Staying Informed

June 25th, 2012

The tagline for comedian Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is “It’s even better than being informed.” As a big believer in being informed, this made me think about what IS better than being informed. It hit me- being wise is better than being informed. Being informed is only the first stop on the path to being wise, but it’s an important first stop.

Being informed starts with gathering information and filing it in your mind. The origin of the word “information” is to give form or shape to your mind. Your mind is like a content management system; gathering, sorting and pulling files as necessary. The more mastery you have of your mind, the better your system for integrating information, the greater your wisdom. Some of the files are factual pieces of information and others include experience, memories, intuition, sensations and other intangible information. Stay with tangible, factual information for now.

Think of it like playing the game Jenga where players take turns to remove a block from a tower and balance it on top of the structure. One piece of information builds on another, and if you build your worldview on faulty information, the whole foundation gets shaky. For example, if you start from the basis that the earth is flat, there will be no gravity, therefore no atmosphere, therefore no life. A belief in a flat earth suffocates your whole worldview.

There are lots of personal equivalents to a flat earth; the belief that you can’t change your life, the belief that you can’t trust anybody and the belief that what happened in the past will continue to repeat itself. These are all cul-de-sacs, dead end beliefs, suffocating opinions that cut off the oxygen flow to optimism.

Douglas Adams offers an awesome visual that relates to being informed. He said,

My absolute favorite piece of information is the fact that young sloths are so inept that they frequently grab their own arms and legs instead of tree limbs, and fall out of trees.

This could just as easily be a description of any of us when we lack wisdom; grabbing at self defeating beliefs, and falling because there is nothing solid (no form) to hold on to. We need an information platform.

Too many institutions are failing to build a solid information platform. Here are four of the culprits:

1. Politics

Al Gore said,

The ‘well-informed citizenry is in danger of becoming the ‘well-amused audience’.

At the start of Gore’s book “The Assault on Reason” he includes a story about the Senate. Just before the invasion of Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd made an impassioned plea on the Senate floor. He said,

This chamber is for the most part silent- ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing. We stand passively mute in the United States Senate.

We all know what a disaster the invasion of Iraq turned out to be with most Americans eventually agreeing that it was a mistake.  Being informed, reason, and open debate, are the bedrock of democracy. If these qualities are lost in the Senate, in a political system driven by money rather than informed principles, it sets an awful foundation for the nation.

 2. Education and Censorship

Children are being taught for tests that are too narrow in a system that crushes individuality and diversity. The Anti Ethnic Studies law was passed in Arizona in 2010 and signals a wider censorship trend.  Among the books banned in Arizona were The Tempest by Shakespeare, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and books by Isabelle Allende. In an interview trying to explain the rationale behind the law, a Tucson School Board member referred to Rosa Parks as Rosa Clarke. Where information is censored, ignorance soon follows.

Teachers have been fired for encouraging free thought and asking students to write about censorship. Maybe most frightening was a recent court ruling that “government employees… are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes.” Once the people teaching our kids have to fear for their jobs if they DO their jobs, then the very foundation of education is under threat. Reason and critical thought are the first casualties.

 3.  Religion

Religion has a poor reputation for expecting people to leave their brains at the door. As comedian Jon Stewart once said, “Yes, reason has been a part of organized religion, ever since two nudists took dietary advice from a talking snake.”

Religion generally expects people to believe unreasonable things such as virgin births, creationism and a heavenly home for the righteous somewhere beyond the sky. Since the age of reason, more people within religion have questioned unreasonable beliefs, but its hard work in a system that justifies a lack of reason in the guise of “faith”.

In particular, the return of creationism to school curriculums in Tennessee and other places is a frightening trend. Creationism should have the ISM stripped from its name. It’s a myth, and not a theory. It should be included in school curriculums, alongside other creation myths like Aboriginal dreamtime and not in any science course.

4. The Media

Studies out this year show that people who watch Fox News know less about current affairs than those who watch no news at all, and results for MSNBC aren’t much better.

NPR and Sunday morning talk shows rated highest in terms of being informative.

As JFK said,

No matter how big the lie; repeat it often enough and the masses will regard it as the truth.

So there we have it- the quartet of ignorance; politics, education, religion and the media, all downplaying the use of reason, information and critical thought. But I don’t want to create a hopeless, negative message. Each of us needs to reclaim the right and power to stay informed.

Find independent news sources.

When making decisions, write pro and con lists of all relevant information.

Read independent opinions from various perspectives.

Seek advice from trusted mentors.

Keep your eyes open to what is actually going on in the world.

In the next articles, I outline the path to wisdom that includes factual information but also includes understanding, self awareness, emotional mastery and a healthy feedback loop.

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  1. [...] There are lots of personal equivalents to a flat earth; the belief that you can’t change your life, the belief that you can’t trust anybody and the belief what happened in the past will continue to repeat itself. These are all cul-de-sacs, dead end beliefs, suffocating opinions that cut off the oxygen flow to optimism. more… [...]

  2. Elaine H. says:

    Very nice, thoughtful post. Today, we are a country that seems to have surrendered our thinking to the politicians and experts.  Scary.  

    Yes to what Senator Byrd said about the lack of real conversation about the issues. Expressing doubts and reservations about ideas and policies is critical to wise decisions.  

    I recently heard Peter Senge say that leaders with a vision now grounded in reality create chaos.  We are there!

    Thanks.