Troubled Him.

Based on what do you believe what you believe?

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Noah Blumenthal: How well informed are we? I mean, as a society how well do we really understand the biggest issues of our day? Thomas Jefferson said, "A properly functioning democracy depends upon the informed electorate." Which should be good news for us, we live in the information age. We should have the most properly functioning sublime democracy of all time. Doesn't really feel that way, does it? And why not? Who gives us our information anyway?

Newscasters do. I recently Googled the word "newscasters." Of the top five results, numbers three and four were Wikipedia. Here were the other three. Number one, "Top Ten Hot Newscasters." Number two, "Top 25 Most Sexy Newscasters of all time." And Number five, "Five Newscasters who accidentally went insane on live T.V." Clearly we are looking for more than just news from our newscasters. And unfortunately, our challenge is even bigger than hot sexy insane newscasters. You've heard of infotainment, we live in the age of argutainment. In the age of argutainment. The most condescending, dismissive, antagonistic newscasters. They're the ones who win, they're the ones who get the ratings. It's as though 20 years ago our news was taken over by the World Wrestling Federation.

And just like with the World Wrestling Federation, we too often forget, it's not real. This is just a paid performance. It's like a reality T.V. parody of what news is supposed to be. Frankly, I can't believe no one has come out yet with a reality T.V. show for us to pick our next most blustery newscaster. Can you just imagine what that show would be like?

We face challenges with misinformation in our society. These shows, they do an amazing job of getting us worked up. But they don't generally help us build the deep understanding necessary for us deal with our very important and complex challenges. Misinformation, is this deep rooted cause of some of the biggest challenges we face. If we were better informed we would make better decisions about everything. War, economy, environment, you name it.

So, about two years ago I started asking a very simple question. Based on what? Based on what do you believe what you believe? Based on what have you drawn that conclusion? Now this simple question was supposed to show the people around me, that they lacked the fact for the arguments they were making. What I really discovered was how often my own answer was, I don't know. But I am sure that I'm right, of that much I am certain. But what if, we as a society could get better at recognizing, where we lack the evidence to justify the strength of our convictions. So for years I have struggled with this belief, that missed information was one of these deep root causes. And our certainty in our missed information was even a bigger cause for the challenges we face.

But I didn't know what I could do about it. At the same time I was very involved in my local school district. I use to go to all our school board meetings. I got very use to these large empty auditoriums with five or ten parents in attendance. And then in December 2012, about 50 miles from where I live. The "Newtown Tragedy" occurred. Our next school board meeting was very different. Over 150 parents, packed the auditorium. Vehemently urging the school board to adopt new security measures. They wanted every school to have an armed principle and gun locker. They wanted every classroom to have bullet proof glass and panic buttons. This was not how I thought we should be spending our education dollars. But I did want to just stand up and say I disagree. I wanted to have an answer to the question, "based on what?" I wanted to have evidence to back up my beliefs. So I sat there punching away on my phone trying desperately to find some information. Couldn't find what I was looking for.
I went home that night and got on the computer, and finally found what I wanted buried deep in "The Center of Disease Control" website. And I built this chart to bring to our next meeting. This chart shows for the ten years leading up to Newtown. The average number of teen deaths in the United States from two causes. Each year on average, 17 kids die from school shootings. This is tragic. At the same time, over 1800 kids die every year from suicide. It seems to me if we care about the health, the well-being, the safety, and the lives of our kids we would invest our money in mental health and suicide prevention. Especially when you take into consideration the fact that, mental imbalance including depression and suicidal thinking, is one of the leading causes of mass shootings. So by seeking to save these 1800 lives, we might actually give ourselves the best possible chance of saving the other 17.

Now, I was very grateful that my school choose not invest our education dollars in bullet proof glass. But I was frustrated that there wasn't an easier way to find and share this kind of information. That was my true aha moment. That was the moment where I was finally able to connect the dots between this belief that misinformation and our confidence in our misinformation, was this deep root cause of the challenges in our society. With an action that I could take that might just help move us in a positive direction.

So in March of 2013, I partnered with Steve Ostermiller to create savyroo dot com. Savyroo is a social media website for sharing any kind of visual data. Charts, graphs, maps, infographics. It's a place to make it as easy to find and share facts as we currently find it easy to share a restaurant or photographs.

The kangaroo, with its big feet, is symbolic of being connected to the real world. And this is really what we want for all of us, to be more grounded in reality, to find less rhetoric and more facts. I'm not trying to suggest that a data visual can't misinform. But we are trying to improve the ratio of facts to rhetoric. To clear away the bluster and give all of us a place to share and discuss and debate the fact as we see them.

Now every morning I wake up and this is my breakfast. I drink my coffee and I look at the charts of people in the organizations that I follow. Now if you are anything like me, your into politics or sports or wellness. This is great, all of a sudden you get all this data to back up your belief's. I mean, come on now. Raise your hand if you love being right. About 80% of this room is honest. The rest of you are liars. Didn't Dr. Warren just talk to all of you about being liars. Being right feels awesome, yeah we all love that. But what shocked me in this, is discovering that what feels even better is finding out we're unbrawn [SP] or where the world is more complicated than I originally thought.

I love the charts that flip my thinking on something. See, as much as I want to be right all the time, I know that I am not, clearly, obviously. In fact, I know that I believe things that are fundamentally factually incorrect. Just totally wrong. I just don't know which of my belief's those are. Think about that. Which of your belief's are fundamentally factually incorrect? You can't answer that question, can you? I mean, there is an answer but you don't know what it is. And because of argutainment and confirmation bias and filter bubbles, we are actually getting further and further away from discovering the answer. We are becoming both more misinformed and more convinced of our misguided belief's than ever before.

If we are going to flip the switch on our own misguided thinking. We are going to need to consume less rhetoric and more facts. To tamp down the emotions that we experience, to give ourselves any hope of pushing back that uncertainty and being open to new information. Consider this. This is from a Pew Center research study of how devisive different characteristics are in our society. The higher the score, the more devisive the characteristic. So in 1987 you can see that people of different races view the world relativity differently, add the people of different educational experience, less sofer [SP]income, religion and gender. In 2012 you see some minor adjustments but no but no major changes. But there are a couple of missing bars. Look at what happened. A middle of the road variable in 1987 becomes far and away the most devisive characteristic we have in our society.

How can that be? What is that variable? Politics. Political party has become by far the most devisive characteristic of our time. And ever vitriol[sp]optic posted to facebook, every newscaster rant, every politician who brands the opposition as an enemy, fuels this fire. We are being taught to care more about winning the debate than we do about creating informed discussion. To value the argutainment more than we value the issues themselves. I would love to suggest that we ban argutainment altogether. If we were smart we would. But I'm not sure we can. It's like a guilty pleasure, it's too much fun for us to get rid of. If argutainment is like the carbs of our news diet. We need a protein fix. Something that gives us a straight shot of facts to balance that out.

Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." It seems we live in a world where the opposite is true. We are being taught to value news that is sensational, frightening and devisive no matter how shallow those claims may be. But it doesn't have to be that way. We can retrain ourselves and our society to be more uncertain, to let go of our need for certainty and to see through the argutainment. Together, let's become that countervailing force. Let's ask the question, "based on what." And encourage more evidence based discussion and debate. And let's adjust our news diet. Let's seek out some sources of news enable us to consume less rhetoric and more facts. And if we do these things and if we spread them to others, we can move past this age of argutainment. We can get informed in a way that actually brings us together in the way we view the world and how we see one another and how we solve our biggest challenges. Thank you.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

The speaker, Noah Blumenthal, gave this talk at TEDxUNLV.

Jun 16, 2014

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