Caveat lector

I was the only kid I knew who read Reader’s Digest.

For some reason, my parents saved old issues of the once-iconic magazine going back to the ’70s, with a few scattered issues from the ’60s. These paperback-size copies lined a couple of bookshelves in our perpetually darkened den, which we called the “family room,” even though as a family I don’t remember spending all that much time in there.

Starting sometime around age 9 or 10, I would sidle up to the bookshelf, which was all but blocked by a dormant organ and an itchy couch, and pick out copies of Reader’s Digest at random and decamp to my bedroom or the living room — or pretty much anywhere else in the house that had better lighting — and read the magazine from cover to cover. My grandparents usually subscribed, so I mixed contemporary copies with ones that had sat untouched on that shelf for years.

Reader’s Digest was my encyclopedia and World Wide Web. Before we had dial-up Internet access or satellite TV, that’s where I got my roots in storytelling, world events, politics and even bad jokes (courtesy of the “Laughter, the Best Medicine” page). I believed most everything I read, because, as I was told, “They can’t print it if it’s not true.”

The truth is, and this is something the 10-year-old me would not have understood at a fundamental level, is that much of what I read was misguided, biased or wrong. (Coincidentally, I remember reading the July 1983 copy of RD depicted above. I probably skipped the article on the “amazing” F-Plan diet, but that turned out to have a lasting impact.)  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that Reader’s Digest was intentionally deceptive — it wasn’t. RD was simply an amalgamation of other publications — publications that had their own biases, angles and flaws. Add to that the truth that the “certainty” of the immediate present is always outdone (trumped?) by the perspective that only the passage of time can offer. Surely the 1980s seemed like a good idea at the time, but …

Now, I get my news and information a very different way. Most of it comes via my phone, which the 10-year-old me would have found unimaginable, through push alerts, tweets, Facebook posts and headlines — all of which are, by nature, very short. Much shorter than the Reader’s Digest articles that I would challenge myself to finish.

One of my main information-gathering apps is Twitter, and I have a widget on my phone that provides quick access to my timeline. It is populated mostly by news sources and those familiar themes of politics, features and world and national news. (The bad jokes have been replaced by memes and GIFs.)

While years ago I puttered through Reader’s Digest believing almost every word, I now can look at everything with a sharp skepticism.

Two recent tweets caught my eye; they popped up within minutes of each other on a quiet night. The first was an article from The New York Times with the headline “Turns out, flossing may be overrated.” The second was a piece from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site that proclaimed “There’s probably nothing that will change Clinton or Trump supporters’ minds.”

 

The next night, another New York Times story popped up in my Twitter feed: “Why Useless ‘Surgery’ Is Still Popular.” It turns out that several common surgeries, including spinal fusion and meniscus surgery, are not scientifically proven to work better than physical therapy alone. Yet some doctors continue to recommend that their patients go under the knife rather than trying therapy. Why?

“I think there is a placebo effect not only on patients but on doctors,” a Mayo Clinic doctor is quoted as saying in the article. “The successful patient is burned into their memories and the not-so-successful patient is not. Doctors can have a selective memory that leads them to conclude that, ‘Darn it, it works pretty well.’”

The common thread of these news stories, as well as my Reader’s Digest reminiscences, is the idea that so much information we are exposed to is blatantly wrong, mistakenly wrong or so incomplete it might as well be wrong. A study by the American Press Institute, a nonpartisan media watchdog, found that incorrect information on Twitter outnumbers correct information by a ratio of 3-to-1 and that many Americans are “confidently wrong.”

There was another tweet that popped up in my timeline between the floss and the politics: It was a New York Times obituary for the writer James Baldwin. Baldwin died long ago, in 1987, but the Times has taken his and many other luminaries’ obituaries and published them in one place (the kind of aggregation that Reader’s Digest capitalized on). The Times’ tweet displayed a timeless quote from Baldwin:  

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they be forced to deal with pain.”

Substitute “opinon” for “hates”/”hate” and “ignorance” for “pain.” Bingo.

What ties all of this together? Let’s start with a bit of flossing, but of the mental variety. Why do we feel compelled to buy reels of string, wind them around our fingers and pursue flecks of food in front of the bathroom mirror? Because we are told to.

Why do we espouse certain beliefs? Because we are told to.

The “conventional wisdom” pervades our society, and not just ours. We are creatures who are built to do what we are told, especially by our parents, teachers and others in positions of responsibility. We carry this formula past our earliest years and into childhood/adolescence, in the form of peer pressure, and adulthood, in the form of “keeping up with the Joneses” and other facets of life in an ever-accelerating rat race.

We do so many things a certain way because, hey, they worked for your father or your great-uncle or someone else, so it must be right, right?

We cling to our conventions so stubbornly because if we admit that they could be wrong, we would be forced to rethink things. And rethinking things is hard. From an evolutionary perspective, we are programmed to not want to rethink things. Doing so uses up a lot of time and energy and … we could be wrong! It feels so much safer to stay with the current mode of thinking — even at the risk that it could be harmful or wasteful.

Eleven years ago, a scientist named John Ioannidis published a paper in the journal PLOS One titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” Not to get too deep into maths here, but studies rely on something called a p-value, which is so complex that even scientists can’t explain what it really is. It also can be manipulated to confirm researchers’ preconceived notions, which is completely against what the scientific method is all about. Lies, damned lies, and statistics, as they say.

If I were to go back through all those years of Reader’s Digest, I think I’d find some neat nostalgia (and some fine editing), but I also think I’d find scores of stories that have, in due time, been proved to be misleading or simply wrong. In fact, I’d have had the same problem if medical journals had lined the shelves of our family room instead of Reader’s Digest.

Human progress is a process. We have volumes of information at our fingertips now, but how much of it is reliable? How much of it is perilously incomplete? How much would we gain if we paused to consider how much of this “content” that is buzzing all around us is true, useful, lasting information that will retain its value in 10, 20, 50 years? Everything on the Internet gets saved in some form or other, but how much of it is really worth saving? How much of it would be worth putting on the shelf for future generations — who will have the benefit of learning from our errors — to read?

 

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One response to “Caveat lector”

  1. Pam. 2031 "Construction Rd." 😄 says :

    You may have been the only kid in your generation, but I hold the title in mine. My dad, Dr of Chiropractics, kept those treasures in his waiting room…and would eventually bring them home for my mom. But, as the copy was always kept in the “Room with a Throne”, it made its way into my hands. Thanks for the memory…and the perspective on the ever elusive truth…then, and now.
    Bravo….

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