2016 was one wild ride.
In the U.S., election coverage dominated the airwaves with emotions running at fever pitch. Mass media became the subject of its own controversy. All sides seemed to dig in, fingers pointed outward, crying "bias!" and ordering up fact checks. The smartest social media algorithms delivered us fake news en masse, which we devoured. For views, clicks, and better ratings, traditional media picked up some of these stories and regurgitated them via millions of television sets and thousands of FM channels. As if that weren't enough, Russia allegedly swayed the American vote.
Then there was the wider world. Armchair analysts expressed dismay at policies and governments around the world. They've raised some interesting questions with no easy answers. Who should let whom into their borders? Which countries should belong to which economic and monetary unions? Which coup d'état's should have succeeded (there were five attempts in all) for the betterment of such and such region's stability? How will China's economic policies and relations with the next White House administration affect the American Dollar stores' ability to keep most of their inventory at a buck or under?
Does any of this even matter?
Well, it depends. If we want a better future for ourselves and our children and everyone around us, it does. And the best way to do it in this (hopefully short-lived) era of half-truths and fake news is to question what we see and read. A healthy dose of skepticism makes us better informed citizens.
The danger, of course, is being half-informed. You might recognize this quote from Alexander Pope:
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
In an age where Twitter and Facebook and Reddit organize our news feeds based on what's "trending" and what's "hot," we've become headline readers. We take headlines for fact on the assumption that something with x number of likes or upvotes must have been vetted by others and therefore, must be true. It's a lazy way of thinking that almost everyone's prone to take up because, let's face it, thinking is hard.
Reading headlines in lieu of reading what's below them and, most important, applying critical thinking to what we're processing, is truly dangerous. It makes it so much easier for us to accept the headlines that make sense to us and dismiss the ones that don't necessarily jive with how we normally think, which also happen to be the ones that challenge our thinking the most. If we live in just a world of headlines, we're deluding ourselves by building a world around us that's objectively false.
The population of the most oppressive regime is willingly fed propagandist news and announcements from the top to give credence and legitimacy to it. In the free world, the smartest growth and content marketers drive clicks, likes, and shares with well crafted headlines that drive revenue.
Do we really want to draw any comparisons between a country like North Korea and the U.S. of A?
Understand what our news is telling us
The most immediate thing we can do now is to stop relying on algorithms to find out what's happening. We're responsible for making sure the information we consume is factually correct and logically sound, but we're also responsible for getting the big picture—not just the one part that's trending.
Dr. Masato Kajimoto and Assistant Lecturer Anne Kruger from The University of Hong Kong in particular do a fantastic job explaining how the news works and how you as a consumer should take it in Making Sense of the News. Don't be misled by its title. This course is a guidebook on critical thinking as much as it is a "how-to" on consuming news. By its end, you'll know how to identify biases, understand why journalists publish what they do, and get an objective sense for how to evaluate information in general.
Especially when we're so acutely aware of all of the biases and misaligned incentives in published news and works today, it's irresponsible if not downright negligent for us to continue to get our news without thinking or questioning it.
Which brings me to the next (but more challenging) thing we can do to better understand the world: generating our own insights.
Develop a knack for data
Everyone has a relationship to data whether they know it or not. You might analyze it for a living. You might be part of some wider statistic. You might even be the subject of some systematic change that affects you because of data.
If you want to know what's happening in the world, then roll your sleeves up. It's time to understand the data that powers it.
Arguably the most important aspect of data are its ability to drive decision making. Our government, our employers, the stores we shop at—they all rely on data to make decisions.
Those decisions come from models. Models take raw data and spit out answers.
A political analyst, for example, might take a combination of present survey results ("polls") and past election results, plug them into a model, and get out an educated guess at how certain counties will vote.
An economic analyst might collect data from managers from manufacturing companies about production, costs, and exports, run them through a data, and come up with an educated guess on how much the economy will grow in the next quarter.
When you book a flight for your next vacation, you can bet that someone at the airline's using models to figure out how many seats will fill for your flight, what the fuel costs might be when you fly, and how many competitors might be offering similar flights to come up with the price you'll pay for your ticket.
The point is, our world runs on data, and that data almost universally gets fed through a model. If you understand how these models work, you'll have that much of a better understanding of how our increasingly complex world works.
Having a finance and economics background, I learned what I did of modeling and analysis in college, but I found Professor Scott Page of the University of Michigan's course on this topic an excellent refresher. It's also highly accessible for anyone who's had no background at all in the topic. The course is called Model Thinking and it presents some of the most commonly used models, how they work, and how they're used, in a thorough (but again, accessible) overview. Some Algebra is involved, but even if you skip the math, knowing the concepts behind models are still very useful.
The best way to take command of your present is to understand how everyone and everything around you makes decisions.
History does repeat itself
Once we've understood our present, it's time to fully grasp our past. After all, how should we expect to understand today if we don't know how today came to be?
Most of the things we see in the world today didn't come to be this way just 'cus. The modern world we live in now has been shaped by events of the last three hundred years. And as historians could tell you, history has a tendency to repeat itself.
History is filled with tales of growth and prosperity and also of depression, loss, famine, stagnation, and despair. Our timeline is covered in them. The chain of events that lead to either tend to recur in themes.
Understanding these themes might just help us spot our next economic crash. At least not for a few more decades (hopefully) our banks won't lend trillions to prospective homeowners who will default on their loans and lead us into another financial crisis. At least not for a few more decades (hopefully) we won't put the world at risk and reverse the fall in the number of nuclear arms in the world. We must all be historians to some degree.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
One of the best overviews of modern history comes from Professor Philip Zelikow from the University of Virginia. He presents the history in an objective and purposeful way to help us understand the events that shaped the world. The course comes in two parts: The Modern World, Part One, which covers the period from 1760 to 1910, and Part Two, which covers 1910 and on. Certain sections are dense. Others you might find boring, especially if you have no relation to the history presented. If your goal is to better understand the world around you, however, it's best to keep an open mind and know our world's past.
You can enroll in the courses discussed in this post here: