Russ Roberts on the Information Revolution, Politics, Yeats, and Yelling

One of my favorite Americans has long been Russ Roberts due to his towering intellect and the fact that he is a classically liberal/libertarian economist. Perhaps most importantly, he is a kind and thoughtful human being who can conduct an intellectual conversation without falling prey to outrage, which seems to be a lost art in today’s zeitgeist. I highly recommend his podcast EconTalk. In a recent episode, he did a rare monologue on the topic of our current divisive civil discourse in which he attributes our collective descent to a large degree on the information revolution and how we consume and relate to media, and even more troubling – how tribalism leads us as people to not be all that interested in objective truth so much as confirming our own views and biases and feeling outraged at a faceless enemy. He also indicates that today’s society at large lacks the ability to look at information with a healthy degree of skepticism.

In the interest of brevity I skip to his conclusions of how we can improve this situation as individuals while recommending listening to the full episode to get the depth and richness that only a full listen can provide. Still, his practical steps to take are worth posting as a summary for those who can’t devote an hour to the show:

  1. Humility – In Roberts’ words – We don’t know everything we think we do. I’ve learned to enjoy saying, ‘I don’t know.’ Admitting ignorance is bliss. Recognize, as Shakespeare suggested, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Roberts is careful to point out with this topic that humility has its own risks if there is something that should be taken on with passion. Again, in Roberts’ words – “There ares some things we know. So we should stand by our principles. But we should be humble and aware of the possibility that some of those principles may not be correct.”
  2. Follow people on Facebook and Twitter who you don’t agree with, but try to make sure they are people who are relatively civil, or you risk sparking your own anger and outrage.
  3. Hold your anger for a day. This is a common theme from Roberts and one I have personally benefited from and adopted. I stand by it. If you feel anger and outrage coming into a post – hold it for a day and return to it. Almost every time I have either decided not to post the comment by modifying it or just ignoring it. It’s all right to ignore and not respond to outrage!
  4. Spend less time on the Internet, more time with human beings. This is my favorite of the advice Roberts gives.
  5. Try to notice when you enjoy outrage. “Just be aware of the fact that you may have that personality trait. I think many of us do. Then, when you find yourself feeling the sweetness of that anger, to realize that that’s a very unhealthy emotion, and that you should keep an eye on it.”