Fake news. Fake reviews. Tinfoil hats and their corporate shill counterparts. The calendar reads another decade gone, but the spirit of the 2010s lingers on - until now.
I’d like to make a prediction. In five years, the phrase “Fake News” will be so 2016. Left and right alike will recall nasty, misleading, and false press, fueled by our remarkable tendency to buy fast facts at face value. Perhaps we’ll remember the onslaught of BS in contrast to some other chaotic force in our culture which has yet to emerge - but I doubt we’ll remain so easily duped.
In navigating our world, it’s not just professional researchers who separate signal from noise; every one of us deciphers information and evaluates its relevance every day of our lives. Whether deciding to trust the weather forecast and bring a coat or vote on this issue or that in an upcoming election, we both knowingly and unknowingly categorize each piece of information as signal or noise. Signal is information we trust enough to act upon, noise is worth ignoring.
By definition, signal is processed into action. If I believe I left my keys in my car in a busy parking lot, I turn around to retrieve them. Likewise, if I eat a diet rich in leafy greens, nuts, and berries, it is because I believe it will keep me healthy.
Noise doesn’t merit a reaction. When I scroll through social media and see a picture of a meal a friend made for dinner, it doesn’t modify my decision making in any way, and is thus noise. Overhearing an innocuous conversation in the checkout line entails only the effort of tuning it out.
On one hand, what’s considered signal or noise is subjective. I may not know or care enough about a particular sport to watch any games, wear a jersey, or celebrate a victory, but a friend might literally be invested in it, spending large sums of money on season tickets and memorabilia. To me information about the game is noise, to my friend, it’s life. On the other hand, defining signal and noise can be objective. Local law, for instance, is signal. If I consider it noise and proceed to behave according only to my impulses, I’ll quickly have my definitions adjusted for me by the police.
Differentiating between signal and noise is a daily exercise, and it’s painful but necessary. The law is only noise until I get arrested, while empty gossip is signal until I lose a friend. If I don’t suffer, if I don’t experience any deficit, then what motive do I have to modify my beliefs? We’re creatures of habit, at least until we’re motivated. Good motives include burning oneself on something hot, being caught in a lie, or rear-ending someone in traffic. Another good motive is a global pandemic.
When a single person gets burned, he learns, and suddenly he feels the need to warn others, but they often won’t believe him. Why should they? We tend to trust our own experiences more than others’ words precisely because our experiences usually represent signal, while plenty of others’ talk, especially online, amounts to nothing but noise. In the case of COVID-19, we’re all learning together - although it cannot be ignored that some are being burned worse than others.
Right now, for some, identifying what information to trust is a matter of life and death. For others, interpreting information incorrectly could cost the lives of strangers and loved ones alike. Unlike the day-to-day we’re used to, bickering about this or that on Facebook and conjuring up the perfect comeback a few days later, during this pandemic the accuracy or error of our beliefs will be made painfully clear.
The silver lining to our current situation is that it will bring us a little closer to the truth. In just a few short weeks, cliches we’ve been hearing since we were children have once again earned their place in our vocabulary. “Easy come easy go,” for instance, nicely captures the effect the virus has had upon our beliefs. After all, we wouldn’t have to learn by being burned if filtering signal from noise didn’t require effort and sacrifice. An opinion I quickly and easily settle upon after glancing at a headline can just as quickly and easily be contradicted, while on the other hand, I’m less likely to hurt myself and others if I’ve patiently read and considered primary research and expert discussion, or experienced firsthand the phenomena under consideration without it killing anyone.
The power of firsthand experience is proven by the lifestyles of those who lived through the great depression: frugal and resourceful even well after the end of the hardship. Someone born later might think of such frugality as being irrational, at least until they’re hit with a dose of signal themselves. This example illuminates a rule for cutting through noise in order to get to trustworthy signal: cut out the middle man, and get closer to the source. We’re all familiar with the game of telephone, in which a message changes substantially in the process of being relayed from one person to the next. Identifying this game being played online and in person is a step in the direction of filtering out noise.
An even bigger step is identifying when I myself am participating in the game of telephone. Here I am writing about the merits of knowing signal from noise, and yet I often catch myself reacting emotionally to limited information. Jumping to conclusions is easy, and it’s also an easy way to get burned by experience. Filtering out noise means not only going closer to the source, and thus closer to actual experience, but slowing down. Breathing. Remaining comfortable in uncertainty before settling on a point of view. During this pandemic, we can choose to exercise this kind of patience before forming opinions with regrettable consequences, or we can experience those consequences.
In comparing our lives today to those we were living two months ago, we have each to varying extents been forced to reconcile with painful eventualities. The suffering varies from one person to the next, but I believe collectively we will emerge from our surprise and loss with a greater respect for sacrifice, a deeper notion of truth, and a better bullshit detector.
I also believe prosperity won’t be gone for long, and upon its return, we’ll be all the more grateful and perceptive for having endured its absence.